43 Comments

  1. I do much of my shopping online, and I’ve seen this over and over. I buy a scooter for my granddaughter, and then for the next two months I am inundated with ads for scooters. How many scooters do they think I need? (You can replace “scooter” with any other item.)

  2. This joke would probably work better with Amazon than Google. Have you ever bought a big ticket item from Amazon? If you do, they start showing you a whole bunch more of the same thing. Google will do the same if you don’t use ad blockers and other anonymization techniques, but at least they can’t tell if you’ve actually bought the item in question or are still looking. Amazon should know better.

  3. The trouble is you might look for an item on Amazon and eBay and other places and of course you buy from only one, so the other places don’t know that. It is annoying (in a First World problem sort of way) if you have bought a present for someone and your computer is generally visible to others in the household and these ads keep popping up potentially giving the game away.

  4. A similar thing has been going around my Facebook friends — people have been forwarding around someone’s rant about how they bought a toilet seat because they needed a toilet seat; they’re not a toilet seat collector, so, Amazon, it doesn’t MATTER how good the deal on toilet seats is, you can STOP SHOWING THEM TO ME BECAUSE I DON’T NEED A TOILET SEAT.

    Artificial intelligence and machine learning are amazing these days, but it has its limits, and one of those limits is in realizing that there are some things that, once you buy them, you’re finished buying them.

  5. I get this with Home Depot all the time. How many replacement deck door screens do they think I go through in a year?

  6. @ ianosmond – Actually, I could almost understand the behavior for that particular product. We have three bathrooms in our home, and after a hinge broke on one lid, I replaced it (very quickly) with a cheap model from the local hardware store, which then cracked just a month later. As soon as the next problem happens, I’m going to replace all three seats with some sort of a robust model that is guaranteed not to break (even if it costs four times as much as the hardware store model).

  7. It kinda creeps me out sometimes. I like looking at pictures of the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors, and one time I put in “Holi colors” for the search and started getting ads for color powder, saris, hupas, just tons of Hindu-related and India-related merch. From *lots* of different vendors.

    BTW, if you’ve never seen pics of Holi, treat yourself to a google image search.

  8. I love it when Google shows me ads for something I’ve already purchased, enrolled in, subscribed to, etc. Makes the ads that much easier to ignore.

  9. On the other hand…. who even *notices* the ads they present you with anymore? We just zone them out as extra noise. It’s only when you’ve bought hemorrhoid cream or adult diapers or looked at pornography (or Ken Hamm approved childrens propaganda Dinosaurs In Eden; or Life in the Ice Age after the Ark type books) that you notice.

    Actually this would be funny if it were hemorrhoid cream. Who’d even notice a coffee maker.

  10. “people have been forwarding around someone’s rant about how they bought a toilet seat”

    …and if you “Like” that rant, Facebook will of course decide you are into toilet seats and start serving those ads to you too!

  11. I’m thinking the system doesn’t actually know you bought The Thing, so it keeps showing you Things until you click on the little X and answer “Not relevant” to why you don’t want to see that ad. Though I do imagine some little ad elf slinking off in disappointment at that point.

  12. Which all leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the new economy is all a shell game, and at some point someone will be left holding the hot potato as the whole thing collapses. Facebook, Google, et al track the sh!t out of you, for what? So they can sell it to advertisers. Only, if this is the best advertisers can do with all this data, then you know what? It really isn’t worth all the money they’re putting into it, and at some point, after you’ve sliced, diced, and tranched the data, someone at the end will realize the emperor has no clothes, and crash goes the new economy again. Meanwhile, we’ve made it that much easier for our governments to go all 1984 on us…

  13. I talked with someone from Amazon about this, and he said that while (obviously) the machine algorithms could be better, part of the difficulty is that buying a product actually is a good indicator that you’re going to buy more of that product. Most people only need one oven, so after they buy that oven it just looks silly to offer them a new oven. But there is that small fraction of people who manage apartments or something, and buy a bunch of ovens every year. You can make a lot of money if you get them to start regularly buying your ovens, so if you can’t tell them apart from the regular customers, it might make sense to just send them all ads for ovens, even if 99% of the customers think it’s weird.

  14. In all fairness, the algorithm probably works. And you do stop seeing the ads for coffee makers and toilet seats eventually, and the degree to which you are likely to want a second seat is probably proportional to the likelihood that ads are effective in the first place. So they aren’t actually stupid.

    The actual issue is we, people, do not *like* being advertised to and wouldn’t like the algorithms even if they *did* make sense to us. But they do work and they aren’t for *us*, they are for the marketers.

  15. Where is the evidence that there has been a bloom in consumer spending thanks to all this highly targeted advertising (assuming that the algorithms do work, even if we are too stupid to understand their deeper workings) — at best we seem to be pointing to a zero sum game where the algorithms are good at poaching the set share of purchases over to Amazon away from their competition — good for Amazon, but if everyone uses those algorithms, then in the end it’ll be a wash — assuming it’s a zero sum game. So show me the evidence that it isn’t zero sum — where’s the miraculous post war economic bloom that lived symbiotically (best case) with the golden era of advertising? (And then prove to me that even then the advertising helped contribute to that bloom, and wasn’t just poaching and rearranging deck chairs (best case), to doing absolutely nothing but imposing needless rents…)

    (And just pointing to Amazon’s success doesn’t prove that — Amazon could just be doing well at the expense of others; I want to see a general tide raising all the boats…)

  16. larK: I’m not sure who you’re arguing with, but your demands seem excessive. Who’s claiming that targeted advertising helps everyone, and why do they need to show you evidence for it?

    In general, I assume that successful companies are doing things that makes sense for their profits. Obviously, sometimes they make mistakes and don’t, but that seems like a reasonable baseline assumption, and I would place the burden of proof on someone claiming that companies are doing something stupid. OTOH, I don’t assume that companies are doing something that helps everyone, and I’m not sure why you’d expect that, or demand evidence for it. Companies presumably use targeted advertising to increase their profits, not out of some general altruistic desire to increase all consumer spending – that’s no different than traditional advertising, or really any other company practice.

    My guess would be that good advertising, included targeted advertising, generally both takes sales from competitors, and increases overall demand, since demand is rarely perfectly inelastic, or perfectly elastic. But arguing this also just seems besides the point.

  17. My point is that we’ve been told that the new economy (and most of my working life has been as part of that “new economy”) is going to be big, change everything, and you’d better hop on or be left behind. The reasonable question was asked, well just how is this new economy going to bring in growth and new money. The first answer seemed to have been “volume”, and we had a nice crash after that particular clothing fashion was seen through. So now we’ve been told that it will be through advertising that this new economy will be brought into existence, which at least has a slightly more plausible possibility. So, to that end, companies like Google and Facebook have been tracking the sh!t out of us, the face of the internet has changed beyond recognition, with everyone chasing these elusive advertising dollars. So, I want to know, has anything been gained for all this, or are we basically where we were before the new economy? Is Facebook actually on to anything, is it a sustainable model? What do we get out of all this tracking and data collection? The Internet has, I would argue, gotten worse, the economy doesn’t seem to be booming, and the one thing we were promised with all this web 2.0 stuff was that the advertising, at least, would be smarter and less annoying. This cartoon says it isn’t. I say it isn’t.

    I want to know what I am getting in return for Facebook and Google and Amazon gobbling up the world. It certainly isn’t less annoying advertising.

    I want to question the whole model. We take it for granted that advertising works. What proof do we have of that? I say none. Zero. Yes, Facebook might have a high valuation, but so does Bitcoin. And Pets.com was pretty valuable at one point, as were tulip bulbs.

    Advertising has as I see it three possibilities:
    1) It doesn’t work at all, and is a total waste of money
    2) It works only in shifting the fixed amount of spending that will be done among different beneficiaries, ie: a zero sum game
    3) It actually causes more money to enter the economy and the economy to grow than would be the case without it

    If 1), then we should absolutely get rid of it, it is a parasite; if 2) then a company might benefit, but at my expense, being as I’m the one being advertised to, so I still say get rid of it; if 3), we still need to evaluate how much growth it adds and whether it is worth it overall, because as always the externalities are not accounted for — how annoying is it vs how much does it grow the economy.

    Everyone always seems to assume the third case, and I don’t see evidence for that position.

    (I acknowledge that there are two more cases that we could quibble about, 1) even if it is ineffective (case 1), it might grow the economy anyway with people spending money and supporting the industry, sort of like the homeopathy industry, and we could argue if that’s the case if it is good, bad, or indifferent; 2) it could work by informing people of the existence of things they never knew they needed/wanted, and thus case 3 above is a net win for everybody. This was the promise of web 2.0 smart advertising, and this is the heart of my complaint — I simply don’t see this being the case in my day to day life, instead I see, like this cartoon, the externalities of advertising being thrust upon me to pay.)

  18. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone claim the “new economy” was going to bring in any new money or growth. I heard that it was going to “change everything” in that it would change the dynamics between purchaser and seller on an individual transaction and that the economies of scale will be infinitely scalable.

    And none of that is false.

  19. I have to say that I have a similar reaction to the original comic every time I donate to my local PBS station, yet the pledge drives just keep going and going and going… WHY WON’T THEY STOP?!? I already GAVE you my money – STOP BEGGING FOR MORE!

    Ahem. Maybe I need a new coffee maker that makes only decaf…

  20. Some people ARE collectors of a sort. Maybe not of ovens or toilet seats, but some people will keep buying certain things until they have a hundred or more. Books, DVDs, stuffed animals, hats, sofa pillows, hand puppets, board games, wristwatches ….

  21. lark: I find hard to understand your insistence that advertising needs to be justified to you, by giving you convincing evidence for #3, rather than #1 or #2, or that we should get “get rid of it.” Advertising, whether traditional, or targeted over the Internet, is a business practice that companies use to maximize their profits. Do you also think that someone needs to demonstrate to you that Toyota’s assembly line techniques, or Kmart’s layaway program bring overall benefit to the economy, or to those companies, or else we should “get rid of them” too?

    I tend to think that most things companies do to make profits are rational, because while people make mistakes, there are lots of smart people trying to figure out how to make profits. But even if you were to convince me that Amazon’s targeted advertising is poorly planned out by Amazon (which you haven’t actually tried to do; you’ve instead demanded that other people justify Amazon to you), or that Toyota has poorly thought out assembly line techniques, I’m not sure what the point would be. That wouldn’t do anything to show me that we should “get rid” of Amazon’s advertising program or Toyota’s assembly lines. Those are private companies who are free to make their own business decisions.

  22. WW: We all of us are the ones who pay the external costs of advertising — we are the ones advertised to, so I think that gives us the right to ask why we have to bear this cost. It is not at all analogous to Toyota employing an assembly line. It is analogous to some company embedding malware Bitcoin harvesting software into my computer and using my electricity and internet connection to mine Bitcoin for someone else.

    I think (hope?) you would agree that malware Bitcoin harvesters should be something I could complain about and insist we get rid of?

  23. ” if this is the best advertisers can do with all this data, then you know what? It really isn’t worth all the money they’re putting into it”

    Some people are more resistant to advertising than others. But most of them just ignore advertising… they don’t actively avoid products that were advertised to them in a way they object to. So overadvertising gets you lots of sales from people who are susceptible to advertising, and costs you… whatever it cost to place the ad. So you compare the number of inquiries you get before the ad, and the number you get after the ad, and if the advertising cost compares well, you do it.

    The worst case you can get into is one where you have to endlessly advertise your product just to keep the other guys from cutting into your sales… so Coke and Pepsi advertise incessantly, despite the fact that America is already awash in cola. Also beer and trucks (I watch mostly football on TV, so those are the ads I get. I already have a perfectly good truck, and beer is rotted grain mixed with water. Advertising either one to me is wasted money. But that ad money means that I don’t have to pay money to watch football.

  24. It’s not just the Internet, either – I got new windows and French door from a company. That’s all the windows I have – I live in a condo apartment. And yet they keep sending me ads for a “new front door!” (don’t have one, at least not outside – and I’m not allowed to change my apartment door). “New roof!” (again, don’t have one). “Windows!” (not even “more windows”. I’ve done all my windows and these are quite decent). Should I need new windows, I will definitely _not_ be buying from this company. But everyone (every advertiser – companies, candidates, good causes…) seem to think that more advertising is better – daily ads beat weekly beat monthly. Personally, if I’m constantly bombarded, I will either figure out how to block it technologically (ad-blockers, Catalog Choice…) or simply tune it out – and the more of an ad I see, the faster I tune it out.

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually yelled at the computer. But I certainly sympathize with this guy.

  25. Maybe not the same, but still . . . I am bombarded by ‘buy a new car’ mailings from the dealership where I bought my car. Talk about killing trees (as we are on another thread)!

  26. I know I’ve mentioned this before: it’s one thing to send you non-stop online ads based in a single purchase, because they cost virtually nothing — but I’m still receiving expensive American Girls catalogues in the mail because of something I bought in 1999 (I didn’t actually even buy it: a friend had the package shipped here because dhe didn’t want her daughter to see it, but we can’t fault AG for not knowing that). Really, wouldn’t you figure that after 19 years of mailing me these things they’d just give up?

  27. I used to get “Celebrate Your Vietnamese Heritage” catalogs in the mail. Which would be O.K., except all of my “heritage” is actually Norwegian. (My last name is fairly common in both eths.)

    At some point I stopped getting them; maybe a spy camera caught a picture of me eating a piece of lefse or something and passed the word along.

    Now I seem to be on Native American heritage nudge lists instead. No idea why.

  28. “maybe a spy camera caught a picture of me eating a piece of lefse or something and passed the word along.” Or someone smelled the lutefisk cooking . . .

  29. ” Really, wouldn’t you figure that after 19 years of mailing me these things they’d just give up?”

    It costs more to prune a mailing list than it does to just keep sending things to people who aren’t buying. One has to be done by people (who get paid by the hour) and the other can be done by computer.

  30. Does advertising really work? Well, did you see the Budweiser Super Bowl ad with the lost puppy? According to my Advertising text book (Weigold, Michael F., and William F. Arens. Advertising. McGraw-Hill Education, 2018, page 144) “Budweiser’s ad spending on the big game produced sales increases of $96 million, or a return on investment (ROI) of 172 percent.” Now I do not understand how a tear-jerker ad about Clydesdales helping a puppy would induce me to buy any particular brand of beer, but what do I know? I’m just a college student.

  31. Thanks for the article. I had long ago figured out that an “expert” who never said “I don’t know” was less trustworthy than one who occasionally did.

    My conclusions came from friends an coworkers who were experts in things I wasn’t and from the writings of and interviews with scientists.

  32. Mark in Boston – You mean that I only needed 100 bears for a collection? I hate to think about how many collection equivalents we have. Currently the bears (only some figurines and small toys) who live in the bear village (a small subset of all the bears) are having their first fall festival, soon the village will change to their Winter festival (which has existed for at least a decade) which will last until their first Spring festival, followed by their second summer festival.

  33. James Pollock – Years ago I wrote a letter of complaint to a long time existing furniture chain about their sales people and furniture itself. I still get catalogs from them constantly – and I have twice sent the mailing section back to them with a complaint.

    Similarly when Robert’s mom died we had her mail forwarded and changed her address to our PO Box. Five years later we were still receiving catalogs for her – and she had not ordered anything in at least 5 years before that.

  34. I get ads that I have no idea where they come from. I am guessing that the ads in Spanish are because I read “Baldo” (in English). Stuff for dogs, cats, etc. – never bought anything for any. Children’s clothing – Well, I might have bought some in stores almost or more than a decade ago – without giving any online contact info?

    Lately I have been getting ads from a music instrument chain. Apparently this is the result of being married and sharing an Internet connection – he bought an electronic box to connect his turntable to his computer to copy old records to CDs from this company.

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