What’s So Creepy About Retargeting?


target_small.jpg ADOTAS – A recent article in The New York Times recently established retargeting as the latest media-made bogeyman of the scary world of Internet advertising. Though the article isn’t as sensational as a recent Wall Street Journal piece about the fast-growing business of “spying on Internet users,” it drums up the “spooky” factor with lines like “Retargeting has reached a level of precision that is leaving consumers with the palpable feeling that they are being watched as they roam the virtual aisles of online stores.”

What’s that Rockwell? — somebody’s watching you?

“Retargeting has helped turn on a light bulb for consumers,” privacy advocate Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy told the NYTimes. “It illustrates that there is a commercial surveillance system in place online that is sweeping in scope and raises privacy and civil liberties issues, too.”

Well, yeah — I’ve wrote before about the Internet surveillance state when the Free Art and Technology Lab unveiled their “Google Alarm,” which goes off on every site where Google collects your data — which is most of the web. Everything you do on the Internet is being watched. Hate to pee on your party, people, but the Internet is not free: you trade the data you input (except for personal private information) for a wealth of services.

The U.S. doesn’t have strong legislation or regulation surrounding data privacy management because the marketing industry has been trusted to self-regulate. They think they’ve been doing a pretty good job, but they might be biased…

The New York Times story begins with an anecdote from Julie Matlin, who was stalked by a pair of shoes she looked at on Zappos.com. She notes that retargeting is a “clever marketing tool,” but “It’s a little creepy, especially if you don’t know what’s going on.”

What actually seemed to creep her out was that Internet display advertising was effective. Her banner blindness was overcome! But at heart it’s the same old story for the interactive advertising world: consumers are scared because they don’t understand how it works.

“It’s not a debate whether this is effective, it’s a challenge of users not being informed,” said Dean Vegliante, general manager of NetMining. “If it’s not clear, people are going to always assume the worst. Let’s be clear, proactive and educate whenever possible. This will help provide additional comfort across the board.”

Also what creeps people out is retargeting done badly. Matlin mentions getting barraged by retargeted diet pill ads that made her feel fat — a fail whale should be awarded to that advertiser. Vegliante noted that real problems arise when users are too targeted and advertisers make aggressive assumptions in their creative.

There are a few best practices retargeters should follow, Vegliante said. First, make sure the data being employed is as real-time as possible and the creative is directly tied to the interest level. Second, learn when it’s best not to show an ad. And finally, never wade into territory that could be viewed as sensitive or personal in any way.

“Being overly conservative is the best approach,” he adds.

Loyalty Lab Executive Vice President David Rosen acknowledges that retargeting done badly can cause more harm than good. “The best way of using retargeting tools is with an audience that has given you permission to engage with them in this way. It’s a great way to trial and fine tune these type of targeting techniques.”

For advertisers wary of irking consumers via retargeting and behavioral targeting, Rosen suggests loyalty programs as an alternative. “By leveraging those who have engaged with your brand before they begin a relationship that allows for more frequent communications and allows you to engage more frequently. By creating these type of loyalty programs brands can engage with these potential buyer beyond a banner and be multichannel.”

But also how much more transparent must retargeters be? The NYTimes article notes that Zappos uses Criteo for its retargeting and banners include a link titled “Why am I receiving these ads?” A click will take you to a customized Criteo page that specifically tells you why you’re seeing a certain ad, how to disable retargeting from Criteo and what your current Criteo cookie status is.

Criteo, which just moved its headquarters to the U.S., flourished for a decade in Europe before entering the States. Do you know how freaked out Europeans get about data privacy?

In response to the NYTimes article retargeter TellApart made disabling retargeting even easier — all users have to do is click on a little red box. A further option allows them to withdraw from all of TellApart’s campaigns.

The New York Times story is good in that it will help educate the masses, but is retargeting really creepy? Is behavioral targeting really rooted in online spying? I mean there are plenty of companies legally spying on us offline. Funny how it’s newspapers, which have been suffering from declining ad revenue for years, that always “break” such sensational Internet advertising stories.


  1. Paranoid much?
    I disagree with the idea that people are scared or even affected by ad retargeting. Amazon has been doing it for years and people know about it and you know what, some people kind of like it which is why so many companies are now looking at what you like and suggesting things you “might like.” I doubt most people even realize they are being retargeted… they just think they’re fat.
    Anyway that’s my $0.02

  2. Hi Gavin,
    Kathryn here- marketing associate at AdRoll.com. I’m thrilled to see so much discussion about retargeting since the NY Times article on Sunday. I totally agree with you- users should be informed of the opportunities and benefits associated with retargeting technology to better their online shopping experience! It really can be a great tool: getting ads about the actual things that interest you, but you shouldn’t have to be creeped out. Here at AdRoll.com, we have placed strict rules about what ads are served and how often. We actually wrote about just that on our blog a while back. Check it out if you’re interested at http://blog.adroll.com/2010/04/dont-be-creepy-with-retargeting/

    I really love hearing opinions on retargeting, personally and professionally. I, for one, love getting ads about things I like. Professionally, it helps us at AdRoll continuously improve our tools. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Gavin, spot on… Every day, Amazon is serving users a phenomenal user experience by using all the data they’ve gathered about users from prior visits and purchases. There’s nothing more scary or spooky about re targeting. The key here is education — there is nothing fundamentally “spooky” about re targeting if people know how it works and how to opt-out should they choose to. If you love the experience Amazon gives you, you should love having relevant ads served to you where-ever you go on the web.

  4. Great article, Gavin. It’s definitely important for consumers to know that there is no transfer of personally identifiable data. Nonetheless, I can still see how personalized ads can make consumers feel a bit uneasy.

    It should be important to note that not all retargeting campaigns need to highlight the consumer’s browsing history. Retargeting with more subtle, but still well branded ads, can be a very effective marketing tool without the creepiness factor.

  5. i support retargeting and remarketing technology, i am sure behavioral marketing has come of age visit http://www.tripleclickint.com/

    and its time we embrace it, we may have difficulty ensuring we protect our information but i am convinced about such as retargeter or triple Click interactive online marketing technologies



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