Targeted Ads Can Miss Targets — But They Still Keep Coming

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Three arrows at the center of the target.

How “targeted” is targeted advertising? Let me take you on my recent not-quite-scientific investigation looking for answers.

I started my recent quest after receiving a bombardment of misdirected display ads on my laptop for A1 U Store It facilities, including, in particular, the one on Watson Road in St. Louis. I live in Charleston, S.C., and have no plans to move to St. Louis. So why was I being served ads, lots of them, for storage in St. Louis?

I was targeted with ads for A1 U Stores because the ad-technology company Criteo appears to have misread my Web browser “cookies” regarding sites I had visited. Criteo’s tracker picked up that I had Googled for “IBM Watson AI” in my search for information about IBM’s Watson artificial-intelligence (AI) platform. But Criteo’s algorithm apparently ignored “IBM” and read “AI” for “A1″ and then, when it saw “Watson,” decided, in a less-than-brilliant deduction about consumer behavior and geography, that I was seeking out the A1 U Store It on Watson Road in St. Louis, which is 856 miles from where I live. So much for artificial intelligence at the cookie level.

Armed with this misinterpreted data, Criteo served up ads to my Web pages for a number of storage facilities, in particular the one on Watson Road in St. Louis, that are aggregated by SpareFoot, which provides marketing and other services for storage companies and their customers. Here’s a banner ad for SpareFoot/A1 U Store It that Criteo served to my RealClear Politics homepage, which I regularly visit:

Targeted banner ad sent to me

For two weeks, Web pages I have visited have been plastered with SpareFoot ads featuring the A1 U Store It on Watson Road in St. Louis and other A1 stores. About the same time, I began to receive a barrage of ads reminding me to “finish your trademark.” I’m not interested in trademarking anything, but I had visited the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to learn about the process, and Google AdSense’s tracking software, based on my behavior, decided I was a client for one of its trademarking ad clients.

Over two weeks, I estimate I have been served close to a hundred targeted ads for storage facilities and trademarking consultation services, many of them banners and in other prominent sizes and positions on well-known, high-traffic sites.

To find out what was behind all the frenetic, and totally wasteful, ad targeting directed at me, I went to Don Marti, strategic adviser to Mozilla’s web-sustainability team focused on next-generation web advertising, responsible data-driven marketing and privacy.  Marti is also leading Mozilla’s consideration of participating in development of the Information Technology Exchange “proof of concept,” which seeks to create an Internet network that would provide users with much stronger privacy protection, monetize all published content and give advertisers more reliable ways to find the customers they want on the Web. (See my columns on ITE here and here.)

My Q & A with Marti:

Were my experiences with ad targeting an anomaly or are they examples of what happen to other users?
It happens a lot to a lot of users.

To stop the SpareFoot ads, I clicked for “opt-out” the tiny triangle icon of the Digital Advertising Alliance in the upper-right-hand corner of the display ads. But the ads continue to be served to Web pages I visit. Why?
The “” system is broken. Users are making a rational decision not to put time into it. I just started up a fresh browser and went to try it. The results are here. As you can see, for 130 companies participating, 57 opt-outs succeeded and 73 failed.

Opt-out is actually broken at two levels: Most of the companies that are involved in user tracking don’t participate. The “disconnect” blocklist is 5,135 domains, including subdomains. Some companies operate more than one domain, but many trackers aren’t affected by at all. Often, many of the opt-outs are broken, though usually not as bad as my “73/130,” though.

Is part of the problem that it is not easy to reconfigure browser cookies to eliminate the problems of misplaced and repetitive targeting?
Yes. Browser cookies enable advertisers to reach the same user on multiple sites. That drives down the value of web advertising in general, because legit publishers are forced to compete with less reputable publishers to reach their own audiences.

When the browsers are set up to make it harder to do cross-site tracking (by cookies, scripts and other means), then a legit site has more market power to enforce standards:

Is it technically possible for automated targeting tools that marketers/advertisers use to detect that I have been served a particular ad too many times and stop sending impressions to me? If so, do they regularly use such discretion, or not?
Yes, it’s called frequency capping. This is not a bad idea in itself, but the problem is that the same level of data collection that would be needed to implement frequency capping can also enable other practices which tend to drive ad blocking up.

How would the Information Trust Exchange eliminate the problem of misplaced and repetitive targeted ads?
Ads would be placed on reputable sites, not in a way where they can “follow you around.” So the advertiser would be relying on a high-quality set of user interest data from a known publisher, not on a third-party data set of unknown quality.


I also went for answers to Alanna Gombert, who was recently named General Manager of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Technology Lab and Senior Vice President of Technology and Ad Operations at the Bureau, effective in July. Gombert said IAB was reviewing its LEAN program aimed at improving the Web user’s experience with ads. Among other things, “the IAB Lab is looking at ‘frequency capping’ of targeted ads,” she said.

I asked Gombert if I was overreacting from my experiences with targeted ads. Her flat reply: “If they annoy you, you should write about it.”

I sent questions to ad-tech company Criteo, but haven’t heard back yet.

I’m not prepared, based on my non-scientific research, to make final, declaratory judgments about the effectiveness of targeted advertising. But my research has convinced me that the ad industry needs to take a much closer look at what its tracking technology has unleashed and do more to rein in targeted ads that are misplaced and over-served. Publishers need to be involved as well.

If the advertising and publishing industries don’t fix this problem, they are inviting more users to resort to ad blocking. Worse, the industries are putting at risk the basic trust relationships they have with many millions of Internet users. At risk is $60 billion in digital ad revenue.

I especially invite Criteo and SpareFoot/A1 U Store It to take part in a closer look at targeted advertising. If they do, I promise to stop by the A1 U Store It facility on Watson Road in St. Louis if I ever move to that city and need storage.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.