Targeted ad serving may not breach privacy laws, but it’s bloody annoying

We looked for a hotel in Paris. A lovely thing to do – next April, we’ll be going there. How fantastic. we didn’t book anything, but certainly got some good ideas.

And then, for the following week, every web page we went to included adverts about hotels. Short breaks. Booking. Bargains.

I was doing some research into online storage. I looked at the big guys, the small guys, the old and the new. I looked at domain-specific storage companies and those more suited for small companies, big companies. I wrote an article about it all.

And then, for the following week, every web page I visited offered me online storage services. Specifically a service for musicians and creative types. For that was, clearly, who had the money right then.

My wife was looking into insurance for students. Short term, keep the costs down. She found some, and bought it. Paid there and then.

And then, for a week, came the insurance ads. For students. Though she had already bought some.

Let’s be clear. I’ve seen the slides, the importance of closer connections between people and brands, the opportunity for better-targeted advertising, for measurable outcomes, for pay-per-click services that offer far greater ROI.

But then, I’m also seeing the reality.

It’s like a really crap sales guy. I used to work with one. He couldn’t do the ‘listening’ thing, he’d try for a while and then, almost without warning, explode in a flurry of products and services that didn’t quite meet the prospect’s half-formed ideas of what the issues were.

It’s like the bloke at the bar who just doesn’t know how to speak to girls. He’d come up with some really poor, contrived chat-up line and then wonder why she walked away. After all, it worked on the video he saw.

It’s like that annoying person who wants to be your friend. Who won’t go away or leave you alone, who will pick up on whatever you say and twist it slightly as he or she repeats it back, showing that they didn’t really get it.

That’s what it’s like – bloody annoying. And slightly perturbing, when you realise that the annoying person is in your computer, on the internet, following you around and piping up unexpectedly about a topic you thought you’d finished with.

It’s the same on Facebook. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes inappropriate, as your comments and messages are reflected moments later in ‘targeted’ advertising. Sometimes it’s downright offensive, and I dread to think what the algorithms do on occasions where people put their hearts out, have breakdowns, lose the battle with drink or suffer great loss.

This is not the future of advertising, of audience engagement. This is a cack-handed attempt to make sense of fragmented data presented through a distorted lens with no knowledge of context. It’s crap. But, because it’s all that businesses have and it is better than what they had before, because some poorly designed policy engine works with incompletely specified rules defined from an incomplete understanding, because of all these reasons and more we are served paid ads that, for a second feel half-relevant until we remember they’ve missed the boat, we were already there, the time has passed.

At the moment it just makes us feel… nothing. Or a little uneasy, like we’re being watched. Which, of course, we are, with tracking cookies and web beacons and the like. We know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, that if we want to make use of ‘free’ online tools, we have to be prepared to offer an ounce of flesh in return.

But how long is it before we just feel fed up that our open-ness is not only subject to abuse, but worse, that we have given all this information to incompetent buffoons who are going to spend the next few decades trying to sell us childrens’ books long after the kids have left home, or medical insurance even when we have, for unexpected and quite upsetting reasons, become no longer eligible?

I don’t know. Perhaps we’ll collectively and quietly accept that the future is to be full of blunted, inappropriate messages being thrown at us wherever we go, most of which will fall by the wayside. Perhaps we’ll simply learn to treat them as noise, to block them out – but I get a nasty feeling they’ll become louder, more gaudy and in-your-face in response.

Or perhaps those responsible for producing such tools will learn, either off their own bats (which would be nice) or through a backlash in which sales go down instead of up, that our screens are not simply advertising hoardings available for rent, and our behaviours are not up for surveillance. That we don’t want poison dwarves following us around asking if we’ve thought about booking that hotel yet, or buying that insurance. That, surprise, our lives are more complex and interesting then can be modelled in some banner advertising business model, and that – even more of a shocker – we don’t want such intrusive company along the way.

I know, it’s wishful thinking. I don’t have a problem with advertising, and indeed, I have even bought things on a whim due to an online suggestion. But I do have a problem with people dressing up poorly construed, badly implemented and inconsiderate ideas as ‘the future’, particularly when the intention is to entice me to do one thing or another. Like Schroedinger and his infamous cat, just because we feel we know how to measure and even influence, doesn’t mean that we can guess what behaviour will occur as a result.

Targeted ad serving may not breach privacy laws, but it’s bloody annoying

One thought on “Targeted ad serving may not breach privacy laws, but it’s bloody annoying

  1. Always amuses me that whenever I’ve just booked a hotel room through a well-known hotel booking site, I’m bombarded with their ads wherever I go. Nice to see the advertisers wasting their money…

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