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Ken Magill

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On Dead [And Not-Quite-Dead] Possums and Troubling Behavioral Ads


By Ken Magill

Anyone who has read my work for any length of time knows I am an unapologetic defender of data-driven marketing and behaviorally targeted ads.

I recently became aware of one slightly troublesome aspect of behaviorally targeted advertising, though: Retargeting, especially during the Christmas-shopping season.

Retargeted online advertising is ostensibly aimed at consumers based on previous Internet activities where the activities didn’t result in a sale.

Trouble is, it is impossible for all the players in the online-ad ecosystem to know when a specific consumer’s actions finally result in a sale. So even after the purchase is made, the ads don’t stop.

Case in point: This year I bought my wife a beekeeper starter kit for Christmas. She had expressed interest in keeping bees to help improve her garden’s productivity.

I did a bunch of research online about how to start keeping bees and finally settled on a deluxe kit from a company called Mann Lake in Minnesota.

As I researched the purchase, ads for beekeeping equipment started popping up on the various computers in our house.

I don’t know if the ads were showing up on the wife’s Asus. I sure as heck wasn’t going to ask her. But they seemed to take over my Mac and PC. And they seemed to intensify after I bought.

After purchasing from Mann Lake, I still received online ads for Mann Lake and other beekeeping suppliers.

My wife’s a media buyer and knows how online advertising works. Every time I saw one of those beekeeper ads in the weeks between the time I made the purchase and Christmas morning, I would cringe.

Fortunately, my wife is not the world’s most observant person when it comes to things outside the particular task she’s focused on at any given moment.

How unobservant? Well, twice now she has let our dogs in and failed to notice that one of them, Willy, had an adult possum in his mouth.

The first time was early in the morning as she was getting ready for work. She gets up at 5:30 a.m. for her seriously crappy commute into New York City. I usually get up two and a half hours later.

One morning around 6 I hear her in the living room saying: “F*ck! … F*ck! … F*ck! F*CK! … F****CK!!!”

So I walked out into the living room barefoot and in my boxers and spotted the dead possum—a large, mangy-looking dead possum. The wife and I looked at each other and yelled “F*******CK!!!”

I would like to say I disposed of the dead possum. I didn’t. The wife is much braver about dead things than I. She put on her gardening gloves, carried it outside and tossed it into the ravine by our house to be devoured by scavengers.

Then this past Saturday night, I was sitting in my Florida room off the back of the house playing the video game Skyrim, drinking vodka and smoking a cigar.

I heard the front door open and the dogs thundering in. Willy came straight back into the Florida room and dropped a possum the size of a large cat in the doorway almost at my feet.

This one was alive. He was playing dead, but I could see him breathing. I assume it was a “he” because it was so big.

What did I do? Being the brave man I am, I began shrieking [Wife’s name! WIFE’S NAME!!!] and then began yelling at her for letting Willy in with his latest conquest.

She then yelled at me for blaming her. All the while a not-dead possum lied not-quite-motionless on the floor between us. I got smart in a hurry and shut up knowing who was going to get the not-dead possum out of our house.

Though I didn’t say it, the whole time I was thinking: “How do you fail to notice one of our dogs has an animal the size of a friggin’ Christmas ham in his mouth?”

Then again, if she was observant enough to notice the dog was carrying a possum as he walked in the door, she might have been observant enough to notice the beekeeper ads repeatedly popping up on our computers in December.

A lot of folks are far more observant than my wife and might have noticed ads for, say, Victoria’s Secret that weren’t being served previously. If an observant wife in a household where Christmas is celebrated starts spotting Victoria’s Secret ads popping up on websites in December, she had better find Victoria’s Secret under the tree on Christmas day.

Am I saying online advertisers shouldn’t target browsers based on activity during the Christmas-shopping season? No. There’s too much money to be made.

But I am pointing out that even without personally identifiable information, behavioral online advertising can hit a little too close to home.


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Stephanie Miller
Date: 2014-01-21 17:39:17
Subject: You are too much, Ken

It might be a cool idea for an entrepreneur to build a "cookie shield" for a one time browser session. Maybe there's an app for that? And, it's wonderful how you are willing to share so much of your life with your readers, Ken. How generous. I hope possum season is over.