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Advertisers are targeting specific audiences as never before, dividing consumers more and more narrowly along income, age, gender, and ethic linesand splintering society in the process.

By Joseph Turow
Beginning in the late 1970s, national advertisers and their agencies advanced the notion that Americans were becoming more fractured, frazzled, self-indulgent, and suspicious than ever before. U.S. consumers were getting harder to reach and were sharing fewer common views of the world. These social divisions paralleled an increasing fractionalization of U.S. media, as seen in the growing number of radio stations, magazines, cable networks, VCRs, video games, and computers.
Advertisers believed that these trends presented opportunities to create and sell new products -- if they understood the new social realities and if the media targeted the groups that marketers wanted. As a result, both marketing and media executives worked to develop a shared understanding of how America was splitting up and to make sure that changes in media would take place in ways that would help advertisers illustrationpersuade their chosen segments as efficiently as possible. Advertising and marketing practitioners jockeyed to present their versions of the way men, women, blacks, Hispanic Americans, suburbanites, seniors, and a wide spectrum of other groups were changing. Reaching the right groups with "rifle shot" efficiency became an important part of marketing plans. Media formats that signaled an interest in people with specific backgrounds and lifestyles grew in popularity.
All this meant that the cutting-edge competition was no longer over the creation of mass-circulation media with huge audiences, as it had been in the first three quarters of the 20th century. Rather, it was over the creation of primary media communities -- or "image tribes," in the term coined by marketing consultants Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in their book The One to One Future -- that covered a variety of places. The aim for the media firms as well as for the marketers was to make the target audience feel part of a tight-knit extended family, attached to the program hosts, other viewers, and sponsors, wherever they went. Nickelodeon and MTV were pioneer attempts to establish this sort of ad-sponsored communion on cable television. While they started as cable channels, they have become something more. Owned by media giant Viacom, they are lifestyle parades that invite their target audiences (relatively upscale children and young adults, respectively) into a sense of belonging that goes far beyond the coaxial wire into books, magazines, videotapes, and outdoor events that Viacom controls or licenses.
In tandem with these developments, a sea change was taking place in the forms of advertising that marketers used. During the 1980s and 1990s spending on ads in traditional media typically remained level or rose slowly, while the cash channeled into other ways of getting persuasive messages in front of targeted consumers -- such as product placement, in-store promotion, discount coupons, and sponsored events -- took off.
So did direct marketing. A previously disdained area of the business, it began to look good as direct practitioners' ability to use databases to pinpoint and customize persuasive messages to individuals and groups grew in sophistication. Advertisers' interest in direct work suggested that they would naturally grab onto an interest in interactive television and the "mass customization" of news, information, and entertainment.
Despite some grousing from interactive technologists that advertisers were slow to appreciate the potential of their business, by the mid-1990s the largest marketers and their ad agencies were proclaiming that they would move decisively to influence the new interactive world as it developed. Whether the activity was product placement in movies and computer games, subsidization of cable and VCR programming in return for publicity, or payment for links on Internet home pages, marketers viewed the new ad tactics as helping them reach the consumers they wanted in environments conducive to selling. The heads of major technology firms, media corporations, and marketers clearly feel that there is no turning back from the growth of print and electronic choices aimed at narrower and narrower groups of people. The feverish growth of the Internet is ample proof.
Certainly, the high cost of introducing interactive television in the mid-1990s derailed the plans of some companies and caused skeptics to argue that high-tech scenarios wouldn't ever come to pass. But suggestions about the future based on disappointments of the moment are as misguided as blue-sky futuristic pronouncements. The competition to develop interactive technologies has not faded, despite the changing strategies of particular firms. The momentum toward segmentation is both national and global. Media practitioners are already being rewarded for delivering homogeneous audiences to marketers in clusters of primary media communities. All signs indicate that this will continue to be the case in print and electronic media and that new technologies will speed the process along, especially after the start of the 21st century. The capabilities of print and electronic media will allow virtually all media to adopt two major characteristics of direct marketing that have traditionally made mainstream advertisers jealous. One is selectability -- an ability to reach an individual with entertainment, news, information, and advertising based on knowledge of the individual's background, interests, and habits. The other is accountability to advertisers -- an ability to trace the individual's response to a particular ad.
The major consideration driving these audience-slicing activities is the notion of identity. Marketing and media executives are sure that people gravitate to materials that most closely zero in on their likes and dislikes, their sense of themselves. But marketers also believe the converse: that people prefer not to confront materials that cause them discomfort. Advertisers already avoid associating with controversy if they can help it, since they believe that the displeasure people feel rubs off on them and their products. It stands to reason that when targeting becomes an efficient alternative to sending the same materials to everyone, even more sponsors will hesitate to support touchy topics and perspectives if they go to certain viewers. Research will explore who is angered by what, and media will adjust their formats accordingly. Continued. . .

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette | Last modified Mon, Jun 9, 1997