Where's The Line Between Personalized Advertising And Creeping People Out?

from the the-uncanny-valley-of-advertising dept

In robotics, there’s a concept of the “uncanny valley,” which suggests that people are comfortable with robots that clearly look like robots, but at a point where they become too similar to humans, but not actually human-like, the feeling makes people rather uncomfortable. However, if a robot appears fully human, then people go back to being comfortable with them — even to the point of identifying with them and feeling empathy for them. It’s that area where they’re just a little too much like a human, but not quite there that makes people really uncomfortable. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a similar phenomenon with advertising. Perfectly targeted advertising could be quite useful — and, in fact, that’s the holy grail that advertisers always talk about. The problem, though, is that most personalized advertising isn’t that well targeted, and it’s reaching the point that it makes people rather uncomfortable.

Last week all the attention was on Phorm, the former adware company, now trying to work with ISPs to use your clickstream data to target ads better. While the company is aggressively defending its practices, it clearly makes people somewhat uncomfortable — and all of the hubbub about the story has resulted in at least one ISP partner of Phorm to decide that it will only offer the program on an opt-in basis. That sounds good, though, as Broadband Reports notes, Phorm competitor NebuAd had promised that any of its ISP partners would clearly let customers know what it was doing with its targeted advertisements, and that doesn’t appear to be happening.

All this has lead the NY Times to write an article about how much data is being tracked about you in order to target ads better. There’s nothing particularly new or surprising (hopefully) in that article, but an even more interesting question is raised by the same author in a separate blog post, where she went and asked Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and AOL if they could create advertisements that incorporated the user’s name in the advertisement as an attempt to personalize it. The answers are quite interesting, with very different levels of “could” and “would” responses from the various participants.

But the real issue with such ads are that they may be getting quite close to that “uncanny valley” of advertising. When the ads on a random page start saying “Hi, Mike, we think you’d like…” it reaches that level where it throws in your face just how much data is being collected about you, and I’d imagine that makes people quite uncomfortable. In some ways, this is part of what made people so damn uncomfortable with Facebook’s Beacon program. It was making use of data in a very public way for supposedly more “personalized” ads. However, they ended up in that “creepy” valley between not very personalized and perfectly personalized where the ad is actually effective. For companies working on better ad targeting and more personalized ads, it’s going to pay to be aware of this issue going forward.

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Comments on “Where's The Line Between Personalized Advertising And Creeping People Out?”

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Tom (profile) says:

Personalizing but not Personalizing

The trouble with personalizing ads is that for each business (no matter what they sell), YOU NEED AT LEAST ONE. Car dealers have been doing that for a while. You just bought a car, but now they keep sending advertising so that you buy a new car, it just has your name on it. Given access to my name, all companies will just find the [place name here] sticker and put my name in it because they KNOW that I need whatever it is they are selling. Even worse, I just bought a stereo/camera/TV online, and then I will start getting ads targeted at what I just bought. Until “something” gets better at predicting what I will need in the future, not looking at what I just bought, I believe it will stay in that “uncanny valley” of creepiness.

Joel Coehoorn says:

Re: Personalizing but not Personalizing

Your last sentence took the words out of my mouth. This problem can happen even with current click-steam data.

For example: sometimes I’m searching for info on, say, cameras because I just bought a camera and want to know more about how to use it. I’m not looking for accessories (yet)! On the other hand, maybe I’m in the process of shopping for a camera, and an ad with a discount on a memory card, extra battery, or a lower price on the camera I’m looking at might be appreciated.

The trick is learning when NOT to show the ad.

TheDock22 says:

Re: Re: Personalizing but not Personalizing

I completely agree. This is why I do not think we will ever reach a point where ads are targeted specifically to a person.

Another one is travel. If I am looking for information on say, Paris, it doesn’t mean I want to travel there or anything. I think I would tire of ads constantly wanting me to buy this or that well all I want is information.

The issue says:

Id say

the way you get the data is more important. If you do whats on the page right now context thats like walking up to a guy wearing a tie and giving a 10% off to the nearest mens wearhouse.

However, if you tracked him down while hes at the beach and say “so I was noticing that real nice dark blue tie you bought a bit ago and it goes GREAT with that glossy brown pair of shoes you got yesterday…mmm! Well anyway heres a coupon man”

youd freak out because that wasn’t reasonably public data. I think people have an expectation (as we do with garbage men) that whats in the trash isnt rummaged through. Its why you hate people going through your trash at 2am.

I think its not so much the almost-human nature of the suggestion, its the violation of peoples expectation to move around their daily lives without being watched by comrade Phorm, Beacon, Big Brother.

Jake says:

Re: there's a simpler viewpoint

True enough, Matt, but remember the old adage about half a loaf; in the current climate I’m pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t simply imposed on us and announced as a fait accompli. I do hope British Telecom, Virgin Media and the like are a bit more transparent about it than Wide Open West.

GeneralEmergency (profile) says:

Some insight on the

The “Uncanny Valley” subject has facinated me for years. I have come to believe that the Phenom is misnamed and should be re-termed “Android Fidelity Error”.

Being “creeped out” is essentially the same as disgust and revulsion except that the situation is novel and unfamilliar enough that no real danger is sensed so curiosity is still actively in play.

A great deal of research has been done to date on the emotions of revulsion and disgust and it is now commonly agreed that these emotions evolved as protective mechanisms to insulate us from diseases.

This makes perfect sense in the “Uncanny Valley” scenario as any robot that is clearly mechanical in nature could not be intrepreted as having a disease. But as the behavorial and appearance fidelity of an andriod increases toward perfection, you will pass through an “Uncanny Valley” region where things will seem a little but off, but in ways difficult to describe, thus triggering our evolutionary disease radar, and leaving us repulsed or “creeped out”.

If and when genuine AI is built into andriods in the future, I fear for the fragile psyches of these creations while they are in that valley of poor android fidelity as most humans will avoid, hate and at a minimum, not treat them kindly. This could have serious “Hollywoodesque” consequences.

Additional reading:



Dionysus444 says:


And what is so different with Telemarketing? These people already know where I live, my phone number, first and last name, what credit cards I have and don’t, my phone company, my isp, etc, etc, etc. Stop whining and deal with it, at least with targetted ads, we may actual get something we want out of the deal, and without the annoying foreigner mispronouncing my 5 letter english last name.

The Mighty Buzzard says:

The valley is a mirage

You almost, but didn’t quite, got it dead on. The thing is, that valley isn’t a valley. It’s a cliff with poor posture and there’s not any higher ground farther on.

The sweet spot for advertising is finding out what kind of people would enjoy your product and spending most, but not all, of your advertising budget appealing to them as a group. When you make advertising personal all it does is piss your potential customer off, no matter how dead on you are about them being the perfect person to buy your product.

This is precisely the reason people hate telemarketers, spam, and salesmen (Girlscouts excluded. Those cookies rock. Plus you’d feel bad if you kicked any girlscout ass). The only personalized advertising that doesn’t get blocked, get ignored, or piss your potential customers off is word of mouth.

Paco says:

People Magazine

People Magazine recently ran an advertisement for Oprah’s latest show in their magazine that has the subscribers name printed on it. It was something like JOHN SMITH: What would you do with $100,000 if Oprah gave it to you to give to others…yada yada yada.

It was quite creepy to see your name in the middle of the magazine, where you would not expect it.

Amanya Wannahearfrom says:

When every detail is known about you, from your hemorrhoids to your reproductive activity and inclination, every tiny detail about a person’s interest and existence and place in society- When every detail is known, and it is far far far too late to get it back- then you will have an inkling what will happen when government gets a hold of the information.

You see, a computer never, ever forgets- only humans have the bliss of forgetting what they know over long enough time.

Imagine a resume’ has been collected about you…since about 1988… and every detail is now pinned to you (right or wrong, correct or incorrect)and you must live with it 20 years later– because Government cannot be bothered to correct itself over an error (the Fed or State) and ,why, “don’t you know to correct any errors in your federal record, when you are three to thirteen years old?”

It is already so far past what everyone thinks…. in the responses above…so I write my little piece again… hoping to enlighten, not to anger.

Soon you will be taxed for every hot dog, burger, fast food, “incident” and you will have to pay a fee for your children if you were not healthy enough of a human specimen.

Sure, it sounds all so far out- but so did nationalized health care (aka Socialism turning to Communism)in the USA ten years ago. Now we all want to have our slice of Comrade-heaven…. and the older Comrades are smart enough to give up the system, as we beat them so complete.

It is no small matter, no matter how slippery the slope, to trade privacy away for a very very slim, but measurable, gain. As always- we always go for the “little loss of freedom for a little more convenience”. Sometimes we go for the “Little loss and nothing in return” without bothering for the reality of the given situation.

Trouble… Danger Will Robinson, Danger!

chris says:

I think you guys seem to be forgetting the best ta

The best targeted advertising, in my humble opinion is already out there at sites like netflicks and amazon. You are either a repeat customer and they see what you like and don’t like and associate you with other similar customers. The ads that say Hi mike I think you might enjoy x,y, or z already are effective (especially for types of purchases that are repeated in the commodity, but new in the instance for example books and movies). These sites are providing a recommendation of a similar product because they are learning what you are like as a person and the random ads you see on webpages will be effective and helpful for the same reason.

Looking forward, I would love for a site to notice when I clicked a link twice because my internet was slow and the next ad that they show me is for a competitors internet in the area, or a new modem or a new computer. Or if your computer capabilities were reported to a site ads could start showing up more and more frequently as your computer became a phased out piece of silicone. Which leads to an advertising model that needs to know how often different types of goods are purchased by each person and anticipates when a need will be reasonably surfacing.

But once marketing reaches that point, you will simply turn your computer on and it will pop up a page that has a list of items and says you might need one of these things sometime in the near future, and you will think to yourself, wow, I do and you will purchase it. Although the key step is to have your computer do the bargain hunting for you so the advertisers don’t really have any say… hehehe.

Wolferz (profile) says:

It's not a valley...

With robots, the “valley” happens for the same reason that some one with severe deformities makes people uncomfortable… the human brain is genetically wired to identify these people as ether a hindrance to the group or a threat to the human races continued survival. We can’t place the exact nature of the feeling without looking back and seeing what evolutionary reasons there would be for it. It is too primitive to be convey a specific message. Instead most people write it off as just an unexplainable feeling of dread or nervousness, ostracize the individual triggering the feelings, or worse (usually without even knowing the real reason why). When robots reach this point of being almost human, that same subconscious response is triggered.

I can see where marketing that is personalized to the point of making it obvious how much random-internet-dude knows about me would make me nervous. However, I do not think making it even more personalized would alleviate the sense of being watched. Quite the contrary, I think it would make it even worse.

Let’s say one Sunday night I decide I’ve got enough money to spare for a next-gen game console and do a couple of internet searches to compare. Then the next morning I’m getting ready for work and as I check my email every single advertisement is about the PlayStation 5 or the XBox 1440. I’m gonna be just a little bit unnerved at how they got that info. That is well across the border of collecting info and into the realm of outright spying.

With personalized advertising there is no valley. It’s a sheer cliff face leading to a 300 foot fall onto sharp jagged volcanic rock being smashed over and over by 20 foot waves.

Kaila Colbin (user link) says:

The problem with Beacon ain't overpersonalization.

…it’s publication.

The issue isn’t that Beacon knew too much about us; it’s that it told other people when we didn’t necessarily want it to.

The uncanny valley concept is fantastic and does apply to personalization, but I’d refer to the Beacon situation as violating the rule of Internet-client privilege. The Internet knows our every crime and peccadillo, but — like a lawyer, a priest or Las Vegas — it needs to keep them to itself.

Anonymous Coward says:

User control

I have always been of the opinion that you should be able to tell your browser what kind of things you would not mind seeing advertising about. Just as web sites are able to put a file on them that tells web robots what can/should not be searched, you could have a file that tells advertisers what things you would not mind seeing and what things you do NOT want advertised. Or, if I could tell one of those ad-blocking programs what kind of ads not to block… I guess that kind of standardization is too much to hope for.

Eliot Harper (user link) says:

Saying Yes to Online Personalized Advertising

We’ve been seeing personalized adverstising appear in print for several years through direct mail. This type of mail is printed on a digital color press and is often customized to include your name, different messages based on your profile, different images and sometimes even personalized images (i.e. your name written in clouds, sand, etc). I’m not sure why there would be a concern to expand this from offline to online. It seems a logical evolution to me. Actually, I’m surprised no ones really doing this already.

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