Still a ways to go with online targeted ads

by Eszter Hargittai on July 13, 2013

I don’t mind somewhat customized ads on Facebook and elsewhere, but I’d prefer a middle ground between irrelevant and creepy. The item on the image is one I was viewing on the arts-and-crafts marketplace Etsy the day before.
Suggesting to “Check out this unique find” seems a bit much. It’s not really a unique find since I already found it earlier. If the line wants to be that personalized then how about “This unique item is still available.”? For some reason I’d find that less creepy although still intrusive. The way they have it now seems disingenuous. It is as though the system is pretending that it doesn’t know that I already saw the item. In reality, all this does is remind me that it knows way too many details about my online actions. (I guess for that reminder: Thanks!) I really ought to use a different browser for FB…

The other ads at the same time on the sidebar were for a bank whose Web site I had just visited a few minutes earlier (again, lukewarm about this) and for a survey from some local entrepreneurs looking for feedback on an idea. I already took that survey so that’s kind of pointless. (Why did I take it? Because it was about the idea of a game store in town and I was intrigued.) But repeating that ad is potentially worse than pointless. Presumably the ad’s sponsors don’t want the same people filling out the survey over and over again. But I guess that’s a tough one, because I may have clicked through the last time and FB wouldn’t necessarily know that I actually took the survey.

Generally speaking, but this is anecdotal as I’m not familiar with related research, it seems to me that after a certain point repeating the same info is not helpful anymore. Sure, I may have browsed an item, contemplated buying it, switched tabs and forgotten about it so a reminder or two could be helpful. But countless reminders? As a friend of mine put it: Seeing that shoe I decided not to buy 50 more times just makes me want to scream “I hate these shoes!” by the end. Everything in moderation, I guess, or it would seem, but not according to current tailored ad programs.

GMail doesn’t do much better in this domain although is suboptimal in other ways. I’m always curious why it suggests I enroll in various degree programs at Northwestern, the university where I am on the faculty. First, my email signature states that I am on the faculty. It’s nice if they don’t read my email in that detail (or even my saved signature), but really? Isn’t that partly the idea behind targeted ads on there that programs can figure out enough to target you with ads? Second, I have my address associated with my GMail account. It doesn’t seem like current affiliates are the best target for programs. What am I missing here?

Any favorite examples of either disturbingly on-target ads or curious/unfortunate mismatches?



Ben 07.13.13 at 1:06 pm

Degree programs in ads thrown at .edu addresses associated with the primary account are often online and targeted to alums. The idea being they’re more likely to continue studies from their old institution than some random other school.

I went back to my old undergrad campus recently and there were posters advertising the same thing, so it’s not just a silly algorithm driving these ads. (To the extent administrative decision processes can’t be characterized as silly algorithms.)

Once MOOCs start having more institutional penetration I imagine the ads will be even worse. “This degree program for your alma mater is equivalent to Harvard’s! Enroll today!”


Eszter Hargittai 07.13.13 at 1:11 pm

Okay, that’s plausible. The thing is, NU students have a different email address than faculty (student addresses end in while faculty and staff addresses end in NU was one of the first schools to team up with Google to offer its email to students via Google Apps ( so there’s not a great reason for Google not to realize in this case (my case, that is) it is not targeting students or alums (other than the few faculty members who happen to be NU alums).


Ben 07.13.13 at 1:37 pm

Ha. It’s like the online version of the system of pipes dropping random material on Sam Lowry’s desk.


Henry 07.13.13 at 1:38 pm

Maybe the best way to think about this is that the algorithms are trying to figure out who you are and what you might want to buy, nearly succeeding, but falling just short enough to drop into the Uncanny Valley of online advertising, where the semi-personalization creeps you out.


Bloix 07.13.13 at 2:01 pm

The other day I did a search for “bed bugs” out of curiosity, having read a news story about how they’ve spread into hotels and other common areas. Next time I went to a website, I got a huge sidebar ad for an exterminator with animated bugs crawling over the screen. It was repulsive.


kent 07.13.13 at 2:09 pm

Hi Ben, I’m going to think about that image from “Brazil” every time I get one of these ads now. Thanks! (Sincere thanks; I loved that movie and that image.)

Last night, a friend mentioned he had typed in ‘cardiac care’ to his facebook page for some reason utterly unrelated to needing such a thing himself, but now is inundated with hospital ads etc. At age 40ish he really doesn’t find it too amusing.


Claire 07.13.13 at 3:26 pm

I’ve been seeing these ads on a bunch of websites lately (using a browser where I can’t block ads or, apparently, evil cookies). I had the same reaction as Eszter—the weasels are watching me way too closely.

It’s hard to know what to do. I’d be tempted to not use those sites, except that they’re clearly sites I use a lot, which, of course, means that advertising them to me is completely stupid.

And I’ve been seeing the creepy targeted ads from Google, as well, but I expect that kind of thing from them.


RSA 07.13.13 at 3:43 pm

Any favorite examples of either disturbingly on-target ads or curious/unfortunate mismatches?

My least favorite example happened on a bloging community site where I used to write, when Google ads were turned on; the idea was that the ads would match the content of each blog post. I’d written something about measures of the gender pay gap, I think, and the ads that showed up surrounding my text were for law firms representing people accused of sexually abusing children. WTF? I could not figure out the connection, and it made me very unhappy.


mert7878 07.13.13 at 3:44 pm

I find online ads creepy for the same reason: they constantly remind you that you are being watched but seldom offer anything I am interested.

One example: last year I bought a dehumidifier online. For a week or more I was deluged with ads for dehumidifiers. Hello? Anyone home? I just bought a dehumidifier. I don’t need another one. Who the hell makes serial purchases of dehumidifiers?

They always seem to be –creepily — one step behind.


Eszter Hargittai 07.13.13 at 4:44 pm

Henry, someone on FB made a similar connection. It sounds about right.

RSA – Whoa! That reminds me of this piece: The Curious Connection Between Apps for Gay Men and Sex Offenders.

The examples noted above (Bloix, kent) also highlight how unsophisticated these systems are often, and after quite a few years actually. Amazon has gotten a bit better about realizing that if you buy something for or about babies, it may not actually be the case that you yourself are pregnant, but it’s still not great about recognizing that people buy a lot of gifts on there, some of which they still ship to their own home for gift-wrapping, etc.

There is the creepiness of suggesting incorrect/inappropriate content to the person whose actions led to said suggestions. Then there are the privacy implications of suggesting content to a user of a computer based on the browsing patterns of another user of the same machine. I rarely share my machines (and when I do, I try my best to get the guest to use another browser), but I suspect it’s common in various contexts. Facebook Beacon anyone? Oy.


Barry Freed 07.13.13 at 4:55 pm

I think this one takes the cake as far as inappropriate tastelessness is concerned. I was looking to see if someone had put Todd Haynes’ famous student film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story on YouTube. I found it and the annoying advertisement on that popped up on the bottom of the screen was for an area hospital’s bariatric surgery clinic.


Manoel Galdino 07.13.13 at 5:07 pm

My suggestion to you is to clean your cookies. When you visit a site that allows facebook to put what is called third parties cookies, they can track you at facebook and in this other site, and this allow them to know that you are the same person (at least, the same browser).

Then, clean your flash cookies. Flash cookies are hard to be deleted. See here ( on how to delete flash cookies.

Hope it helps.


BruceK 07.13.13 at 5:18 pm

Maybe use different browsers.

I don’t visit Amazon on my regular browser any more because I got fed up of being pursued round the Internet by whatever book I had last looked at.

@11 is one solution, but you might not always want to lose your browsing history. I often don’t around Christmas, when I might well look at something and then not remember the title or author when I decide I want to buy it.


Tom Slee 07.13.13 at 5:52 pm

If there is one upside about the slime-trail of advertising that follows us around, it’s that it’s so hopelessly crap. I have a feeling that the Uncanny Valley (Henry #4) is a very wide one: it’s pretty easy to sort out that someone looked at gardening tools so let’s advertise gardening tools to them but while that does have the creep factor it doesn’t actually get you very far (as Eszter’s example shows), and becoming predictive about what you will want next is much more difficult.

In the same way, many people have pointed out that for all the intrusive and outrageous NSA surveillance being leaked, when they wanted to actually do something useful with it–like find Edward Snowden–it was a total flop.

So perhaps these crap ads that follow us around should be reassuring. Every time you see “Check out this unique find” you can breathe a sigh of relief that they still don’t have a clue what’s really going on in your mind.


marcel 07.13.13 at 7:05 pm

BruceK wrote:

@11 is one solution, but you might not always want to lose your browsing history. I often don’t around Christmas, when I might well look at something and then not remember the title or author when I decide I want to buy it.

Isn’t this one of the uses of bookmarks (which can be deleted once they are past their sell by date)? Create a folder called Xmas gifts, or something else if you share the browser with another. Post bookmarks in it, perhaps renaming each one to make it a bit more work for the snoops in your life to snoop. Or email the urls to yourself, if you really need that much security in your meat life.


Tim Worstall 07.13.13 at 7:55 pm

So the finding is that FB’s (and Google’s) targeting of ads isn’t very good yet. Hate to think what they’ll be worth when the get better at it….

Although as a purely personal opinion I think Lord Lever had it right. 50% of an ad spend is entirely wasted. The problem being knowing which 50%.


afinetheorem 07.13.13 at 8:34 pm

Use an add-on like “Do Not Track Me” (! This won’t stop an individual site from using your user account to target you on the site, but it will keep (most) activity from one site from affecting ads on other sites. It’s great!


Metatone 07.13.13 at 8:56 pm

It’s not just the website ads. (Although I avoid most of those through judicious use of a couple of browsers and Ghostery.)

What drives me nuts is how bad Amazon’s recommendation engine is, still, after all these years.


William Timberman 07.13.13 at 9:00 pm

I’m not reassured by the thought that the NSA’s targeting is as clueless as Google’s, since the NSA doesn’t really care whether or not it’s targeted the right person. It only cares whether or not it can present all sorts of plausible reasons afterward why the person it just obliterated might have been the right person. Why would anyone find that reassuring?

Yet again technology solves a problem for us that we didn’t even know existed. Once deployed at great expense, it can provide its own rationale thereafter, and can defend itself whether it produces the right results or not. This isn’t your grandpa’s round up the usual suspects. This is a whole new world of hurt.


Mark Huberty 07.13.13 at 9:42 pm

Homonyms are my favorite problem. Anytime I go looking for help on LaTeX, my browser is graced with ads for medical supplies or fetish sites. Who knew science was so exciting?


TW Andrews 07.13.13 at 11:07 pm

@William Timberman, if anything, I’m terrified that the NSA’s targeting is as bad as these systems. The consequences of a false positive for google or a facebook are showing a user a bad ad, and at most generating annoyance.

The consequences of the NSA doing it are to flag someone as a person of interest (whatever that means for the context of the search), which could potentially have serious, real world consequences.


krippendorf 07.13.13 at 11:09 pm

I often get ads for products that I’ve just purchased on line but that are once-in-a-blue-moon purchases (e.g., hockey skates, baseball bats, iPad carrying cases). As if after having purchased one Item X, I’m going to go out and buy the same Item X from another seller, typically at a higher price? Perhaps “they” are going for the buyer’s remorse buyer, but I find these ads entirely resist-able.


PJW 07.13.13 at 11:35 pm

“…they still don’t have a clue what’s really going on inside your mind.” Tom Slee @ 14

Reminded me of what Google’s Kurzweil (the Singularity guy) said a few weeks ago when he predicted that it won’t be long until Google will be able to upload our minds. As many data centers as they are building I have no doubt there will be plenty of room on their servers. Talk about brains in a vat!


John Quiggin 07.14.13 at 1:08 am

@WT The problem for the NSA is that people are starting to catch on to its cluelessness. Massive surveillance of the entire planet, plenty of warnings, and they still can’t forestall, or even quickly identify, the Boston bombers. The lameness of their alleged successes (mostly identifying easy targets for entrapment by agent provocateurs) stands in stark contrast to its failures. I think that’s part of the reason for the shift in opinion since Snowden.


rmgosselin 07.14.13 at 3:02 am

I find it charming that the internet doesn’t understand irony. I’ll sometimes go to a web site, or post it on FB, just to mock it, only to be stalked everywhere I go. I briefly considered blocking them, but I’m having too much fun.


William Timberman 07.14.13 at 3:02 am

John, Google can annoy us, and presumably fleece its advertisers, but the NSA can assassinate the character of anyone it finds inconvenient for any reason, or block their bank accounts, put them in preventive detention, force them to run up enough legal bills to bankrupt them, incite vigilantes aaginst them, render them unemployable, etc.

Oppo research on steriods, or worse, is not anything we want governments handed an annual budget in the billions to do. That these systems are less than useful for the stated purpose isn’t nearly the problem for them that it is for us. Or, to put it another way, what they’ve done to Aaron Swartz, et al., they can do to anyone, and no one in or out of government can say them nay at this point, or, I’ll venture, at any point in the foreseeable future.


John Quiggin 07.14.13 at 3:16 am

@WT I agree. My point is that, in mobilising opposition to NSA, it’s useful to be able to point out that they do all these things, and *still* miss the real terrorists.


William Timberman 07.14.13 at 3:31 am

Yes, I take your point, and agree as far as it goes, but it’ll be hard to persuade people on that basis alone, as long as they continue accepting the NSA’s protestations that finding a needle in a haystack is really, really hard, and besides, the shoe bomber….


Chaz 07.14.13 at 7:38 am

When you took the survey they probably logged your IP and won’t actually accept another survey from that IP, or will accept it and throw it out later. The ad could be repeating to try to get the people who they’ve shown the ad to before but who haven’t yet taken the survey, similar to how polling companies call a number several times until someone picks up. The idea is to increase the response rate so the sample is more random and not biased toward cooperative/interested people.

It does seem like they should know that you actually completed the survey and thus let it go. But maybe some detail in their implementation means that that detail is not known to the folks serving the ads. There seems to be a similar pattern with a lot of anecdotes here, where they know that you looked at something but don’t seem to know you purchased it.


Ben 07.14.13 at 8:52 am

Yeah, the process going from “public notices NSA incompetence” to “NSA programs are reigned in somewhat” is so circuitous

– a non-negligible portion of the public has to pay attention AND remember AND give a shit; then organization AND money AND votes have to follow; with enough energy to last through multiple election cycles; all while working within a hostile party structure or against a media framework bent on its destruction –

and would face so many practical factors which could disrupt it

– programs are politically bipartisan, secret, have corporate backing, acquired institutional inertia, have support of national security and law enforcement apparatus, and have been firmly entrenched by multiple administrations and bureaucratic cohorts –

that it’s pretty much a gossamer dream to imagine in flights of fancy.

Compare it to the TSA and security theatre, which is: public, affects people in their day-to-day lives, frustrates the affluent, and knowledge of its incompetence is common enough to be the regular feature of newscasts out in the sticks. And yet it keeps growing, year after year, verily without end.


Mike Otsuka 07.14.13 at 9:12 am

I think there’s method to their madness: they’ve programmed comical mismatches into their algorithm to make people blog about the ineptitude, so that readers will start paying closer attention to their ads. I used to filter out the ads. But now I’m scrutinizing them to try to figure out why I’ve been targeted/mistargeted.


Katherine 07.14.13 at 10:14 am

A few months ago I made a change to my personal details on FB, but adjusted my privacy settings so that I could control who saw it and when. That level of privacy was important to me at that stage. And for months – and still! – I am served up with ads related to that. It disturbs me that a very private and personal situation, where I am trying to retain some control, as difficult and naive as that may be, immediately made it to the ad algorithms.


Alex 07.14.13 at 10:58 am

If there’s a mechanism by which Snowden will affect anything, it’s probably through disrupting the inter-allied politics of signals intelligence. If I was he, I should keep dropping as many documents on Germany, France, and perhaps Australia as possible.


Eszter Hargittai 07.14.13 at 3:24 pm

Manoal – My current favorite cookies are Mexican wedding and homemade chocolate chip. I do sometimes eat these while at my computer and I do get crumbs into the keyboard on occasion so any suggestions on how to clean those would be appreciated. (Oh, you mean Internet cookies? Yes, thank you, during the 15+ years that I have been studying various aspects of the Internet and the past decade of teaching about it has given me opportunity to learn what they are and what one can do about them.)

To clarify, I am not looking to hide from ads and I don’t even mind some level of personalization. I just think that certain types cross into creepy and other examples show how clueless parts of the field remain after all this time, which, in some ways, is actually encouraging (but in other ways not at all).

Chaz – I (and I suspect many others) access the Web from multiple machines at multiple locations so the IP addy issue won’t necessarily help. Also, I didn’t hear too many people listing examples of having purchased things and then being told to purchase more (although Krippendorf’s example is a good one). I think the weird is more when you are told 100 times to keep looking at something you already decided 99 times was not of interest.

Mike – Good one! Should I have disclosed the sponsor of this post? Just kidding!:)

Katherine – Do you mean the info you added to your profile? Ugh! I purposefully don’t fill out some details on FB. I didn’t have my gender on there for the longest time (perhaps still) and I loved watching how convoluted the language was as they had to use “they” instead of he or she in certain references.

WT – Good points about the NSA.:(


Katherine 07.14.13 at 7:24 pm

Easter – yep, the Basic Information/About section. I had, as I said, very deliberately set it to be seen only by me. And the advertisers, apparently.


Katherine 07.14.13 at 7:25 pm

Darn autocorrect – Eszter I meant of course.


bianca steele 07.14.13 at 7:33 pm

I’ve had suggestions for things I’ve actually already bought along with the things I considered and decided against, even department store ads with three slots for pictures all showing the exact same item, so I think the algorithms are probably actually even stupider than what we’re attributing to them.


bianca steele 07.14.13 at 7:34 pm

Also the perceived “stalking” aspect is probably an artifact of not doing enough online shopping!


ajay 07.15.13 at 10:32 am

Barry’s Karen Carpenter/bariatric example is pretty good.

For the last few weeks Facebook has been pushing an ad for England’s leading solicitors’ firm specialising in high-net-worth divorces at me. I am not unhappily married; I’m not even married; and I’m certainly not high net worth. (I am in England though! Well done guys!)
And I was very cheered when I had to sit through twenty seconds of advertising from L-V on proper financial planning for my retirement before YouTube would play me “Don’t Fear The Reaper”.


Bloix 07.15.13 at 4:41 pm

Another observation:

I was thinking about buying a new bicycle, and after doing some searches I got ads for the bikes I’d been looking at.

A few months later, my wife decided she needed a new cycling helmet, so she looked at some options, and now we’re getting ads for helmets.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to follow up searches for bikes with ads for helmets? And to follow up searches for helmets with ads for lights, panniers, gloves?


House Carl 07.16.13 at 5:10 pm

Yes, targeted ads like this aren’t that “smart”. But I hope they stay that way.

Not too long ago I bought a rain jacket online, and after that started seeing ads for rain jackets all over Google’s platform. And then maybe a month later I bought a pair of shoes online and the same thing happened. If the system isn’t even smart enough to know that I’ve already purchased an item and am no longer shopping for it then it has a long way to go before it can really serve up my preferences.

The only thing is I put a premium on my privacy and prefer it this way, and if Google ever learned more about me then I would ever want it to I’d stop using their products entirely.


mpowell 07.16.13 at 8:19 pm

For pretty much any non-brand campaign ads the cost of the ads is justified by the generated revenue on net. And the kind of ad you are complaining about is the most effective ad campaign a major retailer can run. If somebody visits their site and looks at an item but doesn’t buy it, they want to show that same item to the same person as often as they can over the next 12 months. On average, it works great. Of course, they might be wasting their money targetting you.


Meredith 07.17.13 at 4:56 am

I am reminded of signal corps/sign theory 101: you want to disrupt the enemy’s communications? Overwhelm their communication networks. (Aka, static.) All those ads related to some search or other I made for one reason or another, popping up in the margins of a site I am visiting: static, and static that I ignore pretty easily (unless I am in a mood to be distracted — maybe that’s all they’re counting on, of course — the occasional success in distracting me).
Are the NSA and similar snoops any smarter about all this? Maybe. (A part of me hopes they are — I would have preferred that a number of my family and friends not be nearly blown up in Boston. Not to mention my preferences about the people who actually were.) But I am reminded also of reading years ago about the resources spent in the Soviet Union and East Germany tracking people, their activities, words…. Sort of like Russell’s sausage machine.
And now I am remembering my musician uncle who found himself a Marine lieutenant at Peleliu in WWII. His communications unit spent 48 very bloody and brutal hours or so making their way 60 yards to the left because they’d landed slightly in the wrong place. We all fight on.

Comments on this entry are closed.