Useful Vs. Creepy: The Jury Is Still Out

Nearly everyone attached to a microphone at a conclave having anything whatsoever to do with advertising feels somehow compelled to say at some point that their mission in life is to "serve the right ad, to the right person, at the right time." It has become the industry mantra for the 21st century, with the underlying assumption being that if you do that, people will buy your product. But to actually do this right requires a considerable amount of data collection that leaves audiences feeling a little queasy.

An assistant professor of integrated marketing communications at Ithaca studied reactions to targeted Internet ads and found most users thought they were "really creepy." Some in the study felt targeted ads were too personal because they used data that consumers had not agreed to provide, such as search and browsing history. "You think you're discreetly buying condoms online," said one participant, "then you're on Facebook and there's an ad for condoms, and people are like, 'Hey dude, what have you been looking for online?'"

Amusingly, the professor conceded that targeted ads have a "direct, positive effect" on intent to purchase — presumably after  you factor in the “creepiness,” which has the negative effect of up to a 5% reduction in intent to purchase the advertised product.

Like you, I have mixed feelings about targeted, personalized ads. I find the ones for hotels or restaurants in London that show up right after I have booked my flight to the U.K. to be pretty cool and helpful. On the other hand, when that pair of shoes you looked at and decided not to buy follows you around the Internet for a few weeks afterward, you think, "Okay, enough already."
While in the proper environment, say when I am ON an ecommerce site, I am happy to get recommendations based on prior browsing, search or purchase behavior. But once I leave, to be retargeted by those same recommendations is more tiresome than helpful.

Anyone who has seen them knows the profiles of "who you are" based on online data collection have historically been wildly off base, often getting basics like gender and location dead wrong. But as data collection has gotten far more sophisticated (much of it going on without consumer knowledge — much less permission), profiles have improved. Much of what I see is at least remotely appropriate for my demographic (if not for me).  

Still, as more and more of our lives — like banking transactions and medical records — move online or to mobile, there’s little doubt that consumers burned by inappropriate data deployment will decide that the only complete protection is ad blockers and other technology that keep legitimate ad companies from executing on their promises to brands.

The privacy wonks are more than happy to lump all data collection together, having decided that online and mobile tracking is at its roots bad for humanity. They rightfully claim that all of online is subject to hackers (so, too, are in-store credit-card transactions, as we have all experienced at one time or another) and that even if there is some legitimacy to the free-content-thanks-to-ads paradigm, the public remaining willfully unaware of what is "good" data collection and what is "bad" is an almost irresolvable problem.

The industry has stepped up its efforts to try and explain data collection and provide op-out opportunities, but I suspect that, as the ability to "serve the right ad, to the right person, at the right time" gets ever closer, the rain will fall on the just and the unjust alike.

4 comments about "Useful Vs. Creepy: The Jury Is Still Out".
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  1. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, May 29, 2015 at 9:59 a.m.

    Why is it that no one is ever offended by the current dystopia of untargeted ads and monumental waste, but has to become freaked out about The Dark Targeted Future?

    Imagine, for just a moment, a world where an automotive manufacturer only send ads to the people who are right for the product, and you get to miss out on, say, a billion truck ads. Now, imagine what that might do to the sticker price for people who actually buy trucks, Then, multiply that out through all of the different consumer categories.

    Think about a world in which you don't only see the right ad at the right time, but a dramatic decrease in seeing the wrong ads all of the rest of the time. Isn't that a nicer world, for everyone but companies that are benefitting from the current waste? And why is blocking that something to be encouraged?

  2. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, May 29, 2015 at 10:34 a.m.

  3. Steve Baldwin from Didit, May 29, 2015 at 11:25 a.m.

    I always try to visit ebay at least once a day and look for something that I'm never going to buy (e.g. a $30,000 analog audio console that's completely useless today). Doing this will prompt an image of this same console to follow me around all day. Sometimes I actually break into laughter when the image faithfully appears. Be creative people -- you can screw up all this profiling with just a random visit or two to a site you don't belong at or by viewing a product that screws up the whole elaborate marketing bucket you've been put in at such great cost and effort.

  4. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, May 29, 2015 at 1:10 p.m.

    Tracking of mobile devices and collection of volumes of data regarding the device is Creepy and drains the battery life (background usage)

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