How Advertising Creeps Me Out — and How Social Media Can Help


A recent development in advertising has really rubbed me the wrong way. I know it was supposed to be a good and helpful thing, but it felt so Big Brother-ish that I felt annoyed and almost angry at the company who clearly thought it was a good idea to perpetrate what felt like a violation. I really think social media could have been a much better set of tools to achieve better results for the advertiser.

Here’s what happened to me: I used to register a domain name. I know, it isn’t the cheapest domain registrar, but it has been reliable with excellent customer service, so I’ve been a customer since the 1990s. The other day, I was poking around for new domain names (because one can never have too many domain names), and purchased one. Then I went off on my merry way surfing the web for other things.

Much later on, I was on a site entirely unrelated to domain names and an ad on the side of the page I was browsing caught my eye. It contained the exact domain name I had recently purchased, but with a different suffix. It was telling me that I could purchase a variation of the domain name I already had. And right away it creeped me out. Upon closer inspection, it was an ad from My geeky, I’ve-been-doing-this-stuff-for-years brain knew that this ad was most likely generated by tapping into the cookies on my browser, and that someone, somewhere, got the wacky idea that customizing my advertising experience would be a good thing — not just tailoring the ad to my interests (travel, parenting, Internet services) but literally lifting what I now felt was my domain name and putting it in the ad. Even though it was supposed to serve me and entice me to purchase more, I was annoyed.

How Social Media Can Help

Where do we draw the lines between connected and disconnected? Where do we draw the lines between opting into personalization and customization and having it automatically appear because our activities online are being tracked and tagged? My thinking on this is if a company wants to get social with me as a customer, it should use social media tools, not cookies and automated tools to track my every move and then spit information out to me based on some kind of algorithm.

What I would have rather experienced with could fall under a number of social media marketing tools and tactics. These are simple things that, at first, might seem like unrelated to the sale of a domain name, but hear me out.

  1. When I bought the domain name, it would have been nice to be led to a page that thanks me for the purchase and encouraged me to connect with the company on Facebook or Twitter.
  2. Once I “liked” the company’s Facebook Page, I’d pay attention to specials or discounts offered via the Page. I’m fine with consuming messaging from a company via their Facebook page, even if the messages are merely reminders to buy that domain name that I’ve been thinking about.
  3. If I followed the company on Twitter, ditto. I’d be happy to see a discount code running through my Twitterstream that I could act on immediately, perhaps prompted by the nudge: “Hey, thinking about getting a new domain name for that project you’re working on? Act now…”

I probably wouldn’t visit a blog or subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed. As a consumer, my plate is overflowing, but it’s easy enough for me to connect to a company I like and have a varied stream of messaging from them in my two most frequently used social networks.

Isn’t that how social media marketing should work versus old-fashioned, clunky and invasive advertising? Let’s connect, feed me some valuable info over time interspersed with marketing messages and some coupons or discounts, and I’m a happy camper. Trust builds between us. I’m not creeped out by your connections to my communications streams. It’s a win/win scenario.

What do you think about the old ways of advertising and the new ways of connecting to customers via social media?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): The Dos and Don’ts of Social Media Marketing


Jerami Marsh

I’ve first stumbled upon this when buying plane tickets about 5 years ago – how the price seemed to magically increase the second time you return to an airfare, even six months out from the actual trip. Then after deleting cookies, it automatically changed back to the original price.

After becoming aware of it, I started seeing it applied to analytic, linkbuilding and funneling strategies to boost online sales…and thats just appetizer. If you research the companies that used to develop data-collection and processing mainframes for television and radio statistics, you will find that the scale of modern infomatics across the internet and resulting microtargeting tactics will raise the hairs on the back of your neck – similar to the way saying in the 1980’s that “a satellite image can now reveal words on a dime from twenty miles up.”

Food for thought – if a savvy programmer can develop a script to run processes on your computer without your being aware, just think what the big-dollar companies are hiring programmers to write scripts for.

My thoughts are “If you can make money doing it, it is being done, especially if it can generate billions in revenue without alarming the average consumer. And surely, those who are doing it aren’t talking about it.”

Ralph Leon

Something even creepier is how some companies are using machines to measure brain activity when people look at ads. I remember I heard the creative director from Paypal talk about how they were using this technology to make ads more “clickable.” Advertisers are trying anything they can to get into our heads.

Rafe K.

They task me.

When I’m complaining in an email, refresh my window and the ads displayed are for that very think I’m railing against, with happy sunshine language, I know the gremlins are laughing at me.


I don’t like the flash banner ads which show the exact items you have just looked at in an online shop, which are obviously generated by cokies. For one thing, if I’ve made my mind up not to purchase an item, having it plastered on every site I look at for the rest of the day is not going to change my mind. For another, one of those banner ads spoiled my Christmas shopping by showing my husband the exact items I’d just bought for him. :-(


How is an ad generated by a cookie any different then the targeted ads on FB? If anything the way FB looks at your likes and the links on your page are way more invasive then a script you could delete in two seconds.

Steven Howe

I think the main difference is that on Facebook you openly share things that anyone can see.

Cookies are originally intended for the site that created them to offer fuller features, such as remebering your password so you don’t have to, or, remembering a favourite page. For other sites to go through these is kind of like advertisers rifling through your trash to see what your favourite brand of microwave meal is…

I’m not a fan.

Deborah Schultz

So agree. That is creepy. Using social media in the ways you illustrated is such a better approach. The small businesses I am working with don’t have the sophistication to grab cookies, but the social media methods you suggested are excellent and something they can do. The methods employed by give a bad name to Internet marketing in general.

Aliza Sherman

Really interesting that I’m sitting in a panel right now about behaviorally targeted ads. This is a hot topic. No easy answers but I think it all boils down to common sense, right?

Ross Hudgens

These are called “retargeting” ads, my company actually used them recently. There’s definitely some creepyness to them. I think they can be used more naturally to appear as part of your search experience – i.e. showing another “” ad somewhere that may appear to just be a normal ad, but going as far as showing you a similar domain to that you purchased is definitely pushing the limits.

It’s like a salesman calling you after you left the store to upsell you more accessories – it’s annoying, disingenuous, and says “I just want your cash, I don’t really want to provide value”.

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