The Uncanny Valley of Internet Advertising
Targeted Web ads are too dumb to be useful and just smart enough to make you queasy.
A lot of these ads ended up souring people on the firms being advertised. After spending a few days researching local gym memberships online, one colleague signed up for a deal at Crunch. But Crunch’s marketing department couldn’t quit even after winning. Not only did Crunch keep targeting my colleague with ads, but the firm has annoyed him still further by offering a better deal than the one he signed up for.
The particular marketing tactic, in all these cases, is something ad mavens call “remarketing.” The theory is that once you’ve visited a certain company’s site but failed to buy anything, you’ve expressed enough interest to make you a target for more ads. You’re the one who got away, and if the company is persistent enough, maybe they can get you back!
Some firms swear by remarketing. Omar Al-Hajjar, Indochino’s ad manager, told the e-commerce news site GetElastic that every time his firm increases the amount of ads it shows to people who’ve visited the site, its traffic and sales go up. “Users don’t seem to mind,” he said.
Perhaps some people don’t. But I do. I just pulled up an old Slate article about the uncanny valley. Look how comical Indochino’s ads look plastered all over the page. Doesn’t this seem a bit desperate to you? Aren’t there many customers who, when greeted by this bombardment just a day after visiting Indochino, will decide that the firm is stalking them?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Brad Geddes, a Web ad expert and founder of the ad consulting firm Certified Knowledge, says advertising networks allow firms like Indochino to be much more discriminating about who they’re serving ads to, and when and where. Considering my history with the site, Indochino should know enough about me to realize that I don’t buy custom-made clothing every day. I recently purchased something from the site, so it would be wise not to go on an instant remarketing attack. Indochino should also know that when I do buy clothes, I tend to do so in the evenings and on weekends, not during the middle of the workday.
Indochino’s ads are served by Google’s advertising network, which allows companies to fine tune how their ads show up based on these criteria. The company could set a cap on how many ads each user is shown, or it could show me ads only on the weekends, when I’ve started to shop on other sites, or perhaps a few weeks after I’ve visited to remind me to come back. “This is a marketer execution problem,” Geddes says. “Many marketers don’t say, ‘Hey, these people [bought something] so we shouldn’t show them an ad now,’ or, ‘These people spent only 10 seconds on our site.’ They don’t use all the tools at their disposal.”
Geddes’ argument is good as far as it goes—it’s true that Indochino, Soma Intimates, or Crunch could have avoided annoying me and my colleagues if they’d employed some of these tactics. But the larger consequence of this theory—the idea that advertisers could market to us more subtly if they only applied more of what they know about us—is that it makes monitoring our actions online even more valuable to companies.
Some of the problems that my colleagues reported with targeted ads could only have been avoided if ad purveyors dug much deeper into their lives. For instance, after the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, Will Saletan wrote about the rise of body armor. As part of his research, he looked up an Amazon listing for a ceramic plate meant to stop armor-piercing bullets. Later, when reading a news story about the massacre, he was served an ad for the same armor. You can see how the ad network would have made this mistake—he’d searched for this product, so he looked like a sure sale. But if the marketers had monitored Saletan better, perhaps by following his search history and purchase history and even his email, they’d have seen that he had only a journalistic interest in the armor, and they would have avoided this really embarrassing mistake. (There’s another, simpler solution for Amazon: Don’t advertise sensitive products like body armor!)
But do you want to make this trade-off—give up more of your information for better targeting? I don’t know anyone who’d jump at that chance. “It could be that these ad networks are either trying to solve a really hard problem or an impossible one,” says Brian Kennish, the co-founder of Disconnect, a firm that builds browser plug-ins that prevent ad companies from tracking users. “Even if the problem is theoretically solvable, it could be too late—maybe we’ve just been inundated with so many badly targeted ads that we’ve become blind to all of them.”
For the foreseeable future, then, expect most online ads to be stuck in the uncanny valley. Thankfully, there is one short-term fix: In June, Google launched a “mute” button for display ads. To mute a campaign, just hit the tiny X you see in the right-hand corner of ads served up by the search company’s network. Once you click it, Google promises to avoid showing you the same ad again and to “do our best to show you more relevant ads in the future.” Happy muting!
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.