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What I dislike about targetted advertising

The Sun had a story recently (and I presume many other organs did too) about a pizza advert in Norway which changed its message according to who was looking at it. It spied on those who spied it, you might say. But the advert broke down, very visibly, and revealed its inner secrets to passers-by, many of whom immediately told the world about this advert via all those social media that media outlets like The Sun (and Samizdata come to that) now have to coexist with.

What I personally find depressing about adverts targetted at me personally is that I stop learning things. I already know what I like. What I get – or used to get – from adverts is a sense of what the world in general likes, or at least what someone willing to back his guess with money guesses it might like.

Advertising on television, for example, is currently telling me that I am not the only one suffering from itchy eyes, a bunged up nose, and such like. Hay fever symptoms, in other words. My television didn’t push all these adverts at me personally, because it heard me sniffing or saw the shape and colour of my face change or saw me putting my hands in my eyes, the way a cat does when it’s washing its face. All the people watching the TV show I was watching got the same adverts. I found this reassuring. I am not uniquely ill. I am somewhat ill, in the same way that thousands of others are somewhat ill. Nothing to worry about. It will soon pass.

TV adverts, as of now, tell me about who else is watching what I am watching. Adverts for baths with doors on them, for chair lifts, for over-fifties health insurance, tell me who we all are, watching this show. Lots of old woman adverts also tell me when I have wandered into that audience. Other shows have adverts attached for fizzy drinks, electronic gadgets, or short-term loans or on-line gambling dens. I find all this interesting and informative. It tells me not about me, but about the world I am living in. Often what I learn is rather depressing (as with those short-term loans and the gambling dens), but I do learn.

Advertising that is aimed directly at me annoys me not by threatening to know everything about me, and rat on me to the government or the CIA or whoever. Although I can well imagine that becoming a problem for me, it is not my problem with this stuff right now. No, what I object to now is the thought that I may soon be wandering through life in a cocoon that is constantly being rearranged in order to bounce back at me nothing but my own tastes and prejudices. It’s as if I will soon be walking around in my personal private Potemkin Village.

I already know what sort of stuff I like. The constant nagging from the www the buy whatever I was looking at yesterday is depressing to me, not because it spies on me, but because it isolates me. Not because others learn about me, but because I stop learning about others.

The fact that this Norwegian pizza advert was switched off once word got around about it tells me that I am not the only one in the world who finds this kind of targetted advertising in public places rather creepy and off-putting. But what exactly is it that people object to about such advertising? What you have just read is my little contribution to this latter discussion.

LATER: I originally wrote this piece with my personal blog in mind as its destination, and the mind-set of that blog is different from the mind-set that prevails here. Since this is Samizdata, let me clarify that the above is not a plea for the government regulation of targetted advertising, merely an expression by me of my dislike of it. There are plenty of other products and services which I also dislike, which I also don’t think the government should forbid or interfere with.

30 comments to What I dislike about targetted advertising

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    I saw something like this on ‘Minority report’. Everywhere tom’s character goes, his retinas are scanned, and the information is taylored to his tastes.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Some good news about the future is that light-weight solar panels are here! On the news, printable solar cells! Not long now before we can have hot-air dirigibles! They’ll be solar-powered, with the cells on top of the dirigible, and power stored in lightweight batteries, perhaps improved lithium batteries. The advantage of using hot air is that air is easily replaceable, so the solar-powered airships would not be tied down to airports, but could go wherever they liked (if the weather is favourable!).

  • bobby b

    Because of aimed advertising, my recent internet browsing has been accompanied by ads featuring motorcycles, guns, and mead-making equipment.

    A few days ago, I stopped at my parents’ house, and was watching television with my prim 85-year-old mother. Apparently because of the usual demographic of viewers for the show we were watching, we had to sit in excruciating awkwardness through a commercial for a prescription drug treating erectile dysfunction followed by one for some strange OTC pill that makes men more generally “virile” during sex. (Viagra versus fake Viagra, I guess.)

    Right then I discovered that I love the new personalized marketing.

  • “TV adverts, as of now, tell me about who else is watching what I am watching.”

    That’s already no longer the case. Some of the Sky channels now have something they call “adsmart”, which means the adverts you see can be tailored similarly to how it’s already done on the internet. So you and I could be watching the same programme—a football match, say—and see different ads during the breaks.

  • Mr Ed

    When the advertising industry sends you adverts that you like, as opposed to adverts for products that it thinks that you would like (or, more accurately, that it can sell to advertisers as what you are likely to like), will it not have disappeared up its own fundament?

  • Runcie Balspune

    @Brian, in the interests of making an argument, I’d say that you are being a tad hypocritical here, you have talked in the past about the “right to discriminate” and this is really just someone else, albeit a company, “discriminating” against you.

    In fact there is a larger argument over in liberal la-la-land about Facebook et al doing this, even at a racial/ethnic level, and allowed to get away with it because discrimination is precisely what targeted advertising is.

  • Alisa

    Most of us either don’t like adverts at all, or don’t like the way they are targeted and designed, or both. The reason that we have adverts in the first place is that we don’t want to directly pay for the service and content on that particular medium (obviously, street banners and similar are a different matter). Specifically regarding FB and other social media, if their business model was based on a premium service, that whole universe would look rather different, I think. Would users buy into it is a different question.

  • PeterT

    Right then I discovered that I love the new personalized marketing.

    You wouldn’t if the Viagra advert still came up.

  • PeterT

    I am not sure the value of knowing what society at large was interested in (or thought to be interested in, or was being encouraged to be interested in) was ever that high compared to the cost of having to sit through it.

    What I find interesting though is that the adverts may be suitable for me, but are not necessarily suitable in the context of what I am surfing (for, on?)at the moment. This is an issue when sharing computers. For example, my daughters were watching a cartoon on youtube and a scary advert for the new horror-sci-fi movie Alien-Covenant came up.

  • bloke in spain

    It seems highly counterproductive, to me. If you’re only marketing the things you think they want, based on those people’s previous preferences, you’re missing that preferences change. Part of that being people’s requirements change. A single guy’s are likely to change radically if he acquires a girlfriend. Down goes the consumption of internet pr0n. A startling new interest is discovered in gift boxed perfumeries. And being exposed to marketing for items never before encountered may kindle an interest in them. A move away from gift boxed perfumeries towards sex toys & kinky lingerie.

  • Sam Duncan

    That Norwegian billboard looks awfully home-made. I’d guess it’s only experimental. But that’s not to say that this kind of thing isn’t just around the corner.

    What really irks me about targetted advertising is that it’s always wrong. I have never, literally never, seen an internet advert and thought, “Ah! That’s just what I was looking for!”. And that includes closed platforms like Amazon and Steam. I’m convinced Amazon thinks I’m a woman under 35 from the junk it shows me.

    “Listen, you machine,” he said, “you claim you can synthesize any drink in existence, so why do you keep giving me the same undrinkable stuff?”

    “Nutrition and pleasurable sense data,” burbled the machine. “Share and enjoy.”

    “It tastes filthy!”

    “If you have enjoyed the experience of this drink,” continued the machine, “why not share it with your friends?”

    “Because,” said Arthur tartly, “I want to keep them. Will you try to comprehend what I’m telling you? That drink …”

    “That drink,” said the machine sweetly, “was individually tailored to meet your personal requirements for nutrition and pleasure.”

    “Ah,” said Arthur, “So I’m a masochist on a diet, am I?”

    “Share and enjoy.”

    “Oh, shut up.”

  • Watchman

    Targetted advertising seems to me to be an attempt to prove that the models advertisers build of their customers are far too cheap and lacking in detail to effectively create a properly targetted advertising. Even if we have the technology to do this well, the human element (here the models fed into the machines, and the range of adverts available) are generally not able to produce material of interest to me. The only partial exception is Amazon’s recommends for books, and that’s because I have identifiable genre tastes so in this case (for one sort of disposable product (pulp science fiction basically)) I am easily modelled.

  • I hardly ever get advertising while surfing the Web. I have Privacy Badger to block the tracking cookies, and use NoScript to avoid advertising sites. (Doubleclick is always the first to show up.) I turned off AdBlock – it was blocking too much – and I haven’t seen that much.

    Of course, first you have to train NoScript.

  • Laird

    To be contrary, I rather enjoy the targeted advertising on websites because it frequently makes me ask “whatever made them think I would be interested in that?” It can be amusing, too. An example: The other day, on another thread here, several people made reference to “pasties” in a context I found curious. So I looked it up, and it turns out that in certain remote parts of the United States the term refers to some sort of meat pie, not (as I had understood it) to a certain wardrobe item favored by strippers. I have since been treated to a series of very interesting ads.

    Ads on TV are another story, as of necessity they reach a large audience so they can’t be too targeted. But as a general rule I think Brian is right: if it’s an ad for tubs with doors it’s a show aimed at elderly women; ads for toilet tissue and cleansers are on the Hallmark Channel, and Viagra in on sports and science fiction programs. But I still can’t figure out why (after 10 at night) the Tennis Channel broadcasts endless ads for phone sex. I guess somebody buys the service (they clearly spend a lot of money on those ads), but why tennis fans in particular? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • Julie near Chicago

    “Certain remote parts of the U.S.” like Chicago, you mean? Laird! And you a sophisticated, worldly gentleman! or so I thought. Sigh … and here you were wasting all that time in the XXX establishments of the Tenderloin instead of attending to matters of the greatest geo-gustatory importance! Pasties are, after all, natives of Cornwall. Not that you can’t find the same idea pretty much world-wide.

    Next thing, you’ll be talking about the British “emulsified high-fat offal tube.” ;>))!!

  • Laird:

    Perhaps those phone sex ads might be in the “local avails”?

    For our non-American readers, in the old days of broadcast-only, network shows, which ran on stations across the country, would have some ad breaks be national breaks, in that the network sold the time to national broadcasters, and some be local, in that the individual stations would sell the time to various local businesses. Cable providers were originally local monopolies, and with channels being on systems across the country, the local cable operators needed to make some money by running ads, so you’d get even lower-budget local ads in the ad breaks reserved for the local providers. This is also why there’s always been a conflict over cable operators carrying the over-the-air channels; the cable companies can’t sell any of the ad time.

    Eventually, satellite services came along. They sold the “local” time themselves, but often times those ads were for really schlocky infomercial-type crap, mixed with a lot of promos for the service. (I’ve got DirecTV, so I’m used to the “local” ads not being local. In the past few years they’ve tried to insert some “local” ads based on ZIP code.)

    Long story short, I watch Tennis Channel fairly regularly, and I don’t think I’ve seen any phone-sex ads. The channel-owned ad time has a lot of Tennis Express and other obviously tennis-related stuff, while the “local” for me is the usual DirecTV stuff.

  • bobby b

    ““Certain remote parts of the U.S.” like Chicago, you mean.”

    Like the entire Midwest. Sheesh. Who hasn’t had pasties?

    (I suppose I shouldn’t make fun. I was 55 before I ever saw grits.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Sheesh indeed, there we go again with the weird results my eyes so often report to my brain.

    “I was 55 before I ever saw grits.”

    And the old brain, obviously having been too Near Chicago for far too long a time, received this message:

    “I was 55 before I ever saw girls.”


  • Laird

    “Certain remote parts of the U.S.”

    Sorry, I should have written “certain cold and remote parts of the U.S.” Better?

  • Julie near Chicago

    You have corrected your error and returned Chicago to its rightful place as a central hub of the Miasmatic Flow of Radioactive Vectors and therefore far from “remote,” except perhaps to those destined to live in the backwaters of the Southeastern Seaboard. The Great Frog announces that this also counts as Atonement.

    He says Enough with the talk, siddown and have a real Cornish Pasty — the kind with Swedes = turnips = rutabagas in it (along with beef, potatoes, and a little onion). Failing that, I suppose you could have a knish. :>))

  • Richard Thomas

    Sadly not available here in Tennessee (you can have them shipped but at a terrible cost). I was back in England a couple of months ago so was able to satisfy myself there.

  • Richard Thomas

    Laird, I believe oftentimes, the content of advertisements is based off low interest in the show meaning low interest from advertisers and hence low cost for the spots which tends to attract that kind of content.

    I base this on many years of watching some very odd stuff in the wee hours in the UK (Anyone remember Night Network?)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Richard, recipes for them on abound on the Internet. I would send you the recipe I use, except that (a) I can’t find it — I looked — and (b) it’s inauthentic, using hamburger and omitting rutabagas/”turnips”/Swedes. There’s beer in it, too, but I forget whether in the pastry or the filling.

    Rutabagas. Growing up on the farm, I learned early to detest gardening. We had a HUGE garden, necessary to feed us all (and right through to the next harvest season), in the ’50s. Grew all sorts of exotic provender, such as kohlrabi, kale — a staple chez nous — and rutabagas. Mother like to slice the latter thinnishly, and serve the slices raw along with those of onion, tomato, cucumber, and leaf-lettuce, to put on the large Dagwood sandwiches we often had for supper and Sunday dinner in the summer.

    EDIT. “And your point is –?” That the experience of working that garden made me swear off gardening for life (besides, I can kill anything), and I do like rutabagas.

  • Laird

    Julie, I’ve been to Chicago. It doesn’t get any more remote (or cold) than that!

    Incidentally, although similar, turnips and rutabagas are not the same thing. Anyway, I’m not particularly fond of either. The only time I eat neeps is at a Robert Burns supper.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh yes it does, Laird, lots colder! Ask bobby, he’ll tell you. You Southern boys’re just spoiled, that’s all. :>)) Except I’ll grant that walking across the bridge over the Chicago River from Randolph Street to, say, the Wrigley Building, in January or February, it does get a bit chilly. It’s not the actual air temp, so much as the fact that the wind makes it feel like about 200˚F Below.

    But the word remote applies to places like McMurdo Station, or Lake Titicaca. Good grief, Chicago’s just a stone’s throw from Charleston or Savannah. Piffle, a pleasant 4-day drive (I have to stop every half-hour to pit and refill the water or Pepsi). And we’re only 800 mi. from New Orleans. 400 from Minneapolis, which is both colder (in winter) and remoter, although not as remote as K2.


    About the rootish nomenclature: clearly my shorthand didn’t work.

    So: Lots of the pasties recipes online call for “Swedes.” Now to some Americans, “Swedes” are regular white potatoes (“Idahoes,” spuds) (and why are they called “russets,” given that they’re brown outside, not red?) — not sweet-potatoes nor yams. But in Scotland or Cornwall or Wales or all three (I forget what the note in the recipe said exactly), “Swedes” means “turnips.” So pasties should have turnips in them? Well, yes, but look at the recipes for pasties that call for “turnips,” and you find the explanation that whereas the aforementioned folks call said “turnips” “Swedes,” “turnip” is the name of the vegetable in England, but “rutabaga” is its American name.

    Now whether all that is true deponent sayeth not, but that is what I read in British sources during my brief sojourn in Cornish-Pasty-Recipe-Land. Sorry, no links to back me up, but I used Ixquick to search for “Cornish pasties” .


    It’s very important* for you to understand that as it happens I like cooked turnips (American name) if they’re well-buttered, but then I like anything, almost, if it’s well-buttered. (Not gefilte fish or lutefisk, though I will eat them if good manner requires it. Or I would if I were literally starving — gefilte fish, anyway.) As to rutabagas, I suppose we had them cooked in the winter. We certainly had turnips and parsnips. I really only remember them raw, on sandwiches, where they were fine, filling in the corners of a formerly-empty stomach without doing a great deal one way or the other to the flavor. Except for adding a nice, cool, fresh, crisp crunch of course.

    *Why is it “very important”? –I don’t know. It just is. *stubborn expression* *g*

    Speaking of Low Country dialect, “neeps”? Now that’s a new one on me! Does that refer to the entire family of roots, or only the ‘nip ones?

    Also, explain please this “Robert Burns supper,” John Anderson, my Jo. Is it for a specific occasion, like Christmas Dinner, or is it a style of feast, like a Pig Roast or a clam bake?

  • Laird

    Julie, our Scottish friends on this site could tell you more about a Burns Supper than I, but it’s an annual celebration of his life (death, actually) and an excuse to drink scotch and eat haggis (not that one truly needs an excuse for either, but sometimes it helps with explaining to the wife). And “neeps” isn’t low country dialect, it’s the Scottish word for turnips. (And by the way, the Scots call meat pies “bridies“.)

    As to “remote”, since I am the center of the universe (and you can’t prove otherwise!) it’s entirely relative to my location.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, thank you for the info and also the links, which I will read. I haven’t had haggis, unfortunately, but blood pudding is certainly not to be sneered at. (Unfortunately it’s REALLY hard to find a British-food restaurant in this remote corner of the world. Strange, as there’s a huge Irish presence, including — of course — in Chicago.) Also, moving across the Channel a ways, blood-and-tongue sausage is very very good, when properly spiced and not too dry, which seems to be rarely. (It’s hard to find, but not impossible. I think Usinger’s makes it, for one, but I was not impressed. However, their “Black Hessian” smoked liver sausage is just what the doc ordered!)

    Hah! So Bridey Murphy was a meat pie? Well, at least not a Meathead, thank goodness. Could that explain Reincarnation? You come back as a meat pie?

    I will be happy to attend the festive board at the next Burns Supper. Just let me know when. You needn’t pick me up at the airport, I’ll be driving. (Did you see that there comma splice? 😉 )

    As to your final, philosophical remark: I do see your point. I must admit you are quite right. :>))

    [To quote Mr. Stevens: “Your world is you. I am my world.” So the Universe is duocentric, since I too am the (not “a”) Center of the Universe.]

    Now, I will go check out the recipe for bridies.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, I hope you see this. Want to thank you for the Bridies link.

    The recipe looks really yummy (and like the writer, I want to try lamb), and the video on “flaky pastry” is a great help. (Only why in the name of wonder does he use margarine ??? Sacrilege! –Not that I’m actually afraid of it. I just think Butter is so much Better, and if there’s a difference healthwise the smart money is on Butter.) 😉

  • The problem for us ad men (and apologies if someone has already pointed this out) is that marketing efficiency matters enormously to us. It’s not just that “I know half my advertising works, I just don’t know which half” line that’s been attributed to everyone from Lord Leverhulme to Maurice Saatchi but the simple fact that I’m wasting my money if I promote my lawnmower to someone on the 23rd floor of a tower block.

    Right from the birth of mass media advertising (coinciding primarility with the genesis of TV but noticieable before that), we ran tests by regions, time, length, type of programmes…etc. so as to discover where our advertising was most effective. For much of this time, except for us folk doing mail order or fundraising, advertising effectiveness used proxy measures like ‘reach’, ‘impact’ and ‘recall’ to establish whether the millions we were spraying a national media was actually achieving anything.

    Sometime in the 1980s this began to change – Richard Webber’s work on geodemographics was commercialised, for example – and the data we used was actual consumer behaviour rather than proxies for consumer behaviour. In truth little has changed since the first half of the 1990s in analytical terms except there’s a load more data and faster analysis tools.

    You may like variety but us ad men don’t – or at least the direct marketing sort of ad man like me. We want to sent stuff to people who want to hear what we’re on about – lawnmowers to people with lots of grass to cut, curtains to folk with windows, and so on. And, as with everything else, marketing efficiency reduces business costs and helps make stuff cheaper for everyone.

    Sorry to disappoint 😀