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  • Writer's pictureJessie G Taft

DL Seminar | Dreams & Designs to Optimize Advertising

By Siqi Ouyang and Yixue Wang | MS Students, Cornell Tech

At the Digital Life Initiative Seminar on November 14, 2019, Dr. Lee McGuigan, a Research Fellow at Cornell Tech’s Digital Life Initiative, presented his work about Dreams and Designs to Optimize Advertising. His ongoing work looks at knowledge infrastructures and logistical industries, which helps make sense of today’s “attention merchants” and “choice architects”. He examines how related efforts to predict and influence consumer habits and to package and sell audience attention have collectively channeled and amplified currents in surveillance, data processing, and behavioral science.

In the lecture, McGuigan talked about the constructions of the affordances of digital technologies by the advertisers and then the history of future imagined by them. He introduced the reconstruction of information infrastructures of the advertising industry across the second half of the twentieth century. Advertisers accommodated their activities to a more statistical and computational forms of ad delivery. Advertising thus was reoriented towards a science of optimization. A new digital media environment then emerged in which advanced advertising, with its abilities of programmability (automation), addressability (personalization), shoppability (interactive commerce), and accountability (measurement and analytics), leverages information technologies to monetize individuals’ interactions with digital media.

Attention Merchants

The idea of “attention merchants” is proposed in a book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by technology theorist Tim Wu: that “what makes capitalism so powerful is its resilience and adaptability.” In The Attention Merchants, Wu takes his readers on a historical tour of how advertising adapts to technological advancements that alter society. From penny-press newspapers to news feeds, the “attention merchants,” as he calls them, are able to seize each novel development and capture attention to sell back to advertisers. Wu’s primary point is that advertisers sell attention for resale to groups who want to buy it.

Choice Architects

Choice architecture is the design of different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision-making. It describes how the decisions we make are affected by the layout, sequencing, and range of choices that are available. And choice architects, people who present such choices to others, must often carefully design how to present choice sets to their audience so as to bias options.

Ad Tech

Advertisers and marketers are today’s attention merchants and choice architects. Over the decades, they have been using what is called Ad Tech to reach their goals to account for, calculate, and influence more of public and personal life. Advertising Technology (Ad Tech) is an umbrella term that describes systems of analyzing and managing tools for programmatic advertising campaigns. It covers the entirety of the ad delivery process from selecting the subject of an ad and its position to choosing its recipient.

There are four elements that are of paramount importance in the world of Ad Tech - programmability (automation), addressability (personalization), shoppability (interactive commerce), and accountability (measurement and analytics). They are the reasons why Ad Tech has become, as McGuigan argues, the armory in a battle for efficiency and optimization. With these four properties, Ad Tech allows advertisers to see the bigger picture regarding their campaign and lets them make use of it to maximum effect. Its corresponding higher efficiency of operation enables growing brand recognition which leads to increased profits.


The development of computers and electronic data makes possible the rise of the “Math Men”, a term for the mathematicians and behavioral scientists who are attempting, with the help of computers, to explore the great unknown areas in advertising. The computer turns the problem of allocating media dollars in such a way as to maximize the return to the advertiser into mathematical analyses. It provides new ways of thinking, seeing, and knowing in media planning, buying, and research, as well as new possibilities for how “audience” can be defined and formalized as economic product, information commodity.


Addressability refers to the fact that technology and infrastructure allow us to really have a high resolution profile of the individual. From 1970 to 1990, spot cable advertising built logistical utilities for producing and marketing targeted audiences. It negotiated scale (interconnection) and precision (interoperability), and served as technical/administrative infrastructures for discrimination and depersonalization. It also strained traffic and billing as it grew in size and complexity. In this way, specific individuals are isolated, then packaged and marketed to advertisers.

Shoppability & Accountability

The interactive advertising on TV, computers and telecom enables the connectivity and transactivity to marketplace, thus enhances the commercial potential (shoppability) of digital convergence. Also, the accountability of Ad Tech makes possible more accurate calculation of return on investment (ROI). All of the partners in the supply chain will be under increasing pressure to be more proactive in how they protect advertiser investments and also take responsibility if things go wrong.


Advertising has been a “conductor” channeling currents in behavioral, mathematical, and computer sciences. Ever since the mid 20th century, advertising and commercial media industries have been evolving their information infrastructures towards electronic data processing, networked computing, and elaborate forms of quantitative analysis. And related efforts to predict and influence behavior and to package and sell audience have shifted towards consumer surveillance, big data processing, and “nudging”. Nowadays, experts at the nexus of data processing and behavioral science come to occupy the center of gravity in advertising and media industries.

In a digital age where Ad Tech has become infrastructure for digital media, marketing has been reoriented as a statistical science of optimization. The combined vectors of programmability, addressability, shoppability and accountability have come to define the commercial media world, and they will continue to intensify. The relationship between advertising / marketing and new technology is mutual. New technologies make possible new ways of advertising, while the efforts of marketers and attention merchants to influence consumer habits urge forward the developments in information and communication technology.


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