Advertising and Marketing Research

Advertising and marketing are intended to affect people’s behavior and nudge them in a predefined direction. This may be to buy an object, to vote one way over another, to subscribe to a service, to donate to a charity, or to have positive feelings about an organization’s preferred image of itself. To do this, advertisers and marketers have an interest in understanding the composition of their target audiences and potential and actual customers. This involves knowing as much as possible about where potential recipients of their communications live, what they do, where they go, who they associate with, what they say to one another, what their income is, what their interests are, what their political dispositions are, how they are feeling, what motivates them to action, and what they buy. In other words, it is paramount for the advertising and marketing industries to engage in profiling. Being so, the activities of advertising and marketing industries are of interest to social scientists concerned with surveillance and privacy.

Profiling may be achieved directly by people, as is the case of focus groups, interviews, and person-to-person profiling. It may also be carried out by machinic profiling (machine to person). The latter is suited to large numbers of people because machines are efficient at identifying trends, patterns, and correlations in large amounts of data. Increasingly important, these data sets are fluid, changing in real time; are extremely large; and have information coming in from a range of different sources and points of interaction with people. As detailed in this entry, when advertisers and marketers know what type of people they are communicating with, and who is buying their goods, this allows them to refine and personalize their advertising, to offer more relevant products, to reward loyalty (and therefore encourage more purchasing), and to offer pricing strategies based on what is known about a person. However, although the advertising and marketing industries have undergone acceleration in profiling in recent decades, the need for information by advertising and marketing firms is sewn into their very nature and practice. Despite recent intensification in commercial surveillance practice, this is an important consideration. As such, advertising and marketing are an ongoing interest for scholars interested in surveillance because of the reliance of these industries on detailed information about people, the ways in which this information is collected, and the ends to which it is put. This entry first details the historical practice of commercial profiling, then depicts contemporary examples, and finally accounts for the ways in which social scientists theorize and understand these practices.

Information Society 1.0: The Historical Context of Advertising and Marketing Research


Information has always been important to these industries because of the need to understand and profile people, groups, and their behavior. Emblematic of the desire for businesses to have efficiency, transparency, and control over production, distribution, and sales is the Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code. This was developed in the 1960s, began to be adopted by the late 1970s by supermarkets, and has continued to aid in stock management.

Bar codes caused social and academic consternation because they are readable and traceable by machines. On recording and understanding consumer preferences, the bar code and associated scanning technology facilitated quicker feedback loops than paper records or observational feedback. It is these early developments in logistics, data processing, and sorting that represent the implementation of control. The UPC bar code also underpins loyalty cards such as Tesco’s Clubcard, which contributed significantly to it’s becoming the dominant retailer in the United Kingdom and one of the biggest in the world. Since 1995, Clubcard has provided Tesco with an unprecedented level of information on its shoppers both in-store and increasingly online too. Another recent marketing example is the online retailer and its uncanny ability to suggest books and other objects that customers might be interested in purchasing. This is a major contributor to its success—the recording, tracking, collating, and analyzing purchasing history to accurately predict future interests (e.g., “If you liked this, you’ll love this”). Innovation in data management allows companies to understand purchasing patterns in terms of commonalities, variances, repetition, patterns, associations, relationships, reactions to price and placement, classification, clustering, and the generation of patterns so as to anticipate behavior and optimize product offers.

For advertisers, profiling is used to target people with advertising for goods, services, not-for-profit groups, and political organizations. Detailed and reliable information allows those who own media outlets (be this a newspaper, a social network, a television company, or a business that manages outdoor poster sites) to charge advertisers more because they can clearly tell advertisers who will see and engage with their messages. Of particular concern to surveillance scholars is the rise of behavioral advertising that involves tracking users’ online browsing activity over a period of time. This is done to enable advertising firms to tailor to what they assume are users’ interests. This occurs by means of personal computers, by means of smartphones, and increasingly in the living room by means of online television and games platforms (e.g., Xbox Live). Irrespective of the platform, the premise of behavioral advertising is to display advertisements according to the mediated observations of users. Third-party behavioral advertising networks achieve this by tracking users’ movements across websites whose publishers have signed up to an advertising network. The success of advertising networks stems from the number of web publishers they have signed up to their services. Advertising networks include Google/Doubleclick, (AOL), and Yahoo, with lesser-known networks including ContextWeb, TribalFusion, Specific Media, Casale, and Traffic Marketplace. Use of the free web browser add-on, Ghostery, reveals which advertising networks are tracking a user’s computer. Far less prevalent than web-based behavioral advertising is third-party Internet-based behavioral advertising that uses Internet traffic that passes through the gateway of an Internet Service Provider. This is illustrated by furor concerning the company Phorm in the United Kingdom, and Nebu-Ad in the United States (between 2006 and 2011). This was controversial because the advertising process entails a technical process called deep packet inspection. This scans packets of data that pass through an Internet bottleneck where all of a user’s traffic flows to and from the Internet. This was deemed by many activists, politicians, and engaged citizens as deeply invasive.

Information Society 2.0: Data Profusion

Fears About Profiling in Advertising and Marketing

Critical attention is reflected well in the work of Mark Andrejevic, Greg Elmer, Christian Fuchs, and Andrew McStay, who have each focused on the techniques and consequences of targeting, rationalization, customization, and personalized media experience, over textual representation. They have their own reasons for addressing the material and technical aspects of online advertising, but whereas traditional advertising tends to be rich in the use of meaning and signification, in relevance-based online advertising, this richness of content is currently much less pronounced. The critical focus on profiling, the attention time we pay to advertising, insight into our preferences, and the ways in which these are understood by media and market researchers find original expression in the work of Dallas Smythe and his idea of the “audience-as-commodity.” The originality of his Marxist-inspired work was to focus on economic dimensions of media industries in capitalism and to point toward audiences as the main commodity manufactured by these industries. This is expressed in today’s truism that “If you’re not paying, you’re the product.” The premise of this is that for the media industry (whether traditional or online), viewers and listeners themselves are their main product. Magazines, newspapers, television shows, YouTube clips, and other content simply act as bait to deliver audiences to advertisers and advertising networks (who then pay the media organization). Media owners have a vested interest in being able to offer advertisers the most sophisticated profiles possible so to maximize the possibility that people might be interested in their products, services, and messages. The audience-as-commodity idea involves a feedback process in which content entices consumers, advertising is served, data about audiences are generated, and advertising is again served on the basis of data generated. In such an account of events online, the user’s virtual self is the profiled commodity. This self is formed by our online histories. For Smythe, this Marxist-oriented argument involves the conceptualization of viewing time as labor. He suggests that as working classes power capitalism, viewers and listeners also keep media industries in business and profit. Furthermore, as workers “sell” labor power, audiences “sell” watching power, with wages equating to programming. For media and social science scholars, this process is intensified by awareness that much online content is not professionally produced (as it is with television) but is produced by people who share their created content for free (as with YouTube). This serves to effectively reduce a company’s production costs and to generate further profit by means of selling attention time to advertisers. With behavioral advertising, the value of the audience as commodity is increased, not only through precision of targeting but also through perceptions of relevance and the fact that behavioral advertising receives higher click-through rates and brand engagement than other forms of targeting. This leads Vincent Mosco, a political economist of media, to argue that new media amplify Smythe’s arguments. This is because the recursive nature of digital systems expands the commodification process in that companies may package users in a variety of means depending on the audience needs of an advertiser.

Critical Conceptions of These Processes

This technical rationality entails a reduction in the value of people, or the process of dehumanization. This view is deeply influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who sees in technology the tendency to treat people as objects or as reserves. Like other natural resources (coal, oil, gas, electricity, water, food stocks), human culture and activity itself become a stockpile to be “mined.” His criticisms are less about the technologies themselves but instead more about looking at all things in the world through the lens of utility, quantity, efficiency, amounts, reserves, and productivity. In the case of advertising and marketing, this refers to how actions, mobility, beliefs, aspirations, fears, and communication with one another are employed machine-like for profit. Informational businesses share with heavy industry a tendency to use reserves from the environment in order to sustain production and to continue to deepen the levels to which they will mine. In the industrial period, this centered on resources from the ground. In the informational period, much of what is mined comes from people. This bears a distinct similarity to the concept of biopower. This comes from the work of Michel Foucault and entails a conceptualization of the body as a machine to be disciplined, optimized, and integrated into systems of efficient control. For Foucault, the regulation of people and their bodies was an indispensable element in the development of capitalism and the machinery of its production. Likewise, we may say that our digital selves play an indispensable role for the digital economy as it is segmented, clustered, compared, cross-checked, and redistributed for commercial advertising and marketing objectives.

Andrew McStay

See also Data Mining and Profiling in Social Network Analysis ; Foucault, Michel

Further Readings

Andrejevic, Mark. Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.

Beniger, James. R. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Elmer, Greg. Profiling Machines: Mapping the Personal Information Economy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Vol.1. An Introduction. London, England: Penguin Books, 1990. (Original work published 1976)

Fuchs, Christian. Digital Labour and Karl Marx. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In D. F. Krell (ed.), Basic Writings. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993. (Original work published 1954)

McStay, Andrew. The Mood of Information: A Critique of Online Behavioural Advertising. New York, NY: Continuum, 2011.

Mosco, Vincent. The Political Economy of Communication. London, England: Sage, 2009.

Smythe, Dallas W. Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness and Canada. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981.