Column | Relevance vs. tolerance

With all the relevance, will tolerance fall by the wayside?

By: Michael Arnold

Admittedly, such a question is not necessarily typical for the work of a communications agency, as advertisers have always been the ones to try to consciously direct consumers with targeted information, and have not necessarily been the ones to heavily contemplate the socio-political impact of their work. Nevertheless, I would like to put my general thoughts to paper here. Let me back up a bit, first.

On cassette junkies and radio fetishists
In my youth, there were two types of drivers in the same age group. On the one hand, there were those who would fundamentally and almost militantly only accept cassettes while driving, and then there were others who would let the radio shower them with all sorts of things.  The cassette fans wanted to exclusively listen to what they knew, what was relevant to them. Hence they avoided spending time on music that they did not like. The friends of the radio were less demanding; They could and wanted to give in to lots of different offers. On the one hand, they thus had to endure a lot of songs they did not like. On the other, there was a chance to occasionally discover new things. 

Today, you could almost use this image as a description of generations in terms of their media use. There are the “old” ones, who sit in front of the TV for different reasons and watch whatever is offered. And then there are the “young” ones who consume moving images on demand and compile their program online by themselves. “Old” and “young” is probably not quite accurate as a classification, but that is not important for the further observation.

And what does all of that have to do with relevance and tolerance?
When dealing with efficient communications today, the relevance topic is not only a priority with us. That means that we always intend to place exactly what is of interest to our target audience - i.e. relevant. To do so, we try to get to know the customers, their preferences and needs a bit better. We collect data wherever possible, create profiles and turn every single person into a transparent Buyer Persona, in order to ideally place our information without scatter loss. In the reverse case, when we are this “persona”, we often only suspect that a lot of the content that is served to us across different channels has been merely selected based on the collected data. Because the automation behind it all is not quite as intelligent as a lot of people fear, these efforts often lead to the fact that products continue to be offered to us weeks after we purchased them online. Should you test deleting the history and cache of your browser, you would quickly realize how different the banner and website offers would suddenly become without this information stored about you. But the internet is not alone in “thinking” for us. In many cases, print advertising media are also automated reactions to our on- and offline activities.

No technology in the world will relieve us of thinking!
Friends and supporters of these technologies - perhaps the earlier militant cassette junkies - would now argue that we receive less information that is of no interest or relevance to us by means of targeted, automated selection and that our lives thus become easier and more pleasant. The critics - to remain in the analogy: the radio listeners - however, will criticize that the targeted narrowing and pre-selecting of information makes us less free and influenceable. Tolerance for new and unfamiliar things is no longer needed. It won’t be possible to turn back time nor internet automation, which is why a fundamental discussion about the sense or lack thereof of these technologies is futile. However, we should be aware of their operating principles, in order to be able to apply them in a beneficial way.

For, in my opinion, to come back to the topic of relevance and tolerance, a risk related to the focus on relevance that should not be underestimated is that you blindly rely on the selection made for you and no longer take the time and effort to form an own opinion. Without an own and well-founded opinion, “in”-tolerance is inevitable in my view, people become disenfranchised and the door becomes wide open for populists and armchair complainers. Not only since the American presidential election everyone should have become aware that pointedly placed, in part even deliberately wrong information can influence entire nations. To manipulate a consumer’s opinions and purchasing decisions has become an entire industry by now. That not everyone fulfills their responsibilities in the process lies in the nature of things.

Radio vs. cassette
Back to the picture. If we can consciously decide when marketers make a pre-selection for us and how we can utilize the wide spectrum of the internet as a source of information for us and not against us, nothing speaks against “relevant” information. Yet when we notice that third parties try to relieve us of thinking and making our own decisions, we have to react in order to retain our decision-making authority. To do so, we must retain a critical eye and not simply follow the herd without thinking. So life today does not work without reflection - though no one said that things will become easier.

And what does an advertiser now do with this realization? For one, as communication experts we have to send honest and authentic messages - that is not only a matter of responsibility and respect, but especially in our field, B2B communications, that leads to success. For customers quickly recognize if you’re talking nonsense and then there’s no moving forward. In addition, we have to disclose at which point we collect data and how we use these. Transparency is the name of the game, for only if the consumer and customer knows when someone wants to collect my data and tells me straight what he wants to do with them, can I consciously decide for or against it.

After so many heavy thoughts, I now recommend listening to the radio for an hour or alternatively, if you really can’t stand that music, enjoy the light tunes of an old cassette. But don’t forget to head-bang!

Do you see things differently – or exactly the same? We look forward to your hearing your opinion – just send a short email to the author: arnold(at)