Will machines be better than humans at making ultra-topical ads?

By James Robinson , written on June 23, 2014

From The News Desk

At the 2013 Super Bowl, Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk In The Dark” graphic, tweeted out during the halftime power outage, was a piece of quickly drawn up free media which stole the show alongside brands that were paying many millions trying to do the same thing.

It showcased the power of real time marketing. But capturing the moment, as it happens, is confusing and elusive. Too often, watching real-live humans fumbling quickly for the zeitgeist is a painful exercise. Like at the 2014 Super Bowl, where the biggest marketing story was the horrible spelling on JC Penney's Twitter page (someone was trying to type with mittens on).Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 3.59.30 PM

Everything else in advertising is becoming automated. So why can’t this also be sourced out to the robots?

It’s the dawn of hyper-targeted, real real time, automated advertising. On Friday, AOL and UM announced a plan to develop software to serve ads triggered immediately by real life events. The technology will use AOL’s automated ad buying platform and be directed by UM’s media planners. The full list of triggers hasn’t been set yet, but they’re said to be trying to build a machine that can use things like sports results, market indices, gas prices and major life events to generate ads, pulling data from AOL properties and partner sites. After some time to use it themselves, the two companies will shop it around to others.

Ad Age, which reported the story, put forward Jack Daniels as an example. The company could target you with ads for company product in line with major life events and work anniversaries, or when your favorite sports teams win. Hybrid car makers could push their product to you when gas prices spike. And so on.

Twitter has long been celebrated as an advertising tool, because we tell it the context of our lives. But tools like the one AOL and UM are building present an intriguing -- and scary -- idea, that there’s so much information out there about us anyway that with enough data advertisers can put that context together without us.

In that light, AOL and UM’s effort is one in a longer line of efforts by different advertisers to cash in on the moment, as the moment happens. The Weather Company last year started changing up advertisements along with weather reports. Beer sales fall in cold weather. Arts and crafts sales peak in the fall. Santa Monica-based GumGum recently used its image recognition technology in partnership with L’Oreal to match its products in line with the hair color of the women displayed on the page it was advertising on.

Advertisers aren't quite there yet, but they won't rest until they've figured out how to serve the right ad to you, at just the right moment. It's all about interpreting the myriad of "signal data" we spin off to establish our context and reach us at the most relevant moments. And as always in these digital times, people can't pick up on that... well. Only machines can really know us anymore.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]