If you ask an Internet ad guy to defend himself—to explain why you, dear Web surfer, should feel comfortable letting him serve you ads based on everything you do online—you’ll likely hear two arguments. First, he’ll tell you that targeted ads are simply the cost of doing business on the Web. It takes billions to build and maintain sites like Google and Facebook, and you don’t pay a dime to use them. Parting with some of your private information—and agreeing to tolerate, if not always click on, some ads—is your end of the bargain.
But it’s the ad guy’s second argument that’s supposed to clinch the deal. That argument goes like this: Don’t worry, you’ll like the ads! This is the grand promise of Internet marketing. When they work like they should, ad gurus say, Web ads won’t annoy you with pitches for stuff you’d never buy but instead will delight you by introducing you to products and services that you never knew you really wanted.
Over the years I’ve spoken to many marketing and privacy people at big tech companies, and they all tell some version of this story. Before the Internet, advertising was broken. Companies would waste billions to broadcast messages to people who weren’t interested in their wares, and because we all understood that most ads weren’t selling stuff we’d ever buy, we’d ignore most of the pitches sent our way. The Internet promised to change all that, transforming the enormous advertising industry from something that was mostly wasteful into a hyperefficient, hypereffective commercial matchmaker.
It’s a great theory. And then you launch your browser, load up any site, and you’re bombarded with the ugly reality. Why are Internet ads so crappy? Why are they so often so creepy? Other than those tiny text ads that show up alongside your search results—which have truly revolutionized the ad business—most commercials you see online don’t seem to know anything at all about you or what you might buy.
Surfing Gawker just now, I was served an ad for the Jaguar XJ, a luxury sedan that sells for $73,000. Here are some facts about me that an advertising network should be able to discern within about a millisecond of processing time: 1) I’m an online journalist. 2) I just bought a car. (My search history tells this story in gory detail.) 3) I am not over 50.
Gawker’s Jaguar ad was not “targeted” to me; as far as I can tell, the ad shows up for all Gawker readers. But insofar as the ad was taking up space that could have been used for a pitch I might have responded to (say, an ad for insurance for my new ride), the ad was a failure.
At least the Jaguar ad didn’t weird me out. I can’t say the same for the ads that are targeted to me. Yesterday I spent a few minutes browsing through Indochino, a site that sells custom-fit men’s clothing. I have previously written glowingly about Indochino and its rivals, and I’ve purchased lots of things from the company, so it’s not crazy to serve me ads for the firm. Today, though, the Web won’t quit with Indochino ads—on Slate, the New York Times, and pretty much every other site I visit, I’ve seen two and even three Indochino spots per page. Does this make me want to visit Indochino to buy something right now? No. I just went there! I decided not to buy anything! Can’t you take a hint?
Taken together, the Jaguar and Indochino ads illustrate a terrible problem for the Web marketing business. I call it the uncanny valley of Internet advertising. Today’s Web ads don’t know enough about you to avoid pitching you stuff that you’d never, ever buy. They do know just enough about you, though, to clue you in on the fact that they’re watching everything you do.
The “uncanny valley” is a term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the revulsion people experience when seeing robots that look and act almost, but not exactly, like humans. Badly targeted Internet ads provoke the same feeling. They’re dumber than any human salesperson, and they’re just smart enough to make you queasy.
I’ve collected several examples of such poorly targeted campaigns from my coworkers at Slate. They range from the mildly annoying—ads for the online spectacle retailer Warby Parker that stalked one colleague for weeks after he’d ordered a try-on pair—to the embarrassing. One coworker purchased a couple of bras from Soma Intimates using her home computer. Then, back at her work, Soma began peppering her with ads showing half-naked women—and potentially revealing her taste in underwear—to anyone who happened by her desk.