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Could Privacy Concerns Spark a Resurgence in Traditional Print Advertising?

by Andy Wilson
on 3rd August 2021

In recent years, the idea that ingeniously-designed algorithms are learning our likes, habits and emotional cues through our devices has sat increasingly uneasily in the public consciousness. While the revolution of targeted advertising was so powerful it transformed marketing and built countless new brands, with privacy concerns and customer acquisition costs rising, business owners are rediscovering the enduring appeal of print advertising.  

How Google and Apple Are Turning Off the Data Tap

Dripping tap

Collecting data through “cookies” (which are small pieces of data that help web owners see the actions we have taken on their site and track behaviour across other parts of the Internet) has been standard practice in the web advertising industry. Much of the Internet couldn’t function without their use, and there is a good argument to say that in many circumstances tailoring ads to an audience is good both for the consumer and the advertiser. 

However, there has been a rising disquiet concerning the vast amount of data collected on individuals through third-party cookies, which are described by Google spokesperson Elijah Lawal as “not privacy safe”. Whistleblowers from the senior ranks of the tech industry and films such as The Social Dilemma and The Great Hack (which are both available on Netflix) have raised public awareness of the privacy and ethical concerns in the current use of data by tech giants such as Facebook. 

In response, Apple’s new operating system gives its users the option to choose whether they allow third-party cookies to track them (it is estimated that only 4% did so) and plan even more privacy features going forward. Even more drastically, Google is scheduled next year to instate their own privacy features which will eliminate third-party cookies entirely. 

Brands have already seen an effect from Apple’s privacy changes. The costs of customer acquisition through targeted advertising have risen significantly, and this has been exacerbated by competition from the surge of online advertising in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As advertisers looked for alternatives to Facebook, costs rose across other platforms (such as Snapchat and Amazon), and as privacy features develop targeted advertising is likely to become less efficient and less profitable. 

Consumers Are Pushing Back Against “Intrusive” Ads 

Ad screens

It isn’t only the jostling of rival tech companies which is making brands think again about an over-reliance on targeted advertising. Online advertising can be extremely effective, but some advertisers are beginning to suspect that highly targeted ads could in some cases be turning consumers off. 

According to Hubstop: 

  • 91% of people say ads are more intrusive today than 2-3 years ago
  • 87% say there are more ads in general than 2-3 years ago
  • 79% feel like they’re being tracked by retargeted ads

When we consider that consumers now see up to 5,000 ads per day and that ad-blocking software has grown in popularity so much it filters out tens of billions of dollars worth of advertising in the US alone, it isn’t hard to imagine that people might be feeling something of an advertising fatigue. 

Many of us have had conversations with friends or family about the disconcerting experience of seeing an ad that feels uncannily on-the-nose (“I was talking about that 5 minutes ago!”) or been frustrated by ads that won’t leave us alone. For Internet users, the experience is near-universal, and in some cases people can feel that targeted advertising actually harms their wellbeing. A few search queries can create a wall of advertising that is the opposite of helpful, for example, in cases where people with health anxiety are stalked by ads for private health clinics or self-administered blood tests.  

There’s also a concern that sophisticated data-driven advertising may well be placing ads in front of existing customers rather than actually converting new sales. Data-sets that target brands “ideal customer” will inevitably capture those already interested in or who regularly interact with a company, and may neglect truly new audiences. 

According to research, well designed, well considered online advertising is welcomed by Internet users, but suggestions that huge swaths of online marketing efforts are either ignored or actively disliked is encouraging brands to be more cautious, and more selective. This is likely to motivate businesses to diversify their marketing strategy, and perhaps even encourage e-tailers and online businesses to consider traditional advertising alongside their online efforts. 

The Unseen Environment Cost of Online Advertising 

Digital is often seen as the eco-friendly advertising option, but it may be more accurate to say that rather than having excellent green credentials currently, it has the most potential to become fully sustainable. As things stand now, researchers studying the energy use of online advertising and data use concluded in 2018 that “the energy burden of online advertising is considerable and urgently requires attention from researchers and industries”. 

Storing the vast amounts of data required to host and target ads (and even to make the Internet usable) has been a growing concern for the tech industry, with many trying to find green forms of energy to provide the electricity required. Like many industries, however, this is a work in progress, and making the best environmental choices isn’t always straightforward. 

This is particularly true when you factor in the supply chain of rare earth minerals (which are vital to electronics), the mining of which causes high levels of pollution. 

The Enduring Appeal of Print Advertising 

It is in this context that advertisers are rediscovering areas of marketing outside of the online arena. It is fair to say that whatever changes arrive in terms of privacy settings or legislation, online advertising is here to stay. With such a huge variety of formats and options that fall under the umbrella of digital marketing, most will remain effective in creating positive relationships between brands and consumers. 

But it also seems certain that the future of advertising will trend towards a multidisciplinary approach with imaginative solutions – and we think print will be a key part of this. In a world where digital ads are ubiquitous, print advertising still has the potential to cut through the clutter and truly connect with the customer, and build a positive brand image through well designed, impactful campaigns. 

Brands are already considering the impact of the reduced scope of digital targeting, with one CO stating in a report by Vogue Business that, when it comes to advertising,  “what’s old is new again”. Thinking more broadly and creatively about how to spend marketing budget and utilising multiple channels, both on and offline, will be the solution for many brands as they navigate the changing privacy landscape. 
With commitment from the print industry to lower-impact ways of working (something we have embraced at PressOn), print may no longer be considered the less environmentally friendly option when compared to digital advertising. By taking responsibility for the materials, machinery and process involved in print advertising, we can ensure that brands can choose print advertising without compromising on sustainability.

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Written by
Andy Wilson Managing Director