Modern marketers are suffering from schizophrenia. Dr Jekyll puts the customer on a pedestal and steers well clear of bothering them with advertising, with the company budget being spent in a socially responsible way – on tools and engagement. Mr Hyde, however, sinks in his teeth, shakes his prey wildly to and fro, and doesn't let go.
People who are doing online research into buying a certain item – say, a rowing machine – have learned that they should delete cookies straight away. Your search data will be sold, and you'll be officially known as a 'hot lead'. The rowing machine immediately becomes more expensive, especially if your IP address places you in a richer postcode. But even worse, you'll keep seeing rowing machines wherever you go. Ironically, marketers refer to this as tailor-made marketing: “We're only presenting consumers with advertising they're interested in.”
If you accidentally catch the eye of the handbag hawker in the street in Marrakesh, you won't be able to shake them off again. More often than not, you'll end up being hounded all the way to the airport. A casual glance at rowing machines online is no different. When you're checking the weather and the traffic report in the morning, all you'll see is ads for rowing machines. The latest stock prices are framed by rowing machines. You can't see the latest shocking world news for all the rowing machines that surround it. And picking out a toy to spice things up in the bedroom is something you'll have to do in a shop full of rowing machines from now on. Sorry, your computer has been taken over by the retargeting marketer.
But it could be much worse. Imagine you're no longer able to withstand this relentless harassment, and out of sheer desperation, you go ahead and buy that rowing machine. Where the handbag salesman would finally be satisfied and relent, the rowing machine vendor, like a crazed Duracell bunny, just keeps on going. It can take months before the rowing machines finally disappear from your online world.
We're already starting to get used to this state of affairs. But at a newyears marketing convention, even Twitter's Ashley Vinson voiced some misgivings about the effectiveness of retargeting, wondering what this madness would look like in the real world. Wherever you are – Boots, Lidl or your doctor's office – that Shoe Zone salesman following doggedly at your heels with a reminder or a special promotion.
Years ago, the Dutch Association of Advertisers, already launched a battle against pushy advertising. The megaphone had to turn down its volume a bit. Let's make sure that the digital megaphone is forced to do the same. If online marketers are really that smart with their big data, algorithms and interest-based retargeting – and we know they are – they should have the wherewithal to tone things down a bit. After all, the true master lives in restraint, right?
So, online marketers, be sure to self-regulate in time, otherwise the government will do it for you. To prevent online stalking, ruthless adblocks and frequency caps will be introduced. “Retarget in moderation” will be the mandatory slogan. Offenders will get an online restraining order. Recidivists will get a digital ankle bracelet. And Mr Hyde? He'll get a taste of his own medicine.
Dick van der Lecq is managing director of Etcetera Amsterdam (DDB Group).