The advertising strategy for idiots

He’s the high school bully of the advertising world, the dumb guy who follows you around annoying you until you finally acknowledge his presence.

Advertising professionals call it retargeting; I call it stupid. If you’ve never heard of it before, this article can reassure you that a.) you’re not going crazy, and b.) yes, advertisers are spying on you.

Let’s say you go to eBay, like I did, to look for raku pottery. You poke around a bit, but find nothing you like. 12 emails and three phone calls later, you can barely remember those 90 seconds you spent on eBay. In your mind, this search was just a jolt in your day, a fleeting thought that came, turned out to be a dead end, and left.

Or maybe you had lunch with a friend, who told you about an affordable local gallery that sells beautiful pottery for under $25. Problem solved.

But then your browser starts looking like this:

You go to Facebook and you see a raku vase.

You go to Amazon and you see a raku vase.

You do a search for geopolitical white papers and you see a raku vase.

The same raku vase.

Advertisers will say that there is a buying cycle, or a buying funnel, or a conversion funnel, or a buying journey, or a mystical journey that every consumer goes through to spend money. Consultants are paid dearly to remind advertisers of these very complex steps: awareness, consideration, intention, decision. (Quick! Write them down, in case you need to manage a $12 million advertising budget.)

Here’s how the ReachLocal website describes how it all fits together:

Site retargeting identifies consumers who have recently visited your website and shown consideration for your products or services. Then it continues to retarget them with your display ad as they browse other sites on the web. By showing your ad repeatedly over time, site retargeting strengthens your brand and encourages your prospects to return to your website.

In other words, by showing me the same raku vase 12 times in three days, eBay is strengthening its brand?

No. They drive me crazy and remind me never to visit eBay again.

Here’s the thing: Retargeting is the spam of the digital age.

Once upon a time, I worked in the direct marketing industry. The economics look like this: if you send letters to 200 people and only one person responds, your marketing campaign has worked. It doesn’t matter if 199 people hate your stinky junk mail, hate the waste involved, or thought your copy was kitschy and borderline offensive. It was a great success.

With retargeting, people like me don’t get votes. It doesn’t matter if I hate that retargeting is trying to trick me into clicking – again – on the same product I’ve already rejected. It doesn’t matter if retargeting forces other potentially interesting information off my browser screen. If a tiny minority of people click on a retargeting ad, that’s a BIG success.

Retargeting is a dumb, brutal force technique. It shows no respect for a potential client, generally fails to provide them with useful information, and uses so much repetition that one wonders if advertisers even care to drive the human race crazy.

Bruce Kasanoff writes articles for entrepreneurs.