These are difficult times for advertisers. Gone are the days of three network television channels; dead or dying are many of the powerhouse magazines of yesteryear; television viewers with DVRs or Tivo can record programs and view them later (or just later on in the live broadcast!), zooming right past advertisements. Advertisers, today more than ever, want to reach the most consumers for the fewest dollars, all the while reaching the "right" people. So, rather than running a commercial for a woman's shampoo during a show that might have lots of viewers, but of the wrong target demographic, companies can strategically pick the shows and networks whose ratings data tells them that a certain audience (women, for this example) is most likely to be watching. This strategy is known as targeted advertising -- it's an attempt to reach a specific demographic, be it people of a certain age, gender, social class, profession or ethnicity. And that's just one example.
With today's technology, targeted advertising is becoming more pervasive. For example, Facebook can pull information from your profile and select the ads that appear on your screen. Similarly, your Internet search terms, in the moment and over time, may determine the next ad you see on a search results page or on a specific Web site in the search engine's ad network.
The targeting is getting more accurate all the time. In 2009, Cablevision Systems rolled out a project to serve targeted ads to markets in New York and New Jersey. The technology was able to send television advertisements to certain households and not others based on statistical information about the residents. Income data, ethnicity and gender were some of the items used to do the targeting. The cable company used data provided by credit ratings agency Experian to match the data to various blocs of customers [source: New York Times].
For even simpler examples of targeted advertising that have nothing to do with computers or TVs, you could always go old school and check your mailbox. If you've not yet managed to rid your life of junk mail, chances are some of your mail was sent to you based on past buying habits, the demographics of your zip code or some other criteria.
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