The term “Uncanny Valley”(1) is used to describe a sense of revulsion elicited by something that appears almost, but not quite, human. Most of us have probably experienced this at some point in our lives–seeing something that looked just human enough to be creepy. I have decided there is a corollary in advertising. This is when an automated, computer run advertising event becomes intelligent enough, or sufficiently reactive, that it begins to unwittingly provoke an uncanny sense of malevolent behavior from the presentation of advertisements.
Which I might just start doing, and not because of those annoying pop up messages informing me that the website is using a cookie.
But this is starting to get out of hand.
As these ad syndicates have grown larger, or been bought out by larger companies, or started by behemoth companies–Google runs a huge ad network–the amount of data available to these ad syndicates has become massive. And this is multiplied when third party sites share information with the ad syndicates they work with. The massive amount of data on users which is now available to ad syndicates, and the increasing sophistication of tailoring ad presentation, has started leading to instances where I have felt the uncanny valley of advertising.
I probably noticed it in some vague sense for a while and tried to brush off what I was seeing, but I remember the occasion when it became undeniably present and distinctly creepy. Some back-story so you can appreciate what happened:
The first (and to date most successful) book I have published is one I did not write. The first book I helped assemble and published was written by a neighbor friend who was a quilt artist. It was a book on making portrait quilts. Recently I went to Amazon to check the reviews on the book. Then I went over to Youtube to watch some video. The video had absolutely nothing to do with books, or quilting, and yet what did I see on the Youtube sidebar except an add for portrait quilting books from Amazon, with my book prominently featured as one I might want to buy. It was at this moment I went from knowing that websites track me everywhere to feeling distinctly like I was being stalked by someone.
I think I had seen incidences of this before where I looked at something and then found said thing following me around the internet in ads, but before this occasion the thing in question was always so generic that I just told myself the business in question was running a far reaching ad campaign and I was just noticing it because I had actually happened to look at the product recently. But not this time. Portrait quilts are a small subcategory of quilting, which already itself isn’t a big advertising field. More than that, a book featuring prominently in the add was one I had published and I knew I wasn’t paying for any advertising campaign. So it was very clear that Amazon had told Google “Pssst, this guy just looked at a book in this category, but he didn’t buy anything. So run an ad for me asking him if he would really like to buy a book from that category.” On the one hand that is some slick technology use. In the space of time it took me to go from looking at a book on Amazon to watching a video on Youtube, Amazon got a specially tailored ad delivered right to me. If they wanted to close a sale they hadn’t quite made, that was the way to do it.
Unfortunately for them, with all the slick information they had compiled and shared, they still didn’t know the real reason for my checking on the book and so all their advertising efforts were wasted. Except, now the advertisers had blown their cover, and I was on to them.
It made me really uncomfortable–not only with the amount of detailed information that Google and Amazon were clearly sharing on my activities, but also uncomfortable with the very active sense I felt of being pursued. I am already very careful how I use Facebook because I have long known of their invasive tracking methods. Apparently this is now becoming a universal norm. I am seeing this kind of ad tailoring and tracking again and again.
My Mom’s parents are considering moving into a house and one of them was asking about stair lifts. So yesterday I looked the device up on-line out of curiosity, and checked out a particular company’s website. After that, every where I went on the internet I was seeing ads for that company’s chair lift. It was another instant where the product was unusual enough that the sudden saturation of ads for it in my browsing was very noticeable. Yesterday I also researched pedestal sinks, and later when I was reading a news article on world events and there right in the middle of the article was an advertisement for pedestal sinks shining forth. Was I sure I didn’t want to partake in a special sale?
Now, I am technologically knowledgeable enough to know there isn’t really some pervy human out there who has developed a particular interest in my browsing habits and started feeding me special ads based on that. I know it is just very slick computer algorithms that take my cookie data, feed it into their ad sever, and spit out the results on the web pages I visit. But I call it the uncanny valley of advertising because all of this has become sophisticated enough that it feels like I have some hawker following after me. It is like I am browsing through a bazaar and every time I look at an object and then move on the hawker follows after me saying, “You sure you don’t want to buy it? The price is excellent! I can make you a deal–special sale today. Come on, you know you want it! Please. Please?”
I have my own pervy stalker hawker. At least, it is starting to feel like that.
What were once faceless ads with no personal meaning to me have become personal assaults by someone who is personally haranguing me and who won’t stop harassing me. No, I don’t want to buy your product. You don’t even know why I was looking at your product. Now leave me alone!
The day has come when the internet has become too interactive. I search for something on Google and a little message box pops up: “Did you find what you were looking for on this page?” Yes, Google, I know you want to improve your search results so that Bing will never surpass you, but I am not interested in sharing anything with you. Please do not barge into my browsing experience again. Now go away.
Years ago I installed ad-block software on my browser. I stopped using it at some point because it became too much bother to keep updating the software and finding the new best plugin that was most effective and least annoying. And I guess for a time ads on the internet were a little better about not being quite so obnoxious and annoying. But I think all of that is changing again. If this “I’m going to stalk you with ads for things you looked at” is going to continue, you’re going to find me locking my computer up tight as a drum against this new wave of advertising. It isn’t even so much that I care that the little advertising monsters out there knew what things I had looked at–it is that now they are using that information to actively harass me. They will make no friend in me with that.
The government has a lot of money behind it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the NSA has the most raw aggregate info stored away on its big racks of servers hidden away in some desert. (Though, I don’t think it is a forgone conclusion that they have more data on us than Google. Just sayin.) But regardless of who has the most info, I am pretty sure businesses have been more creative and effective in leveraging their rate of return for what information they do have. I’ll know government has caught up with the business sector when ten years from now I purchase some ammunition for target practicing and the government triangulates the information and launches a drone missile to wipe my butt off the face of the earth as a suspected terrorist–and then my next of kin gets a prompt apology card in the mail for the mistake.
Until then, I’ll have my imaginary contest of wiles with the pervy little advertising hawker I think is stalking me.
1. For more on the uncanny valley, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley For a very good example of the uncanny valley, check out these “reborn” dolls: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reborn_doll. They give me the willies, and not just because of the reasons some people want one. Ugh, just looking at the face of that first doll makes me think of some horror movie.
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