“Branded” is a new weekly column devoted to the intersection of marketing, business, design, and culture.
A woman on a bus stares blankly into her phone, starting to mouth the words to a perky dance-pop song, “Was there something missing in my life ’til now?” As the lyrics continue, so comes an answer to her longing: “And then this vegan bakery came sliding down my screen.” Her eyes widen in wonder, and a colorful dance number breaks out. “I felt a shockwave in my head,” she sings, “and a tingle in my spleen.”
No, it’s not a scene from the worst musical ever. It’s a very curious ad that Meta, the social media giant, has been pushing lately, advertising the benefits of . . . advertising. According to ad-data tracker iSpot.tv, “Good Ideas Deserve to be Found: A (Slightly) Life-Changing Story,” was recently the most-seen TV spot of the week with over 500 million impressions by way of an estimated $6 million ad spend.
Advertising the upside of advertising sounds a bit, well, meta. But Meta has produced just such a commercial—part of a campaign it introduced last year—because it wants you to know that “personalized ads” are a really good thing.
This may seem puzzling. Sheryl Sandberg’s announcement that she plans to depart the company formerly known as Facebook has once again focused attention on its wild success with targeted advertising. Sandberg famously took the expertise she’d developed at Google around automated ad products and helped Facebook build a system that relentlessly tracks your online behavior for the benefit of its commercial clients. It’s a controversial and kinda creepy legacy that you might assume Meta would rather keep quiet. Instead, it has taken to underscoring its prowess at understanding your needs and desires through its sophisticated surveillance of your online life.
To some extent, the ad is positioned as a celebration of small businesses and their unique offerings. But it’s really about how awesome it is that Meta properties Facebook and Instagram can make idiosyncratic products and services available to you, the end user, based on its uncanny knowledge of your preferences and traits. The result, per the ad, is a vivid carnival of individuality—and “appropriately” individual consumption options.
As a multicultural cast dances about hyper-colorful city streets to that friendly dance-pop beat, we encounter Meta users seeming to benefit from personalized ads. It’s light and semi-ironic and a bit silly. The shoppers in the ad connect with specialized clothing, nail treatments, and something called linguine squid. “Good ideas can be more than stuff we use . . . they have the power to show the world we care about issues,” the ditty goes—a passage that results in a person getting an “eco sponge” for washing dishes (“perhaps I should be sainted?” sings the buyer).
Again, the vibe is meant to be winky and fun, but the message is quite blunt: Meta offers “a world where personalized ads help good ideas get found.” That’s how the song puts it. Twice.
While Meta’s latest ad started airing a few weeks before Sandberg’s announcement, it speaks directly to her legacy—and to all that threatens to besmirch it. Regulators and at least some consumers have soured on big tech’s privacy trampling. Not only are there potential legislative challenges to Meta/Facebook’s targeted ad practices, but thwarting those practices has become an overt selling point for some rival tech companies. The most conspicuous example: Apple, which recently made its privacy-centric case for fending off Meta-style targeting with a spot titled, “Your Data Is Being $old!”
In a nutshell, it depicts a typical technology user discovering that everything she does online is being tracked, collected, and monetized. A cartoonish auctioneer figure stands in for ad tech, declaring: “It’s not creepy, it’s commerce!” Message: It’s totally creepy. Thus, the triumphant moment centers on tapping “Ask App Not to Track”—which of course is a headache for Meta.
(Apple has been pushing this anti-tracking feature for over a year, sometimes sounding more like an activist than the world’s most valuable tech company: “You have become the product,” declares another one of its ads.)
What’s going on here is a departure from the more familiar Coke versus Pepsi style of ad war, pitting two fundamentally similar products against each other. The competition here is between totally different business models, with their distinct implications not just for customers (or users) but for society in general.
And really, it’s remarkable how directly the Meta ad engages this debate. Not only is Sandberg, the architect of its targeted-ad strategy, leaving, but also the company has noisily declared a new focus on “the metaverse,” presumably involving some kind of revised business model that hasn’t yet been articulated. Yet the ad is an open admission that, pivot notwithstanding, Meta revenue from advertising was about $115 billion last year. Facebook and Instagram are ad businesses, period.
As a business, Meta is already reportedly tinkering with ad-revenue strategies that are less overtly dependent on tracking prowess—like a “Basic Ads product” that would rely on “only the simplest metrics, such as engagement and video views.” In other words, something closer to the more “awareness”-driven advertising of ye olde pre-data-tracking times.
Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to hear arguments that technology would help deliver advertising that was not only more effective for businesses, but more “relevant” to consumers. Certainly the first part of that argument seems to have proved true, given the scale of Meta’s ad business. It’s the second part that’s up for grabs, and so far, Meta seems to be losing: It recently estimated that Apple’s anti-tracking options will cost it $10 billion. Still, with its ads, Meta seems to be arguing for something approaching a post-privacy world, and that’s not an easy sell. But as privacy measures and regulations are debated with increasing urgency in Congress, this might be the most mission-critical sales pitch that the company has ever made.