back to article Online advertising isn't creepy enough

Privacy advocates endlessly worry that online advertising companies track your every move in order to serve you creepily well-targeted ads. They needn't bother. After all, when was the last time this hyper-invasive tracking of your online behavior actually resulted in you getting a deal on something you really wanted? And it …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    ...figured out a way to identify expectant mothers based on their browsing, sometimes before they even knew they were expecting.

    They received complaints and have since worked a way to sneak the expectant mother results in with other, more random ads, to give the appearance of it being a random ad when it is, in fact, insanely well targeted.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Target

      Didn't Target find expectant mothers by their buying patterns? A sudden interest in cotton balls and suchlike?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Target

        Something like that, an interest in unscented things, etc. I heard about it on NPR on the drive to the office, but this article seems to cover the most entertaining bits - like the pissed off dad who demanded to know why Target was sending his teenage daughter expectant mother ads:

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Target

          Ah, thank you. This is what I was thinking of (there was a link in the precis you linked to).

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. Ru

    On targeting and Rossignol skis

    I think you've got this the wrong way round. "I see you've bought a pair of Rossignol skis, perhaps you'd like to do that again? and again? and again?". The odds of a repeat purchase will drop off for larger ticket items that you don't need many of. Amazon doesn't get this, and will continue frantically pushing cameras at you because you bought a camera.

    And you've made two purcahses form the same manufacturer... well. They clearly don't have to try anymore. But for all the other manufacturers, there's still a chance for you to see the light and buy their rubbish instead.

    Anyway, I seem to be not making a point. Targetted advertising is the sort of thing that cannot be done the same way for all classes of good or service. Google appear to understand this (and you'd bloody well hope they would) but can't seem to do much about it.

    1. Bjorg

      Re: On targeting and Rossignol skis

      I know nothing about skiing, but from the website, Rossignol "Provides ranges of skis, snowboards, boots, bindings, poles, softgoods and accessories.". So you bought some Rossignol skis, but maybe you hadn't heard, there's a great deal on Rossignol boots! Or Rossignol snowboards! I think that's what he's hoping for. Yes, eventually you'll have a Rossignol everything and then what ad do you display? But by that time, advertising already did it's job 10 times over and can take a day off by providing something more "random".

  4. Steve Knox

    Misreading the Motivation

    Why should marketers try to sell you Rossignol skis? They KNOW you'll buy them ANYWAY. Marketers aren't interested in selling you what you want, they're interested in selling you what they have -- preferably what they can make the highest margin on.

    So they learn that you like ski equipment. Since you already show a preference for Rossignol, giving you a deal on that brand would just eat into their profit margin. But perhaps if they show you other brands and related products often enough, one name or another will stick in your head the next time you want to buy something.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Or maybe...

      They don't make as good of a margin on Rossignol as they do on K2, Salamon, etc.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Advertisers don't want you to get a deal either

    They want you to buy things that make them the most profit. That's why we have consumer-led sites like HUKD to pick out the wheat from the mountain of chaff.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A theory...

    You're already interested in Rossignol skis, so is there really a point in showing you more ads about them? The ads are trying to suggest other brands you may not be aware or not so interested yet - possibly ranges where the profit margin is higher. Isn't that one of the main purposes of advertising?

    Ads will never be a good way of finding deals, especially with generic terms like "skis". Only companies with a very large advertising budget and willing to bid over everyone else on those keywords will manage to get an ad out to you.

    That advertising budget has to come from somewhere.

    1. conan

      Re: A theory...

      I always get the opposite from the author. I buy a laptop having spent ages researching laptops, starting with looking at loads and narrowing it down over a couple of weeks, until eventually I buy one specific model that i've come back to again and again. From then on I get ads for... The same model of laptop. Again and again. Nowhere in the AdWords algorithm does it occur to Google that having bought a laptop (which they know, because I used Google Checkout) I probably don't want another of the same, but might want a case for it, or an extra PSU, or a trendy travel mouse.

  7. Derichleau

    It's easy to make it stop

    According to the Information Commissioner's Office, all advertising - whether the data controller meant to target the data subject for this purpose or not, appearing within the logged in account pages of a data subject constitues direct marketing. This is because the data subject's personal data must be processed as a security check before each and every account page is served to their browser. And of course, if personal data is processed to deliver generic marketing then that generic marketing constitues direct marketing - because it is being delivered to a data subject.

    Submit a section 11 request to make the online advertising banners stop.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It's easy to make it stop

      That's a good theory, but have you actually tried doing this with Google?

      In the likely scenario they'll ignore you the only recourse is complaining to the ICO...

  8. thomas k.

    superfluous ads

    I live in So Cal and buy almost all of my computer gear from Newegg. I also read El Reg and the Guardian every day.

    Last year, after buying the Acer Iconia Win 7 tablet (from Newgg), adverts for Newegg started appearing on the Guardian site, went on for a couple weeks or so.

    Remembering the Phorm/BT brouhaha, I did find it a little creepy but also felt bad that someone was wasted their ad dollars - I'm going to buy from Newegg regardless, so why bother sending me the ads?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: superfluous ads

      The ad broker knows you went to Newegg and were looking at something on their website, but it doesn't know you made a actual purchase - well at least not yet, something to think about for Privacy changes v3.

      So, in case you were just browsing, the ads are doing their job of reminding you of that thing you were looking at.

      Also think of it this way, by paying for those ads Newegg is preventing the competition from showing you their ads.

  9. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    Matt you are a muppet

    Yep. That is exactly what I meant to say. You are a muppet.

    95%+ of the advertising budget is spent on customer acquisition and customer poaching.

    Google has tracked you brilliantly.

    Rossignol counts you as a customer so you will not get any ads unless they have new product to sell and even in that case they will probably use the 5% or so of their budget devoted to keeping their existing customers informed of new products and mailshoot you directly. In fact it usually goes out of a completely different budget.

    At the same time the rest of the vendors has you pegged as "someone to be converted". That is why you see their ads not Rossignol ads because they want to pay Google (and the websites) so you can see them. This comes out of the 95% of budget assigned to acquiring new customers. They are fighting head over heels for the slot to show you an alternative, convert you and acquire you as a customer and Google has provided them a bloody good service. In fact if you see a Rossignol ad this means that Google has f*** up in compiling your correct profile for the perusal of the marketing lowlife.

    So coming back to why you are a muppet. Frankly, I would have expected an ex-CXX of something to actually know how marketing money and advertising money is really spent and how do you acquire customers.

    1. sabroni Silver badge

      Re: Matt you are a muppet

      no you are!

      The article isn't saying he doesn't understand how marketing works, he's saying that it doesn't help him as someone being advertised at. And judging by the fact no-one on here is saying "Actually I get really well targeted ads!" he's got a point...

      Google can sell ads because they have user data to target, the data to target comes from us not the companies placing adverts, therefore the data has value. He thinks he should get something in return for letting them make money off his data.

      Is that too difficult to understand?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Matt you are a muppet

        Do the sheep expect a reward from the farmer for walking into the abbatoir?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Matt you are a muppet

          i looked up abbatoir it means slaughterhouse

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Matt you are a muppet

        The SUBTEXT is that advertisers are trying to help the customer, which is a real whitewash to say the least. That subtext is obvious enough that everyone feels the need to point out the darker reality. Advertisers are not your friends.

        I don't think the guy is confused though -- he's writing somewhat-subtle pro-business propaganda, deliberately disguising his real message as an unstated assumption.

  10. Goldmember

    Car Insurance

    I recently used one of these comparison sites to get a car insurance quote. For about a week, more than half the sites I visited showed me my money supermarket quotes. Why? If I've already got the quotes, I have already got enough information to make my decision.

    I'm not too arsed about targeted ads, but regurgitating the information I already have and throwing it back at me everywhere I look isn't going to sway me, especially as I bought the policy on the day anyway, as I'm sure the majority of people do.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Opportunity for a Firefox plugin?

    It would be fun to create an add-on to Firefox that hooks into a peer-to-peer network for randomly redistributing the participants' ad-tracking cookies. I wonder how long it would take the advertisers to realist that there really aren't that many one-legged, pipe-smoking pregnant skiers in the world.

    1. Drew V.

      In a way this already exists

      The Googlesharing Firefox plugin routes all the data from every Google application that doesn't require a login through the connection of other users. If I search for "pregnant skiers", it will very much appear to Google as if someone else is fapping to snow-covered MILFs, and vice versa.

  12. Anonymous Coward

    "they're terrible at delivering anything close to approximating a deal on the things I'd like to buy, "

    You missed the point - it is not about tailoring ads for things you might be interested in, it is about tailoring ads for vaguely related things to those you are interested in, by those willing to pay the most for it.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Many people don't seem to give a toss about online tracking. Many see it is the price they pay for free services like Google mail and so on.

    Yet if someone walked up to you in the street and said they had been following you around while shopping all day and said they have something you will be interested in would you listen to them?

    Do you feel happy about searching for an illness or other problem you are having online and then having advertisers know this?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You've hit the nail on the head.

  14. plrndl

    Wake Up!

    The whole point of marketing/advertising is to sell you something you don't already want. The other stuff you'll buy anyway.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That's not strictly true.

      It's about influencing choices. If they could sell you things you really rather wouldn't buy, they'll do it, of course. But you don't shell out for a car on a whim; you buy one when you need one, or perhaps more often when you think you can afford one so you can show off your "success", and through that become more successful. Same with, oh, clothing. You could buy boring old cheap jeans or you could shell out five or ten times as much on glorious branded jeans. Same bit of cloth, but oh the branding. The alternative is not to go naked, it's to buy a different brand of jeans.

      Most of the time you'd buy something anyway, but maybe you can be made to shell out to me instead of the competition. Because my offering is cheaper, better, glossier, you name it. Exceptions are a separate class of "impulse buying" and they tend to be marketed a bit differently. There's a reason the single-serving candybars and such are at the checkout, for example. Or, now-a-days, electronic gadgets with (sometimes obvious) "justify-to-spouse" or "justify-to-self" pricing brackets. But the thing is that most of our spending isn't in the "applied disposable income" category, so only advertising for things you know people wouldn't otherwise buy is leaving a rather large chunk of the market unadvertised.

      1. Bucky 2

        Re: That's not strictly true.

        Oh, AC, going naked is ALWAYS an excellent choice.

  15. Johntron

    Seems to be a misunderstanding of how these ad platforms work. It's not Google that decides whether to serve persistent or tailored ads to you, it's the advertisers. In an Adwords account, you must intentionally set these features up and manage them. Not all companies even know this is possible, nor can many afford to hire services to perform these tasks.

    The web has only just begun serving tailored ads based on user behavior, most ads are not using that much personal info other than the keywords you typed at the moment.

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

  17. Sporkinum

    I have been blocking ads and tracking for years. I also DVR most TV I watch and then skip at least 90% of the ads when I watch the show. One thing I have noticed is that I don't buy as much crap as I used to. So now I am a bad consumer and put all that money towards my retirement account.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      I believe the Klingons acquired their cloaking technology from the Romulans. I've acquired the same from the sweat of my brow. Internet privacy and security can't be achieved through plug-ins or scare-ware. Now I'm off topic. Apologies.

  18. Drew V.

    "Personally, I don't mind this very much. I'm as boring online as I am offline."

    This is just another version of "if you don't have anything to hide, you don't have anything to fear". It is worth remembering that this idea was originally invented by the bureaucrats running dictatorships.

    It might take the guise here of a seemingly harmless self-deprecating attitude - "I am just a boring guy, bla bla." But it is really a brought-up-to-date cover for the philosophical position that we don't need things like human rights and universal principles.

  19. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    I recall a major UK supermarket who did this on a regular basis; but at the till, not on the internet.

    Every week I'd buy pretty much the same basket of regular groceries; every week I'd pay with the same debit card; every week they'd cheerfully print on the back of the receipt a bundle of money off offers for *THINGS I NEVER BOUGHT*.

    Yep, perhaps sensible in the context of 'persuade him to try something new' but no use at all in the case of 'regular customer who's never changed his basket in the last five years'... gimme something I can use, and I may go back. But there's zero incentive for new things... not interested.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    ... I'd get really, really suspicious if I get targeted that well. As in, they've spent so much on advertising their offering cannot possibly be the best. Yes, I'm a habitual cheapskate. Before I commit I need to know what alternatives there are, what the price ranges are, and so on, and so forth. For some things I'll look up the manual first and look it through, then save it for future reference. See how good or more likely just how bad it is. Look at other devices by the same company. Do they provide at least (hardware maintenance-) manuals for older gear, or do "old" things completely vanish from their site the moment the new batch comes by?

    Reviews I'm very critical about because I assume most will be astroturfed in some way. I'm actually most interested in negative reviews and scour them for what went wrong, whether that's likely to impact my intended usage, and how the manufacturer or the vendor dealt with it. Unresponsiveness or stonewalling is enough to stay well away from the vendor.

    Pricing I take from price aggregators, and from there figure out an acceptable price range and where to get it in my neighbourhood. Then I go there and pay cash. Want my custom? Make sure I can find you, and that your prices are in the right bracket. If I'm interested, I *will* find you, but if you tried too hard to find me, I'll stay away for that reason.

    Now, I'm probably an outlier. But I think "the web" has enabled a rather larger shift, away from having the product find the customer and more toward the customer finding suitable products for his needs. If that catches on, and it might well with the younger generations, then advert targetting profiling becomes far less important.

    Instead, focus on listening to your customers and possibly would-be-if-only customers, and see if you can't come up with something good & useful for them. The marketing can then look much more like throwing it out there and watch it take care of itself.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Only sheep needs this invasive marketing. When I go out I know what I want. My research is done based on other people's opinion's (mouth to mouth is still powerful you know) and maybe some internet look up. But I simply NEVER buy anything just because it was suggested on a little box on a website. Never did and never will. If you want to give away your privacy to have ads that better suits your shopping needs, you are nothing more than sheep.

    Some people might not agree with me. In my opinion they are shopping zombies: MUST....BUY....ADELE'S....NEW....CD.

    The hell with them! Go sell your privacy elsewhere.

    Anonymous for obvious reasons.

    1. sabroni Silver badge

      Re: Sheep

      Yeah, advertising doesn't work on me either. All these advertising agencies are just pissing money up the wall....

  22. Keep Refrigerated

    Advertising Feedback Loop

    All to often online advertising results in a feedback loop, where you cease to see or experience things outside of the advertising echo chamber where all your experiences are reinforced with more of the same.

    I don't see why advertisers should be allowed to track at all. We didn't require it before the internet; tv, newspapers and magazines managed to sell ads for a lot more money based only on estimates. Yet the internet provides these companies with fine-grained detail on the minutiae of our browsing habits and somehow this is worth less than those big budgets ads of times gone by?!

    I'm sick of seeing ads for similar stuff I've already bought (hello, Amazon), or stuff I've taken an interest in but do not want to own. Whereas I've often seen a non-tailored static ad in a magazine for something I've never thought of, which made me buy.

    That is the kind of ads I want, static, generic, non-flashy, non-interrupting - use wit and intelligence to catch my eye.

  23. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Drew V.

      Re: Might I suggest...

      You have a point, but I would say that this is a separate issue.

      I agree with you that most advertising is empirically useless to consumers, if not actively misleading and fallacious. But that isn't enough reason to object to its existence (in the same way that smoking is bad for our health but so far no one has outlawed it completely).

      The issue is at hand is not advertising itself but the digital data gathering and profile building that supposedly enables "targeted advertising" and which plainly violates the spirit if not the letter of privacy regulations as we have gradually constructed them in our societies.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Not always.

      Even among "what you need", there can be choices. I mean, perhaps you always bought Brand X "WhatYouNeed", but were you aware there's also a Brand Y "WhatYouNeed"? Granted, this isn't usually the case, but every so often I see an ad for something that I wasn't aware about before and I think, "Hmm, lemme check this out..." so I start doing some digging. Sometimes, it doesn't hurt to satisfy your little curiosities.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Not always.

        > Even among "what you need", there can be choices.

        That's because not all good are commodity goods, ie fungible (interchangeable). Some goods are mostly equivalent, in terms of providing a similar basic function, but may retail for different prices and/or offer different levels of quality or be otherwise distinguishable (for example, some may have additional non-core features).

        And many goods are even less fungible than that. I like to read novels, but there's a huge range of novels with very dramatic differences. Advertising - particularly targeted advertising - can inform me of novels I will like that I wasn't previously aware of. In this case advertising is doing me a service; my cost for that service is the time it takes me to look at the ad (what Sterling calls "opportunity costs and cognitive load"). That cost is usually very small for a correctly-targeted ad (one that describes a good I want, that I wasn't previously aware of, and is effective). So if a sufficient fraction of targeted advertising I receive is correct, then it has positive overall value for me, and it's cheaper than alternatives such as seeking out and reading book reviews.

        In short (I know, too late), the people you're responding to have, as usual, oversimplified to the point of error. Advertising *can* have value to the consumer, in a strict economic sense.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Who are they targetting?

    Two days ago my housemate mentioned something about "Band of Brothers". Yesterday an ad for Band of Brothers popped up on _my_ laptop! He'd searched the term on his laptop, but we obviously share the same IP address. I noticed something similar happened a few weeks ago - I saw ads for something he'd been searching for, and it is creepy.

    The weird thing is that I don't recall seeing ads that match the things that I search for!

    1. cosymart

      Re: Who are they targetting?

      Perhaps ads for the things that you searched for are illegal? :-)

    2. henchan

      Re: Who are they targetting?

      I predict your next car purchase will be a Fnord.

  25. JC 2

    There's Advertising On The Internet?

    ... been blocking ads for year, and wonder why others aren't too. While I have redirects to a server giving me a clear pixel in place of some ads, in other cases it's just as simple as using Firefox with AdBlock Plus then when you see an ad, use ABP's "Open Blockable Items" feature to block where it's coming from.

    That might seem tedious at first but you'll have to do it less and less often and even if you don't block 100% of them, 90%+ is still an improvement, right?

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