Has targeting gone too far? How Amazon ruined Christmas

the-grinch

A Brooklyn man’s live-in girlfriend knew her Christmas present based on Amazon recommendations. Has targeting become too sophisticated?

Christmas is still nine days away but a friend of mine, Tom Gantzer, already gave his girlfriend her present. The suspense was over and she knew what it was, so why wait? OK, so Amazon didn’t really ruin Christmas, but the e-commerce giant did spoil Gantzer’s surprise. Christina didn’t find out about the Kindle Paperweight the old-fashioned way, by grilling his friends or snooping in drawers; she figured it out because of targeted marketing.

The couple have their own laptops, but share a postal address. As a result, Amazon has linked the two of them, and they’ll see ads and suggestions based on one another’s activity.

“It came up as ‘Based on previous purchases or recommendations for you,’ and I’d never logged onto any account other than email on her computer,” says Gantzer. “She knew the day before that I ordered cat food through Amazon because she saw all these ads about cat food. All the other ads were about the mystery gift she suspected I’d purchased: skins and other accessories, a Kindle Unlimited membership.”

ClickZ contacted Amazon to ask how they linked the address with both Tom and Christina separately. At the time of publishing, we still hadn’t heard back from the retailer so all we can do is speculate. Perhaps one of them used their credit card on the other’s computer once, an act so seemingly insignificant that it’d be forgettable to anyone but a data-mining marketer? Maybe one of the times Gantzer logged into his Gmail, he read an email from Amazon and clicked on a link? Or could it be that Amazon is so clever as to have connected them by overlapping digital presences?

Gantzer and his girlfriend have their own separate Amazon accounts, but they do have a lot of mutual contacts on Facebook and LinkedIn. They also share a location on devices and sometimes even the same Google searches.

“Something will come up and we’ll be like, ‘Is this the guy from that thing?’ and then we’re both Googling at the same time to see who can figure it out first,” says Gantzer.

And of course, your Amazon suggestions are based on things you’ve done online, beyond your own Amazon searches. Doing research for ClickZ‘s upcoming look at the year’s big social media fails, I went on Amazon to look at the reviews for Bic Cristal For Her pens. I didn’t log in, but the next time I did, guess what was recommended?

amazon-bic-ads

Amazon’s surprise-spoiling recommendation is just one example of the way Gantzer thinks targeting has gotten too heavy-handed. He also mentions having worked in crisis avoidance management for foster children and seeing tons of ads for things he researched at work.

“It’s kind of creepy, especially when you start looking at the ads on Facebook and you’re like, ‘Oh, those ads don’t even represent me; they actually represent my clients,'” he says. “It’s kind of weird to see this pairing when I’m not in my work space, just constantly being bombarded with treatment for diseases and things like that.”

spy-bushes

Katelyn Duff, chief revenue officer at Division-D, has worked in the industry for the past six or seven years. Over that time, she’s seen targeting get exponentially more sophisticated.

However, Gantzer’s experience is a new one for her.

“I’ve never seen that, [ads] based on someone you live with, unless it’s a situation where you guys are sharing the same IP address?” says Duff. “I could see if maybe you’re accessing the same Google account or Amazon account, but I don’t really know how that would happen from the standpoint of a physical address.”

Despite Gantzer’s experience, Duff doesn’t agree that targeting has gone too far. She thinks it’s better that way, with more improved targeting ultimately resulting in less intrusive ads.

“I’ve seen the evolution of targeting go from very, very basic to much more finite and granular,” says Duff. “The more targeted an ad can be, the more likely it is to resonate with that particular user. Nobody wants to see an ad for something that’s not relevant to them.”

I guess if anyone would be savvy enough to figure out who your significant other is and market that way, it’d be Amazon. Until we get to the bottom of this expert-level targeting, you should probably do all your online shopping on the computers at the public library. Just to be on the safe side.

Related reading

facebook genders
tencent_emily-ma_featured-image
jd-com_sk-ii_website_featured-image
A picture of several different devices - tablets and a smartphone - in front of a blue background with binary streaming down from the top of the image. A hand in the foreground is holding the smartphone and tapping the screen with one finger.
<