How Ad Retargeting Ruined Christmas

Forget the Grinch that stole Christmas. This year, maybe it’s ad retargeting that’s stealing Christmas, at least the surprise of what people are going to receive.

Certainly in my household, a new war on the Christmas surprise has been declared. Advertisers taking advantage of “retargeting” — a way to follow visitors around with ads — are making life difficult for our number one gift giver, my wife.

“Everything I’m buying for Christmas, it’s showing up in ads,” she complained to me this week. That’s a problem because our kids are often using her computer. You don’t want them seeing what might end up under the tree.

We Know What You’ve Been Shopping For…

Talking with her further, it was clear that retargeting was to blame. Consider this example from her computer:

At the top is an ad for Macy’s displaying, as it turns out, a jacket that she was considering getting for me (she decided against this, which is why I was allowed to see this example. She had to check each page carefully before showing me any because she is still seeing an ad for what she actually bought for me from another merchant).

Do They Know How Retargeting Works & How To Opt-Out?

Most of our readers here at Marketing Land understand how retargeting works to make this happen. Someone visits a website, such as a retailer like Macy’s. Macy’s then takes part in an ad network that allows it to show its ads to that person if they go to another website, if the other website is in the same ad network. The ads can be very targeted, such as linked to a particular product someone looked at or even an item put into a shopping cart.

Consumers have become more aware of this, as well, as our recent survey reaffirmed: 3 Out Of 4 Consumers Now Notice Retargeted Ads. For those who don’t like it, the option to opt-out is supposed to be easy. Just click on that little triangle in the top corner of the ad, such as the arrow in the screenshot above points to. That provides more information about why an ad is appearing. Here’s how it looked for that Macy’s ad:

The page supposedly explains why this particular banner ad was shown. It says that right at the top, “Why are you being shown this banner?” But it doesn’t really live up to that promise. There’s no introductory text, no easy-to-understand plain language explanation of what’s going on.

You do get shown what are the last products that were viewed on the Macy’s site with a “Learn More” option next to them. That doesn’t let you remove these individual products, if you’re trying to keep them from appearing in banner ads on your computer. They actually take you back to the product page as another attempt to sell them to you. The page even has suggested products you might want to buy on it.

You get the option to temporarily disable Macy’s banners, which is good for merchants who might get how retargeting could be inconvenient in some cases, such as spoiling surprises, but not so bad that a consumer wants it disabled permanently.

Of course, temporarily disabling it only works for Macy’s. You’ll still see that product showing up if you view information about it on other sites, and if those sites also do retargeting.

Similarly, going for the “completely disable” option really doesn’t completely disable retargeting. It completely disables it only for this particular ad network. Other items you’re considering may appear if merchants retarget using other ad networks.

Should You Have To Study How To Opt-Out?

That leads to the next example:

This ad is from ThinkGeek, where my wife did make some purchases and then found those purchases continuing to show up banner ads. To stop this, she eventually went back to ThinkGeek and clicked on a bunch of different items, to push what she actually bought out of the banners she was being shown.

Why not just opt-out temporarily, as with Macy’s? For one, like many people, she didn’t know that’s what the little triangle in these ads was supposed to do. For another, well, let’s look at that opt-out page:


You can explore it yourself more here. It’s from Google, and unlike the other opt-out page I mentioned, it does a good job of explaining in plain language what’s happening:

Ever notice “Ads by Google,” “Sponsored Links,” or the AdChoices icon AdChoices icon as you browse the web? Ads like these show all across the Internet. Advertisers can use AdWords to show Google Ads on sites that are part of the Google Display Network. You may come across such ads when you’re viewing a website, video, or app on Google’s Display Network or other partner sites. In addition to seeing ads based on the types of sites you visit, you may also see ads based on your interests and more.

OK, so this comes only after the page makes a pitch to get you to actually advertise, which really shouldn’t be on a page designed for consumers. But there was some thought put into helping consumers with easy-to-understand information.

Unfortunately, it falls apart assuming consumers then want to go on to read a four-part article about how all this works, then want to jump to another page where they can figure out that “interest-based ads” means ads that are based on pages you’ve seen before.

There’s no way to just temporarily disable the ads. Or to opt-out of ads from just this merchant. Or to remove them for just the product that’s showing.

‘Tis The Season To Think More Carefully About Retargeting?

Retargeting is an incredibly powerful advertising tool, and it’s not going away. It’s also continuing to get super-smart about what we do online, what we’ve browsed, what’s in our shopping carts.

For advertisers, perhaps there’s a lesson in all this that you can be too smart, too pushy, too targeted in your messaging. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to show the exact product all the time, especially when it’s common for people to share computers and tablets.

For advertising networks, the lesson is they could still do a lot more to help consumers deal with opting-out. If someone just wants to stop a particular ad from appearing, why not make it easy to help them just remove that ad, rather than possibly having them opt-out of all ads entirely?

For consumers, it’s another reminder that whatever you do on the web is being tracked in order to target you in ways that might be visible to others. If you’re sharing a computer, it can be a pain, but having people use their own account on that computer helps keep ads targeted to you from showing up for them. Some browsers also allow you to have different accounts linked to them, as well.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all, and here’s hoping retargeting doesn’t spoil any gift surprises out there.

Related Topics: Channel: Display Advertising | Features & Analysis | Retargeting & Remarketing | Top News


About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Daniel Vardi

    the users can always remove cookies and marketers should remove the item from the list if the item was purchased. If it wasn’t, and another person sees the remarketing ads, doesn’t that just add to a game of guesses?

  • Louis Venter

    Install as a chrome extension and block the ads you don’t want to see and allow the ones you do. Simple.

  • Jerry Nordstrom

    The Jacket?… sure it was…. :-)

  • Todd Culter

    Exact same thing happened to me last month. My wife guessed what I had gotten for her birthday because she saw the ads for it everywhere she went on our shared laptop.

  • Eduardo Cereto Carvalho

    Seriously people, we’re going into 2014, maybe it’s time to give you family members their own devices for christmas. And if, for some reason you HAVE to share a device, at the very least have the decency to use separate user profiles, this is not new stuff, not new stuff at all.

    Chrome has user profiles built-in, just in case you don’t want to setup a new system user. Learn to use it.

    If you use the same browser she can find out just by going into your email, no need to guess through ad banners.

    I can’t even believe this is real, seems like something a journalist just made up.

  • GertG

    George Carlin said it best. If you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.

  • SebastianBassi

    There is no need to see ads at all. You should not use the browser without an adblock extension or plugin. It is a 2 click install on most modern browser.
    Another solution: Private mode, that is why this mode is for according to Chrome.

  • Izzy Cohen

    Just use incognito mode in Chrome or Private mode in Firefox when shopping.
    Another alternative is installing AdBlockerPlus on all browesers. Its amazing.

  • Brad Flora

    I run a retargeting company and this annoys me too!

    The reason this stuff happens is because many players in the space soak up advertiser spend by not immediately opting users out of product retargeting campaigns after a purchase is made. The advertisers don’t always know to ask for this and the retargeting companies make more money if they don’t suggest it.

    These personalized campaigns are so profitable for the advertisers that they don’t notice the extra spend being bled out on people who they shouldn’t be retargeting.

    This tends to happen among the big “enterprise” retargeting companies that serve large online retailers like Macy’s. There’s so many people involved in the deals and operations of the campaigns that no one person is there to say, hey, let’s make sure this doesn’t happen.

    The takeaway: Only work with retargeting vendors that give you control and visibility into who you’re targeting and why! We do this, but so do others. Not everyone is this lame.

  • Patrick Coombe

    i personally love seeing my daughters hello kitty advertisements and my wifes skin cream offers, no?

  • Greg Simon

    It can be a bit annoying if you share a device but really as others have mentioned if that’s the case it’s on you to cover your tracks if it’s a concern. Solutions:

    -Different User/Login Accounts
    -Different Users on Chrome (if you’re using chrome) by going to Settings -> “Users” section, click Add new user.
    -Clear cookies/history
    -Incognito Mode in Chrome, Ctrl-Shift-N
    -Stop sharing your device, if you can afford to do online shopping chances are you can also afford a laptop/tablet etc of your own.

    If anything this is something that’s just annoying to the user who’s shopping because they’ll have targeted ads directed to them that are not in their area of interest.


  • Danny Sullivan

    I’m going to assume you just blindly rushed past the part at the end of the story where I said some browsers have profiles in order to make the inevitable “blame the user” comment. So…

    First, going into 2014 isn’t some magical year where all families can suddenly afford to buy a computer or tablet for each member of the family. I think there are plenty of families where having just one device is still a stretch financially.

    Second, Chrome does have built-in user profiles (which I mentioned), and anyone worried about this might want to investigate those (which I also mentioned). Of course, that means making sure your seven-year-old has a Google Account, because profiles require a Google Account. And oh, you’re supposed to be 13 to have one. But hey, just lie, right? But then, some people might not like the idea that the only way for multiple people to have accounts on Chrome is if they all give up some of their privacy to Google.

    Third, I’m not sure how you get the idea that anyone using a browser can get into someone’s email. It’s not like you’re handing over your password. But that’s also where you’re missing the point. The article isn’t about trying to prevent someone who is trying to spy on what you’re buying for them. It’s about how you might accidentally reveal your purchases, because of how ad retargeting works.

    Which leads to fourth, yeah, this is real. And if you want to see it yourself, go to Macy’s, as shown above, and click on any product. Then go to The Guardian and click a few pages. Do the same by going to ThinkGeek, and then going to The Telegraph. Then you can make your own screenshots of how it really does happen, post them, and have someone else tell you that you made it all up :)

    Yes, if someone wants to ensure that retargeting doesn’t reveal their Christmas purchases or site visitation habits, there are things they can do to better control that privacy. Yes, users should be more aware of this. That’s part of the point I made at the end.

    But, there’s a lot more that both advertisers and advertising networks could also do. In the end, telling a bunch of users they’re doing it wrong doesn’t necessarily help things. It can just annoy them or invite some outside force, save government regulation, to step in and try and fix stuff.

  • Gautam Jain

    Retargeting is annoying because it takes your attention away again & again. While reading something else, your attention keeps going towards the ads. Even if you have not opted to buy that product, it comes in front of you. Even if you have purchased that product, it comes in front of you. Why? Why? I think retargeting has a short life span because of this. It is easy to ignore banners of products you have never seen or read about.

  • albeit

    Can’t you just have your kids use a different account on your computer? The cookies aren’t shared between them.

  • Danny Sullivan

    They can. That’s what I note at the end. But it’s also a pain logging in and out. There are also times when two people might want to look at the same computer at the same time (“hey look at this video”). Users who really care can find solutions. But there are things that advertisers and ad networks might also consider.

  • James

    Surely these are the very reasons that retargeting *will* carry on being successful – it’s an advertisers dream!

    I’d be interested if anyone can share some statistics, but I always use 2% as a target for visitor conversion. A chance to aim at the remaining 98% with an ad that isn’t ‘easy to ignore’ is so valuable to e-retailers that this is here to stay!

  • Terence Craven

    Great post.

    Adding nothing new to this, but using an incognito browser in Chrome would be one way around this. That said, it’s a pain to enter your details every time you visit a new website. For that reason, I knowingly ran the risk of these re-targeting ads appearing this year and I’ve pretty much escaped the embarrassing retargeting ads.

  • Greg Shuey

    I’ve never thought about it this way… Great insight and kinda humerous!

  • MaryMactavish

    I look at so many things that most ads I see are for things I’d vaguely pondered, and my laptop isn’t shared. But it’s still sort of unpleasant. And if I decided not to buy something, the ad isn’t going to change my mind.

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