Last December my family found ourselves on the Seychelles for the first and probably only time ever on our way back from a six month stint in Rwanda. The islands were entirely amazing and completely out of our price range; it was a once-in-a-lifetime splurge and so totally worth it. But somehow, the news that we’d gone there made the rounds, and since March we’ve been getting Conde Naste Traveler Magazine every month, full of lush spreads with the latest on ayurvedic spas in the Swiss mountains and in-depth comparisons of five star resorts in Maui. The ads are even more outlandish, but I have yet to see anything I’d even dream of buying. It’s all very entertaining, but from a marketing perspective it’s clearly a monumental dud – we’re not their target audience, and nobody is getting anything out of the deal. And that was always the case with print media: twenty years ago, when I worked as an editor and publisher, we’d have endless meetings trying to imagine who our readers were and what they’d fancy in the way of advertising. But we had no clue, really, except for the fact that they liked our magazine.
Enter the nefarious Intertubes.
Every so often fearmongers will carry on about all the things that Facebook and the rest of the them supposedly know about us (yes, the NSA of course knows everything, but at least they’re not trying to sell us timeshare condos or flavored condoms… yet) and we’re supposed to worry about the horrible things these global snake oil salesmen might do with this knowledge. But in my personal experience, frankly, the track record of “The Internet” is pretty shoddy.
While Gmail’s inline ads are often a disturbing and distorted reflection on your correspondence – send a snarky message with a comment like “that meeting damn near killed me” and suddenly you have a days’ worth of suicide hotline ads running above your inbox – they’re largely shots in the dark as to what you’re really into these days. Just because I send an editor an email titled “last images from the health conference” doesn’t mean I’m at all interested in attending a conference, does it, now? The same goes for the aggregated banner ads that show up on most websites in an attempt to monetize visitors. For the past few weeks I’ve been researching a story on conflict minerals (the stuff from Congo that ends up in your cell phone), so now every other ad is for electronic wholesalers and circuit boards. A few months ago I was trying to find a used Volkswagen online, and even though I’ve long since found one and won’t be in the used car marked for the next decade or so, I’m apparently flagged forever as a rabid fan of Das Auto and looking to buy at least one (or one of its competitors) every week. When and how will it ever stop?
Still, I sort of get it: my search habits and the text of my emails may not necessarily be entirely congruent with my purchasing habits. All the same, knowing quite a bit about my online purchasing history for the past six-seven years did nothing prevent Paypal from going way out on a limb the other day. I mostly use Paypal to buy low-cost bits n’ bobs, and in their infinite Internet wisdom they decided to send me a “very special deal for you” coupon for $15 off at Lane Bryant. Being a total shopping rube I had never heard of Lane Bryant before, but apparently it’s trendy lingerie and fashion exclusively for women – so, really, Paypal? Based on my recent purchases of bicycle patch kits, camera lens caps, dutch licorice and some network cable ties, you decided that I just had to be into women’s underwear and spaghetti straps?
Facebook at least is socially awkward enough to ask for feedback on their endless ads (when I picture Facebook as an individual I always imagine Napoleon Dynamite trying to make small talk. “so, uh, whaddya think of my new ads, eh?”), so it’s possible, if not particularly productive, to let them know what does and doesn’t appeal (hint: none of it, but maybe that’s just me). But there’s no “off” button on the banner ads and inline crap on most websites. Supposedly someone is making money somehow by showing me those ads, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how the advertising expense is recuperated if I’m not even remotely interested in buying what they’re selling.
Of course, I don’t really give a shit if the advertisers waste their money trying to sell me c-cups and sports cars. More importantly, it’s oddly reassuring to know that, even though they supposedly know everything about me and by browsing history, they still can’t seem to connect the dots and take over my world – or even influence my spending habits.