Once upon a time in the bad old days when people shared a phone (can you imagine?) advertisings greatest successes were convincing us Santa was coke-can-red and that diamonds were scarce and precious.

It did this through good old fashioned commercial artwork, posters, billboards and print advertising.

This was an imprecise process where boards of big companies threw money and alcohol at young creative people who tried to manipulate our cultural sensibilities with artwork… Artwork! Every now and then it worked, sales went up, backs were slapped and cigars were smoked.

Nobody really knew whether the agency’s campaign really did sell more sugar water that year, or perhaps it was just the record heat that summer, or the strategic distribution of vending machines? Or the fact that one of the ingredients was a highly addictive drug. Maybe. Who knows? Who cares? The people in accounts appear to be happy.

Ahh for those simple times. Now everyone actually cares where their advertising money goes and whether or not it works. Thanks Google. Now we actually know when the ads don’t work, which ones do work, and even which ones generate revenue. This is called “attribution” by us internet marketing boffins. It sounds good, but what it really means is that we agencies can’t include spin about how well, or poorly a campaign is doing. The data just tells you. Yeh, awesome.

So, in the ever increasing arms race of online advertising this attribution model relies on a simple assumption – that you can track someone from the AD to the SALE. Sounds simple. But if you know people, you know we are not always simple. People are growing insensitive to advertising. People are researching purchasing decisions – for days or even weeks and months. People are using multiple devices, phones, tablets, computers etc. People are using alternative currencies and payment methods. People are using apps instead of websites. People are using more than one social network. People are sharing links over email, sms, mms, www, scraps of paper, qr codes and carrier pigeons. People are – *gasp* – clearing their internet cookies and disabling tracking capabilities in their browsers.

Goddammit people. It’s like you don’t want to be advertised to! What’s a global international privacy-mining mega-corporation to do?

There is a battle going on right now, and it’s all about the big players learning how to follow you. They want to know you. They want to know your friends. And for most of us, we are making this all too easy. Our digital breadcrumbs trail behind us all the way to the advertisers gingerbread website where we throw ourselves willingly into the attribution fires. Um, I mean conversion reports.

On the one hand, this is unsettling and sneaky. The advertisers have insights into us that even we don’t realise. On the other hand, if you have to see advertising anyway – wouldn’t you rather see stuff you are statistically more likely to enjoy? Or does this represent a greater homogenisation of culture where the lowest common attraction pushes us towards more fat pills, teen pop stars and the ubiquity of Mickey Mouse and his buddies?

Disney starts advertising to you before you are born, with a range of products for expectant mothers. Then you get disney baby bottles, socks, nappies, rattles, lunch-boxes and school backpacks. Disney wants you. They want to know you, and they want to follow you from the day you are born, to the day you click CONFIRM ORDER on the online checkout. How’s that for attribution?


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