Are Targeted Ads Impacting Our Self Esteem?

Are Targeted Ads Impacting Our Self Esteem?

A new study has emerged to show how behaviorally targeted advertising can help boost our perception of ourselves and make us feel like better people, and as a result, push us over that line of buying something.

Hannah Edensor
Posted by Hannah Edensor

Amid all the claims of privacy breaches and just being plain annoying, it turns out that when ads targeted to us based on things like past browsing history reflect an attractive image of ourselves, it does good things for our self esteem.

The report in the Journal of Consumer Research claims flattery will get you everywhere, and compared  188 undergraduate students in two test groups to prove it. In the first instance, both groups were offered a Groupon voucher for a “sophisticated” restaurant.

Group A was told it was because of their browsing history, while Group B was told it came down to demographics, and as a result, Group A felt more ‘sophisticated’ than their peers as the ads reflected a positive aspect of their personality, and in turn were more likely to make the purchase.

The study aims at encouraging advertisers to be more transparent when it comes to displaying targeted ads, as it can ultimately get more consumers over the line due to their positive association with the ad.

In another case study, researchers claimed the message behind the targeted ads, when mirroring a positive reflection of the users, would stay with consumers long after the ad disappeared from their browser.

To prove this, Group A was given a behaviorally-targeted ad for a “green, energy-free speaker crafted from sustainably sourced Colombian wood,” – in other words, an environmentally friendly product.

Group B was given an ad for the same speaker, but with a more generic description that made no mention of the eco-friendly message behind the product, leaving Group A feeling more ‘green-friendly’ than its counterpart group, and even more likely to buy the product and donate to an environmental charity.

“Our research suggests that behaviorally targeted ads are likely to be more lucrative for companies with a large share of a category associated with a personality attribute, such as Whole Foods (being “healthy”) or NorthFace (being “rugged” or “outdoorsy”). This is likely easier to accomplish for lifestyle brands and brands with strong personalities,” the study reported.

“We suggest that the adjustments to self-perceptions produced by behaviorally targeted ads may not only improve sales of the featured product at the time of ad exposure, but also future sales of the product and, potentially, of the entire category.

“Specifically, when consumers accept the label they infer from a behaviorally targeted ad, the extent to which they use these self-perceptions as a basis for making a purchase decision increases.”

The report didn’t, however, make note of what happens to our self esteem when targeted ads don’t mirror our best self, and in fact imply more negative traits like greed or lack of sophistication. In this instance, it’s not a big leap to predict that targeted ads of a less ‘sophisticated’ palate might very well steer our self esteem in the opposite direction.

The report only stated, “The valence of the trait or identity may play a moderating role, with previous research showing that negative social labels have minimal impact”.