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Retargeting Killed Santa: How Online Shopping Ads Are Ruining the Holidays

I swear I didn’t peek. But come Friday morning, I will have to try a little harder to feign surprise when unwrapping my presents. And so will my 8-year-old daughter.

The internet has simply spoiled the surprise for us, over and over again.

The present my wife is getting me? I’ve seen ads for it on Facebook and many other websites almost every day ever since she started shopping for it in early December. And the other day, Amazon helpfully sent me an email, informing me that the thing I’m not supposed to know about is now selling for $50 off.

I have no idea where exactly my daughter saw a mention of her present, but suspect it was also an ad somewhere. Or maybe a push notification from Gmail, confirming the purchase on a mobile phone’s locked home screen. Either way, she knows what’s in store for her and her little sister. Good thing Santa doesn’t do Amazon, otherwise there wouldn’t be a surprise left at all.

The main culprit for our spoiled holidays is what marketers like to call “retargeting.” The idea behind retargeting is simple: Only about two percent of online shoppers actually seal the deal when they’re looking at a product online, according to ad tech specialist Adroll. Ninety-eight percent just do the internet equivalent of window-shopping, and then go about their business without making a purchase.

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In the early days of the internet, an online store like Amazon simply would have reminded consumers of the product they looked at during their next visit. But these days, websites are connected with giant ad networks that keep track of our shopping and even browsing behavior across a multitude of websites, and use that knowledge to present ads elsewhere.

Online advertising technology that includes retargeting is almost omnipresent these days, and ad networks themselves have become an essential fabric of the web. That’s in theory good news for retailers and others trying to get the message out, but in practice often makes for a terrible experience for consumers.

One problem: Consumers often find themselves targeted by ads for the very products that they just bought. Some of this is just bad retargeting, with websites not stopping to advertise products even after you’ve already purchased them. But some has also to do with comparison-shopping. Maybe you checked prices on multiple sites, or maybe you just thoroughly researched your options before eventually going out and buying a product in stores. Retargeting tech won’t know anything about those purchases, and keep blasting the same message over and over again.

But this time of the year, retargeting is even more problematic. The tablet on your coffee table is an inherently social device, and phones and laptops frequently get passed around as well. If anyone in your family used any of those devices to do their holiday shopping, you are likely going to see ads poised to ruin surprises.

Shared accounts are an even bigger issue. My family’s Amazon Prime account is attached to my Amazon account. So when my wife researched my present on Amazon, the retailer took notice, and ads started popping up on my mobile phone and desktop PC, despite the fact that she used her own laptop.

It’s too late to change anything now, but I’ve learned my lesson for 2016, and I recommend you do the same thing: Don’t do your holiday shopping online. Don’t even look up reviews. Just go to your local store, and don’t let retargeting ruin your holidays.

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