I Messed Up All of My Ads

Down the rabbit hole of targeted marketing

A Fascinating Article

Years ago, I read a fascinating article in Forbes about Target’s advertising strategies. Target could analyze a customer’s purchases — say, multivitamins and unscented lotion — and predict if that particular shopper was pregnant.

They were so accurate that women were weirded out by getting mailers with coupons for baby stuff, before they had told anyone about the pregnancy. So Target mixed up the advertising, putting an ad for baby items with, say, a lawn mower. They took care to spy on women, but not let on how much they knew.

Companies can track your purchases based on the credit or debit card you use, so unless you make all your purchases in cash, they’re following you. This is why, for example, you’ll buy a T-shirt in a store, swipe your credit card, and then a few months later get a catalog from the company mailed to you.

I think about that sometimes when I see how specific online advertising has become. I click on a site and look at, say, a T-shirt. Then it follows me around the Internet.

Watching. Waiting.

“Remember that T-shirt you clicked on a week ago? Here it is, the T-shirt, remember? It’s red. But it also comes in blue. You put it in your cart but realized shipping was $9 and closed the page? Remember?!”

Then I’ll see an ad for, say, dog toys. And I think, “Ha! Silly advertisers, I don’t have a dog!” Is that ad a mistake, or are they just trying to throw me off?

I’m betting a mistake. For a recent school project, I looked up maybe fifty different dermatological diseases, medications, and biology concepts. My project was done over the course of a weekend, but my targeted ads immediately changed. I started seeing:

  • ads for Medicare plans
  • ads for medical school
  • ads for dermatology-related medications

No matter where I went on the Internet, they were there. There was nowhere to click, “I’m done with my research. For real, you can stop now. I don’t need to see any more ads for plaque psoriasis treatment.”