Monday 7 November 2011


Targeted advertising is very exciting if you are an advertiser, and somewhat spooky if you are the target.

I've had many arguments with pro-targeted advertising people about how unacceptable normal people find it. Now Lisa Vaas has just written a piece about how hard people find it to opt-out of such systems.

This prompts me to republish a column I wrote for Computer Shopper earlier this year. If you're wondering why there's an image of Sally Bercow on this page, read on...

It’s rare that my adrenaline surges while browsing the web. Although I spend a lot of time immersed in the darker areas of the internet, tracking and battling hackers and other online ne’re-do-wells, it doesn’t take long to get used to the unusual content. Shocks are few and far between. So you may be surprised to hear that my pulse was set racing when I visited The Telegraph website.

It was not the image of Sally Bercow (wife of John, Speaker in the House of Commons) draped in a bed sheet that made my eyes bulge. Nor was it the incredibly unkind comments left by some readers in response to the story about her ill-advised photo shoot for the Evening Standard. I felt genuinely sick, my head swimming, when I noticed the advert in the right-hand column.

This advert, and the one below it further down the page, was for site lights available from They are particularly good value, in my opinion, and are just what I’m looking for right now as I have it on good authority that they make ideal lighting for a home video studio. And this is the weird thing. Just two days earlier I had been browsing the Screwfix website looking at exactly the same models of halogen light as had appeared on The Telegraph’s website.

Could it be that somehow my web browsing had been monitored? How is it possible that The Telegraph would know that I had a Double Tripod Site Light (2x 400W) in mind? I’ll tell you how. Personalised, targeted advertising.

I’ve always been deeply sceptical about how internet users would respond to this sort of thing, ever since I watched a demo in which an online  car advert not only spelled out the viewer’s name but also directed them to their local dealership (thereby indicating that “we know where you live”). When it was discovered that a targeted advertising firm called Phorm was involved in a secret relationship with BT in 2007, trust in such systems took a direct hit. No one likes being spied upon, and an Englishman’s PC is his digital castle.

So when I saw that The Telegraph’s site, which I was visiting casually and without logging in, was clearly serving me targeted adverts my heart took a leap. In the corner of the advert was a small ‘i’ button. Clicking on this, I was redirected to another website. This was operated by Criteo and it showed me further adverts for site lighting. It also explained what was going on. Criteo runs a ‘retargeting’ service, designed to find a client’s “previous website visitors across the internet and display relevant [advert] banners to drive them back to [the original] website to complete their transaction.”

To Criteo’s credit, this page provided clear instructions on how to temporarily or permanently disable the Screwfix banner adverts. There was also a link to “completely disable Criteo’s retargeting service”, which was a significant improvement over the approach taken by Phorm and BT in 2007.

So how do we all feel about this? Is it OK for online shops to trail around after us, nagging and pleading for our business while we move between other sites? Or is it unnerving, on the edge of ethical and just downright creepy? Maybe it’s simply handy. I do in fact want those lights so perhaps that advert was a timely reminder to buy them. Quite honestly, though, I don’t want to encourage this sort of behaviour by the advertising companies. And the only real way to send that message is not to buy them.

So sorry Screwfix. For now I’ll be shopping elsewhere. And apologies to Sally, who’s no doubt fine form was overshadowed by a pair of £27.99 workshop lights.

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