For so many of us Valentine's Day is one of the most special and exciting days of the year. It is not only a reason to spend time together with your loved one, but also a great occasion to make presents, sweet surprises and say important, sometimes even life-changing words. We put so much of ourtime, effort and emotions into preparations for this day, it can be absolutely heartbreaking if something ruins it.
Now imagine that this "something" is not some unstoppable force or an unlikely turn of events, but a regular, stupid, boring online ad. The following stories are about people just like you and me, who had what could become one of the most memorable and happy days of their lives completely spoiled by targeted advertising.
Oh my God, is it Xbox?
This story is about Nora Crotty, a woman who struggled to find a Christmas gift for her parents. We all know this disgusting feeling when you can't come up with a good present and have to resort to something generic as a last second substitute. On the contrary, there are very few things that can compare to making a perfectly fitting gift for someone you love. Luckily for Nora, she got an awesome idea. Knowing her parents were extremely proud of their respective alma maters, she googled and then purchased for each of them a vintage-inspired college sweater.
Imagine her disappointment when her mom used Nora's laptop to log into her Facebook and then "proceeded to tell me about ‘these neat UVM sweaters’ she kept seeing on the sides of her feed, and 'wouldn’t that be a great idea for dad?!'" The targeted ad ruined what could have become a cherished memory for the entire family.
There is no shortage on similar stories on the Internet. Sure, you can delve into Google account settings, delete search history, etcetera, etcetera, but should it really be the thing that occupies your attention when you are pumped up about making a surprise for a beloved person?
If you are married, you are a lucky one: you had a chance to either propose or be proposed to. If you are not married, you are even more lucky, you just don't know it yet — because you have this magical moment ahead of you. It is hard to describe, but it is one of those rare experiences that you can only share with someone once in a lifetime, and it sticks with you forever. Well, at least it was like that for me.
Jo Piazza was at this stage in her relationship when she kind of suspected her boyfriend was going to propose, but she didn't know when and how. And she very well enjoyed that state of things, living in the mix of anticipation and pleasant ignorance. Then, as it often goes in this type of stories, her laptop started to act up, so without any second thought she grabbed the boyfriend's one to look up whatever. In her own words, "This was the most aggressive retargeting campaign I’ve ever seen. Ads just kept coming, each one more aggressive than the next, popping up on both Google and Facebook." You can guess what type of ads they were: engagement ring ads. Naturally, Jo tried to ignore this new knowledge, but ultimately it slipped through in a conversation.
Of course, the boyfriend proposed anyway, and the ring was beautiful, but it wasn't the same.
Here I actually have two quite different stories for you. The first one is not related directly to online ads, but is very representative in terms of targeting. The huge US retailer with a very fitting name — Target — assignes every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address. Then Target looks at the history of purchases, searching for patterns that would indicate that the customer is expecting a baby. Such customers very soon start receiving coupons for all kinds of baby items. This sometimes leads to ridiculous situations:
An angered man appeared at a Target store, asking for a manager. He was infuriated that his high school daughter got a bunch of coupons for baby clothes and cribs. The manager apologized, and even called a few days later to apologize again, only to find out that Target, in fact, got the news ahead of the soon-to-be grandfather. This could even be seen as a funny story if it wasn't that creepy, considering the very intimate nature of the matter in question.
But what does it take to escape the all-seeing eye of the big companies and hide your pregnancy? When Princeton sociology professor Janet Vertesi became pregnant, as an experiment she took all possible and impossible measures. This included using Tor browser, paying for all maternity clothes and other products in cash, and vetoing friends and family members from discussing the pregnancy on Facebook. In the end, she succeded: she didn't see a single parenting-related ad through the course of her pregnancy. Was it worth it? "Opting out makes you look like a criminal," says Vertesi. She doesn't recommend others to do what she did, describing it as both "incredibly inconvenient and difficult to do".
Does it mean that we lose and the big data companies win? Not necessarily. You can live normal life and still protect your privacy by using an ad blocker or any other way to block online trackers. Today and tomorrow you can purchase an AdGuard license for you and your significant other with a 40% discount. A great way to make sure all your future gifts will always bring joy and happiness!
By the way, do you have similar stories of your own? Did you have the misfortune of ads ruining your day one way or another? Share your pain with us by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Ads vs Me", and we will include your story in the compilation of the most unfortunate/bizarre/scary cases when things go wrong because of ads and tracking.