The Creep Factor

rearwindow1I was having a phone conversation with a friend the other day and we were talking about her experience with Solar City, a big brand solar panel installer. She mentioned that she had once met its founder, Elon Musk, at a dinner she and her husband had attended. I said I didn’t realize he was the founder and I went online to Wikipedia while we were talking to see what his relationship to Solar City was (he was one of the initial angel investors). That’s all. Just an innocent search to inform our conversation. Then we changed the subject and started talking about something else.

Almost immediately, though, I noticed I started getting ads for Solar City popping up on nearly every site I visited. My Facebook wall started featuring Solar City ads. Whenever I went to YouTube to watch an amusing animals-do-the-craziest-things video, there was a Solar City ad either preceding or blocking the lower half of the video. I’m getting e-mail spam from Solar City every day. It’s still going on after a week.

Needless to say, this Big Data Micro-Targeting is creepy as hell.

I know we’re all really cynical now since Edward Snowden blew the lid off the fact that our spy agency, the NSA, is spying. (“I’m shocked! Shocked!”) And that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, AT&T and nearly every other company are tracking our every move. We all know that. But it’s still creepy.

Google, for instance, seems to think it’s so clever that it can instantly start feeding you ads when you happen to search for a subject. It and other search and social networks are so smug that they can precisely serve up “qualified leads” to their advertisers based on your online activity. Advertisers love this because they think that they can get to you almost before your realize you’re in the market to buy their crap.

But what they don’t take into account is how unnerving it seems to us targets. Even if I was thinking about installing solar panels on my roof (which I’m not, Solar City, so back off!), the fact that I would be approached after a single search makes me feel violated. Like someone’s watching me from across the apartment block through a heavy lens.

How would you feel about a first date with someone who, during the course of the getting-to-know-each-other conversation, started revealing intimate details they already knew about you? That’s not attentiveness. It’s stalking. And it’s more likely to lead to a restraining order than a second date.

But these intrusive advertisers actually shoot themselves in the foot with their too-clever data-mining. They also come across like stalkers. And even when we spam them, block them, or simply don’t respond, their algorithms keep harassing us. I have to say that even if I were actually shopping for solar panels, or tires, or patio furniture, if I started getting ads for those things, it would creep me out so much that I would go out of my way to avoid buying from those advertisers.

It’s the same feeling as going into a store, browsing through the merchandise, and having a salesman follow you around inquiring if they can help you find something. That’s not helpful. It makes you want to punch them in the throat.

The Wrong Assumption

Then there’s the wrong assumption that we’re predictable cattle. It’s like they actually think we’d be flattered that they know what we want even before we do. Or like being married to someone who finishes your sentences for you…wrongly.

I find it so insulting, for instance, when Amazon tells me that other people who bought what I bought (to my embarrassment) also bought some other embarrassing title.  I could give a shit about what other people bought. It rubs it in my face that they think I’m a predictable cow,  just part of a banal, passive herd. Everybody likes to live in the illusion that each of us is unique. And for some marketer to contemptuously remind us that we’re not demeans us; it reduces us to a type and trivializes our illusion of free will and specialness.

Not only that, it reminds me that I’m not too proud of my tastes. It associates me with people I’d rather not spend any time with. I see that people who bought the boxed set of all three Lord of the Rings movies also bought The Hunger Games and X-Men. And I go, eeeeyew. I’m not one of them!

That’s Anti-Marketing

Amazon’s not the only presumptuous one. Apple’s iTunes also assumes, because it paws through my personal playlists, that it knows what kind of music I like and offers me the arrogantly named iTunes Genius service. See, they’re the “Genius” because they have a bot that already knows what I like. Which is always dead wrong. (Apple loves naming their various services “Genius”, have you noticed? They either really think highly of themselves or they don’t know what the definition of “genius” is.)

Then there’s the inability of Big Data to glean real human motivations from past purchase behavior. Years ago, when my daughter was making a quilt, I bought her a how-to-quilt book on Amazon. Ever since then, whenever I go to Amazon, they seem to assume that I’m still a big quilter and are always suggesting other quilting books (even the same title I already bought). Of course, they don’t care. It’s just an algorithm based on previous search or purchase history and what other people who bought that book also bought. No actual humans have to be involved. It costs them nothing. Except a creepy feeling every time I go to Amazon.

I think we’ve become way too enamored with Big Data and Micro-Targeting. Our recent ability to get in somebody’s face has, as marketers, caused us to lose sight of the Bigger Data of human reaction. People don’t like being spied on. They don’t like being sold to. And they especially don’t like being made to feel like they are nothing more than insignificant, predictable data nuggets.

Instead of the reaction these Big Data marketers think they are getting, which is “Hey! How did you know I was shopping for that? How convenient!” what they are actually getting is “Hey! How did you know I was shopping for that? I’m calling the cops!”

Solar City



  1. Charlotte

    I hear ya – spot on. When writing a blog post, I’ll look up Some Random Thing that doesn’t really have anything to do with my subject but has a distant yet quirky tie-in. So afterwards, I get ‘random’ hits for NOS (new old stock) parts for a ’78 Buick Riviera; Smith & Wesson semi-autos; Hermes handbags; and Betty Crocker 30-minute meal tips.

    If a marketer tried to understand MY buying behavior simply by my search inquiries, they would paint a picture of a gun-totin’ rich gal, who’s into car restoration and baking.

    (And I gotta ask, why would anyone in Oregon install solar panels? There are too many trees and 364 days of rain. They don’t have your geographic location dialed-in?)

    About Amazon. I love Amazon. But why do they keep recommending that I buy the SAME shoes I just bought in November? They’re running shoes, for cripes sakes. If anyone really knows ME, they know those shoes won’t be worn out for quite a while. . .

    And just as a last thought, do not get me started on Pandora. Understanding the music genome? Since when does Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” share DNA with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”?

    You, Jeff are not a predictable cow.

    • Yrrebsne

      Good points all, Charlotte.
      Actually, you’d be surprised at how good Oregon is for solar. I had an erstwhile client who was a solar panel installer and he had all these data that showed the total annual sunlight falling on Oregon was greater than Germany, which has the largest solar installation infrastructure in the world. The fact that we have all these trees (themselves solar collectors) is a good indicator of that. In fact, one of the headlines I proposed to him was: “Oregon’s not good for solar power? Tell it to all the trees.”

  2. Russ Widstrand

    Moooo indeed Jeff!

    But, how can a marketeer, such as yourself be so creeped out by what advertising has always done, albeit now with more specific tools?

    What is your solution?

    • Yrrebsne

      I would disagree with your sweeping generalization of “what advertising has always done”, Russ. Advertising is effective when it’s persuasive, respectful, entertaining. And (as I beat this point to death in my book) the medium is not the message. Reaching the right people is one thing (media). What you say and how you say it when you do reach them (creative persuasion) seems to be almost completely ignored by Big Data marketers. It’s one thing to put yourself in their line of sight and make your message intriguing. It’s quite something else to stick yourself in their face like a pathetic, desperate salesman and claim that you know what they’re thinking.

      • Russ

        I agree. Though I wonder if big data is just immature. It would seem to me that the data has the power to be more “respectful”, once it is wielded with better dexterity. Time will tell.

        • Yrrebsne

          My point isn’t that the data are disrespectful. Data themselves, nor even technology, can be neither respectful nor disrespectful because they are inanimate, nonsentient abstractions. But as soon as someone is aware that they are being watched, they spook. That has nothing to do with the maturity of the technology. It is an inherent and immutable fact about human behavior. It’s like the Heisenberg uncertainty analogy of psychology; as soon as the observed person is aware they are observed, their behavior changes. It’s called the Observer Effect. If you become aware that somebody is peering at you from across the street through binoculars, it doesn’t matter how “respectful” they try to be; the act itself is disrespectful, and threatening.

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