14 June 2016 | guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
A few weeks ago, I thought about buying a shed. I thought about buying a shed, and it was the most exciting thing I did that day, because I’m a hot-rod rebel and my entire life is a thrill-a-minute joyride of unimaginable debauchery.
In the end, however, I didn’t buy a shed – mainly because it turns out that my tolerance for sheds is so abysmally low that I can only look at a maximum of three sheds before deciding that all sheds are stupid and only ninnies need them. However, that hasn’t stopped me from being ambushed by adverts for sheds on a near-hourly basis ever since.
Thanks to a web cookie on the shed site telling an ad server that this is now my defining personality trait – Stuart Heritage: shed enjoyer – the vast majority of adverts I see online are now for sheds. It feels as if I’m being stalked by sheds. It feels as if I’m living in the first draft of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, written in the days before he realised that ravens are scarier than sheds.
“Hey, shed guy!” the adverts scream. “Remember those sheds you looked at the other week? They’re still here! Look how boxy and mundane they still are. Come on, click it. Click the shed.”
Behavioural retargeting, this is called. Chances are you’ve encountered it, too. Maybe you once went on Amazon, purely to see whether the word “Singalongamax” had hyphens in it or not, and now you can’t move for Max Bygraves adverts. Maybe you ordered your partner a NutriBullet for her birthday, and every site you subsequently visited carried an advert for NutriBullets, and you had to fling a coat over your screen every time she came in the room in case it ruined the surprise, and now she’s convinced that you suffer from a crippling porn addiction. Behavioural retargeting is everywhere, and it’s infuriating.
The easy way out would be for everyone to just install an adblocker and be done with it. Certainly, that’s what people are doing in their droves – it’s been estimated that up to a quarter of adults use them.
But this is where I have to draw a line in the sand, because I’m not a monster. If I use a site – any site: a news site or a forum or social media – it’s because it has some worth to me, and I don’t want to see it go anywhere. That’s what adverts are for. You put up with a peripheral banner telling you how funny The Book of Mormon is, and the site gets paid as a result. But when you install an adblocker, you remove this revenue stream and the sites you like begin to suffer. By installing an adblocker, you’re actively contributing to the reduction of the internet. If you install an adblocker, one day everything you enjoy will be replaced by three rotating Facebook clickthrough galleries entitled The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Presents 21 Funny Faces That Dogs Pull When They’re Horny, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.
The problem I have isn’t so much with adverts themselves, but with the specific adverts that follow you around from site to site like a wounded puppy, tugging on your trouser leg until you finally put it out of its misery. Before it was sheds, it was coats. Before it was coats, it was coffee tables. I’m also being stalked by a pair of shoes that I looked at once, and now bloodlessly creep into my Facebook stream at every opportunity. They’re nice shoes, too, but I refuse to buy them as a matter of principle. If those shoes ever go near my feet, the internet will have won and I’ll be no better than a child.
Marketers know how infuriating retargeting is, too. In 2014, researchers performed a study into retargeting, and found that people generally get more annoyed the more they see an ad for something they had previously looked at online. They overwhelmingly said that the adverts made them angry and, if they ever happened to see an advert for something they had already bought, they instantly became four times more likely to never buy it again.
Clearly, retargeting has its upsides – if they didn’t increase sales on some level they wouldn’t exist, plus it’s now easier than ever to sweep through your office, clock everyone’s retargeted banner ads and make a discreet inventory of all the perverts who’ve ever thought about buying adult-sized Peppa Pig duvet covers – but the downsides vastly outnumber them. If they annoy people so much that they would rather install an adblocker and choke their favourite sites to death in the process, then something needs to be done.
Luckily, something can be done. There’s a little blue triangle in the corner of these adverts. Click it, and you’ll be able to opt-out of most retargeted ads. You’ll still see adverts, but they won’t be the same creepily omnipresent ads that would otherwise haunt your every move. And that’s a win-win. You stop feeling like you’re being stalked by a shed, the site still makes money and nobody has to make the uncomfortable decision to install an adblocker. You’re just left with the perfect, undiluted web experience you always wanted. Good writing, helpful debate and several dozen ill-advised “Ten Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Jewish” sponsored-link galleries clogging up the bottom of every single article you ever read. Perfect.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010