A simple caption can boost advertising effectiveness by 17% as measured by effect on purchase intention.

New Ohio State University research published last week in the Journal of Consumer Research (open pre-publication access) by Christopher Summers and colleagues reports that captioning an ad with the words that the ad “targeted specifically to you based on your online activity” boosted ad effectiveness compared to the same ad revealing no information about targeting.  There are provisos – the effectiveness boosting effect appears to hold only when the ad actually is behaviourally targeted and perceived by the audience to be accurately so.

I am not a target market, I’m me

Interestingly, the study – picked up by the Harvard Business Review – found that same ad captioned with the words “targeted specifically to you based on your demographic information” had no significant effect on ad effectiveness. It would seem that targeting transparency for behavioural advertising boosts ad effectiveness, but not for demographic targeting.

  • “” [no targeting transparency] => purchase intention 3.56 (Control Baseline 0%)
  • “targeted specifically to you based on your online activity” => purchase intention 4.18  (+17%)
  • “targeted specifically to you based on your demographic information” => purchase intention 3.39 (-5% ns)


Why might targeting transparency boost behavioural ad effectiveness? The basic psychology of priming could account for this. Reminding people of their past behaviour can increase the mental salience (AKA ‘prime’) of associated behaviours , making these associated behaviours and responses more likely.  This behavioural ‘identity priming’ – highlighting aspects of an individual’s behavioural identity – might explain why targeting transparency enhances behavioural advertising effectiveness.

However the authors offer an alternative explanation; they suggest that the bump in ad effectiveness may be due to the effects of ‘social labelling’ – when audiences believe they are being behaviourally targeted (accurately) as individuals (not stereotypes), they perceive marketers as labelling them (accurately), and may adjust their self-perceptions to better match these accurate (and desirable) social labels. This might explain the differences between the effectiveness of targeting transparency for behavioural ads and the non-effectiveness of targeting transparency for ‘demographic targeting’; its the difference between ‘we believe you’re this stereotype’ (profile/group/persona/market) and ‘we believe you’re you‘.

Whatever the reason, (I personally remain more convinced of the ‘priming’ explanation), when it comes to behavioural targeting, transparency and honesty may be the best policy.

Summers, C. A., Smith, R. W., & Reczek, R. W. (2016). An Audience of One: Behaviorally Targeted Ads as Implied Social LabelsJournal of Consumer Research.