On billboards, during movie theater previews, among those ads for lawyers and ESL teachers on public transit—I love coming across instances of the “Your advertisement could be here!” filler that advertising companies use when their advertising space goes unfilled. For one thing, I’m tickled by the meta-ness of advertising for advertising. For another, some of the more creative advertisers proclaim their vacancy with a bit of irony or humor, as with the firm Van Wagner‘s billboard showing a giraffe stretching out its neck by the word “Reach?” And I was delighted to notice that OV Media, the Dutch company in charge of advertising on public transit, chose the tack of understatement, merely pointing out “Apparently I have your attention.”
But what I really love about these meta-advertisements is what they tell us about probabilistic reasoning. (Of all things!)
Imagine that you’re a business who could use some extra ad space, and you come across an instance of “Your Ad Here.” Should you buy up that space? In principle, you have no way of knowing that a lot of people view this space every day—but actually, the fact that you have come across it right now is evidence that they do. After all, even if most of the “Your Ad Here” signs are in crummy locations, most of the viewings of “Your Ad Here” are of instances that get a lot of views. “If I have your attention,” suggests the bus, “it’s probably because I have lots of people’s.”
It’s like the college students who perceive their average class size as larger than it really is, because the larger classes have more students in them to perceive them. Or like the case of Sleeping Beauty, who reasons (correctly?) that she’s more likely to live in a world where the experiences she’s having happen more often. Merely observing that you are seeing an advertisement is evidence that that ad reaches a lot of people.
The possibility of targeted advertising changes the equation somewhat. A billboard can’t show different things to different people, but Google is happy to show you ads based on what it thinks it knows about you. (I was shocked to learn how much more Clara gets advertisements for pregnancy tests and cleaning products than I do.) What if Google has an advertising variable for whether you’re someone in search of ad space?
On the web it’s hard to tell who sees exactly what you’re seeing, so “here” is a little ambiguous. If you think everyone is seeing that ad vacancy, won’t you be more likely to fill it than if you realize you’re the only one?
Of course, even conventional advertising could be targeted with enough effort. Maybe the next time General Mills (world headquarters right here in Minneapolis!) is looking for a new advertising agency, I should find out who’s in charge of making that decision and stick a flyer with a “Your advertisement here!” ad in their mailbox. With any luck, they’ll reason that if they’re seeing it, my flyer advertising service probably has a wide reach, and give me the contract. 😉