Mad Robots, Farcical Digital Experience: Retargeting Runs Amuck

One of the strange byproducts of a digital media world is that there no longer overseers of the experience. In the past ages of constrained supply, a limited (arguably oligarchic) set of media owners were also caretakers of the media environment. TV networks and even the entire TV ecosystem always carefully monitored how  viewers experienced the shows, maintaining flow, interruptions and overall quality of both media and advertising.

And although in print each publisher creates discrete experiences that can be likened to Web sites, we consume these two versions very differently.  One of the shocks print brands are still getting over is how their sites garner a fraction of the monthly time spent with print product.

But that is precisely the point of online media: it is characterized by heightened user control and the assembly of our own experiences across countless sites and styles. No one can control it but us and the choices we make. Sort of. And of course the one unifying factor here, the browser, is still a relic of the platform’s engineering roots. After all these years, browsers remain workmanlike tool sets that discourage rather than encourage immersion in the media. Imagine if we saw the sprockets on a movie, or if the channel changer were ever present on screen? Part of the art of making media is not letting it feel that it was made.

And surely no one cares a whit about the cumulative consumer experience of programmatic advertising, as users move from site to site, gathering ever more cookies and becoming subject to competitive bidding.

I raise these points because in recent weeks the level, timing and relentlessness of retargeting has actually started changing my experience on the Web. Formerly, retargeting was a curiosity I would see from time to time when a site I recently visited started popping up here and there in other travels. It led to occasional odd blends of entertainment content and b2b advertising. But on the whole it was innocuous.

With the rise of exchanges and trading desks, however, those retargeting efforts are no longer occasional. They are relentless and ubiquitous. With so many online advertising entities plugging into one another’s systems, it seems that almost all inventory is visible to many of the players at any given time.  Any retargeter can find you pretty much anywhere now.

I understand that advertisers, exchanges and trading desks are just trying to find me with their message. They have no compelling interest in or ability to control the cumulative experience of being retargeted. So in the interest of giving some voice to media experience, let me tell you what it feels like on the receiving end.

Retargeting is now starting to feel like a window onto my own browsing history. It is not occasional but ever-present. These exchanges are so efficient that the impact of me going to a site can be immediate on the next ad I see elsewhere. This starts to feel like an echo, like mouse trails of recent behavior.

When the process is surfaced so blatantly and insistently, it doesn’t feel like being followed by a creep so much as comical in its simple-minded automation. Slapstick is never experienced as malevolent. Go to a site, get hit by an ad for it three seconds later, and then again, again and again. I am more amused by this than creeped out. I feel as if a mad robot butler is following me around, insisting on serving me. 

Then there's the increasing discordance between the ad delivered and the content around it. Because of what I do, I am forever visiting agency and ad tech sites. And within a few clicks, these businesses have become my constant companion wherever I go. Visit one of my beloved comics sites, and there amidst the banners for comic strip reprints is an ad for an exchange, a mobile agency or a metrics company.  I am sure trading desks have loads of stats to show that it doesn’t matter where I encounter your ads (Lord, I hope you do). The impact is discordant and feels to this user as somehow broken. And I say this as one of the minority of browsers who understand what is going on in the background.

Add to all of this advertising excess and farce the fact that frequency capping appears moot at this point. I have seen some of these retargeted ads 20 or more times at this point. They have evolved from unwelcome house guest to wallpaper to something like a browser plug-in.

Because programmatic advertising is working on a per-browser basis, assembled by hundreds of different entities, no two experiences will be alike. Mine may be especially bad because of the kinds of sites I frequent and the catholicity of my browsing. Maybe other people aren’t experiencing the same sad comedy I am: the most technologically advanced and personalized media platform ever built is actually experienced as a media that feels little better than a NASCAR racer or a frowsy weekly circular.

With all of the technological prowess that went into building this automated ecosystem, why shouldn’t someone endeavor to throw the technology at the experience? Why not browsers that do frequency capping for us, that let us click on a retargeting onslaught and say, “no more of these particular ads, please”? I shouldn’t have to deal with blanket opt-outs or micromanaging ad networks even I never heard of. Why not quantify levels of site ugliness our browsers will and will not tolerate?

Traditionally, media aspired to create seamless experiences in its channels. The cumulative effect of digital media’s dazzling technologies of targeting and tracking is instead a staggeringly inelegant experience, where the machinery is clearly visible, and more laughable than admirable.

The next time we ask why big branding dollars haven’t gushed online the way everyone expected, we might want to open our browser. The answer may be in front of our eye all day. We just don’t see it anymore. 

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2 comments about "Mad Robots, Farcical Digital Experience: Retargeting Runs Amuck".
  1. Greg Alvarez from iMeil , July 22, 2014 at 8:50 p.m.
    Have faced the same, since I use to visit the same sites you do... with the addition of all those ad-based WordPress blogs related to CSS, HTML5, design. Javascript, ASP, PHP, JQuery et al. The answer, at least for me, was to install the Firefox add-on called Ghostery (combined with AdBlock, you certainly will see the difference when your objective is to find information, rather than to see ads). Cheers!
  2. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein , July 23, 2014 at 1:36 p.m.
    Can anyone out there imagine an online branding model that uses no ads at all? I can, and I'll be happy to spill the beans to anyone who contacts me via the MediaPost Community.