Blog post

Digital Marketing and the Tyranny of Targeting

By Jake Sorofman | November 18, 2014 | 4 Comments

digital marketing

Ever feel like you’re being watched?

It’s that vaguely disconcerting sense that, without permission, someone has entered into your personal space. And it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds, in both physical and virtual worlds.

Yet many marketers continue to cross the line.

Why? Call it the tyranny of targeting, the consequence of the wide availability of audience data and the tools for tracking users and orchestrating solicitous messages. Combine this with the simple fact that it works—often quite well, over the short term, at least—and you see the slippery slope we’re negotiating here.

Tyranny comes with the abuse of power, when systems are corrupted by overreaching appetites or distorted views of what’s fair and right. It’s sometimes the case that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with these systems, but shortsighted, selfish ambitions overtake reason as boundaries blur into oblivion.

I know this all may sound like a politicized screed on the perils of modern marketing, but that’s really not the intent. My point is that we’re at risk of corrupting an otherwise good system by failing to take a longer view on the best use of many of these techniques.

Take retargeting, for example, which is undeniably effective as a technique and, for many consumers, ineffably creepy as a practice. Here, your Google search becomes the equivalent of unfortunately misdirected eye contact as you’re reminded of your fleeting interest ad infinitum.

Such overzealous targeting is certainly not how you earn my affinity for a brand. With each retargeted impression, I rue the moment that I barely conjured the original thought.

But, as I said, tyranny can come from the corruption of otherwise good systems. That’s no different here. Marketers should ask themselves whether they’re reading audiences correctly. Don’t confuse a fleeting search with commercial intent. One signal does not a pattern make.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Hold fire, dear marketers.

Exercise some restraint. Your audiences will surely appreciate it.

Comments are closed


  • Diana Wolff says:

    While it’s hard to disagree with anything you wrote, the camel’s nose is firmly under this tent. We can all expect the orange suede pumps (to just use a random, ahem, example) we briefly checked out to continue following us around the interwebs ad infinitum. Or I may just go ahead and buy them.

  • “Your Google search becomes the equivalent of unfortunately misdirected eye contact as you’re reminded of your fleeting interest ad infinitum.” Well written!

  • These days, I don’t need my browser history – one look at retargeted ads tells me where I’ve been on the world wide web! As a digital marketer, I’ve no doubt that retargeted ads deliver arguably the highest best ROAS of all ad channels. As a consumer, retargeted ads are creepy at first and induce fatigue later. Lately, I’m finding myself increasingly hesitant to revisit websites that used retargered ads when I last visited them. As a digital marketer, I hope my behavior as a consumer is the exception!

  • Simon Levin says:

    Legend has it that in the 12th century King Canute (or Cnut as historians now refer to him) considered his powers so great that he could command the incoming tide to halt and not wash up the beach. The result was very wet feet and a rethinking of the extent of his powers.