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Targeted online ads can change how your view yourself

The findings suggest targeted ads are likely more capable of shifting self-perception than affecting consumer behavior.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 2, 2016 at 4:02 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 2 (UPI) -- Researchers at Ohio State University found viewers of targeted online advertisements tend to adopt the identities projected by the ads. The evidence suggests properly targeted ads can actually change a person's perception of self.

For example, if an ad implied an identity such as "environmentally conscious" or "sophisticated," the viewer was likely to later embrace the same identity. The tendency required that viewers realized the ads were targeted based on their Internet search and browsing history.

The study was published this week in the journal Journal of Consumer Research.

"The power of a behaviorally targeted ad for a green product isn't just that it persuades you to buy the advertised product," study co-author Rebecca Walker Reczek, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State, said in a press release. "It actually makes you feel more environmentally conscious and can change your behavior. In a sense, you become more like what the ads say you are."

Reczek and her colleagues had college students spend several minutes browsing websites of their choice. Afterwards, the study participants were presented with an ad for a fictitious restaurant serving "Refreshingly Sophisticated American Classics."

The students who were told the ad was targeted based on their browsing history were more likely to purchase a fictitious Groupon coupon for the restaurant. They were also more likely to agree that the ad suggested they had "sophisticated food preferences."

Those who were told the ad was targeted based on demographic information weren't influenced any more or less than students who were told nothing about the ad.

"Just being aware of being targeted is not enough to change how you act," said co-author Robert W. Smith, an assistant professor of marketing. "The targeting has to be based on your behavior and not just demographic attributes such as age or gender."

Researchers say their findings suggest targeted ads are likely more capable of shifting self-perception than affecting consumer behavior.

"If you're a person who goes out hiking occasionally and you see a behaviorally targeted ad for hiking boots that suggests you're rugged and outdoorsy, our results suggest you will feel more outdoorsy and then be more likely to buy that product," Reczek explained.

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