TV’s Real Advantage: Treating Consumers as Customers, Not Commodities

"On TV & Video" is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video. 

Today's column is by Sona Pehlivanian, vice president, addressable campaign management and operations at New York Interconnect

As the move toward a privacy-first digital landscape gains steam on multiple fronts, many ad industry players are turning to the TV landscape with heightened interest and attention. The 80-year legacy of TV advertising has often pitted it against digital media in many circles, where some have misconstrued “established” as meaning “dated.” 

But nothing could be further from the truth, and the forthcoming upheaval of the digital privacy landscape highlights why TV’s long-standing history is, in fact, its superpower – not its weakness.

 The TV ad industry has always operated under strict rules and privacy policies. The industry grew up with consumer protection as a baseline expectation, and that expectation became embedded into the very culture of TV advertising. Contrast this to the digital space, which sprang forth and grew so rapidly (and in so many directions) that industry regulations, guidelines and best practices have often been subject to interpretation, not to mention technological work-arounds.

 In the TV industry, the digital mentality of “advertise and target at all costs” has never resonated, and that speaks to a simple reality within the TV ecosystem: Viewers aren’t “targets.” They’re subscribers. They’re customers. 

The totality of their value is not derived from their ability to consume advertising. Their value runs deeper, and their relationships with media owners and distributors are multifaceted. 

If media owners permit bad advertising experiences and related breaches in consumer trust, they’re destroying their most important asset: their relationships with customers. That could have rippling and lasting effects, and that reality has remained consistent and well understood, even as TV has adopted enhanced capabilities for targeting and attribution.

When we talk about TV, we’re including digital forms like over-the-top (OTT), video on demand (VOD) and livestreaming – all of which, despite their “digital” nature, generally abide by the same principles as traditional TV. As such, even innovation within TV has come about with security and safety in mind. 

The Digital Reckoning

The digital advertising landscape has long been the Wild West, with no shortage of parties vying to show us how it can be “won.” But that process of winning – winning at all costs, in many cases – has taken a serious toll on consumer trust, and the period we’re entering is an overdue era of course correction. If the digital Wild West is ever truly to be won, it must also be tamed.

The taming of digital is upon us in many forms. For example, third-party browser tracking via cookies has already begun to disappear within many ecosystems. It will effectively vanish by the end of 2022, the date at which Google has committed to eliminating all third-party cookies. Meanwhile, Apple has effectively deprecated its Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) product, fundamentally altering ad targeting in the mobile world.

 At the same time, we’ve only seen the beginnings of digital privacy regulatory initiatives in the US – a movement that will grow, based on legislators’ responsibility to protect the privacy of American consumers in the face of mounting evidence that not enough has been done to date. Just as the Wild West needed its sheriffs, so, too, does digital need its regulators.

That brings us back to TV’s unique position within today’s media landscape. While this long-established channel has increasingly brought the benefit of digital enhancements to its capabilities over the past two decades, it’s done so from its position as an already highly regulated and tightly controlled environment.

Generally speaking, cable providers are subject to the privacy safeguards enacted as part of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. Those safeguards protect the collection, use and disclosure of subscribers’ viewing history. In addition to compliance with the Cable Act privacy provisions, video providers need to carefully navigate the disclosure restrictions imposed by the Video Privacy Protection Act regarding consumers’ viewing and video rental information.  

TV has never been in a stronger position to lead advertising into the future, with both addressability and privacy at its helm. As digital channels reshape themselves for a privacy-first world, they have a lot to learn from the TV environment.

As digital evolves toward a more workable (and yes, tamer) future, it will take a page from the established, relationship-driven world of TV. Regulations will drive a need for media owners to get closer to their audience data. And in doing so, they’ll get closer to their customers. 

Ultimately, the future of digital media will realize what TV has known all along: The best advertising puts consumer relationships at the center. It’s the only way to build trust. And with trust comes sustainability.

Follow New York Interconnect (@NYInterconnect) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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