Digital Transformation

So, you think you want untargeted ads? Think again

By Martin Kihn | SVP Strategy

January 10, 2022 | 7 min read

Salesforce strategist Martin Kihn gives us a real-time glimpse into a cookieless future.

Anonymous consumers

What does it look like to live in a universe – or a metaverse – where ads are noticeably less relevant? Is our collective user experience really any better than what we’ve got now?

To answer this question, I conducted an experiment. I visited some of my usual websites using two different browser setups: ‘Targeted‘, with Google Chrome browser with cookies, location and IP address enabled; and ‘Untargeted‘, with Safari browser on Mac Monterey OS with location tracking turned off, browsing history cleared, and all cookies (except first-party) disabled. I also enabled a new Beta feature called Private Relay, obscuring my IP address, which can be used as a back-up ID when cookies aren’t present.

Then I took a cleansing breath, fired up the Safari browser and started surfing.

Our untargeted ad ‘FutureWorld’

Welcome to a web where nobody knows your name.

Dropping by Forbes, I’m immediately greeted by a sumptuous ad for a piece of beachfront real estate with spectacular views that do not remind me of my nearby Jones Beach, Long Island. ‘Own the Lifestyle,‘ it tells me... unfortunately, that lifestyle is in 1,300 miles away in South Beach.

Checking out a story about my man Matthew McConaughey, I see an ad for Toluna, which provides “agile consumer behavior tracking” for small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners (which I’m not) and a multi-paneled ad for Santa Teresa Rum. Now I don’t drink, but the article was about McConaughey’s whisky venture (not Santa Teresa), so I’m seeing some contextual targeting in action.

Stopping by BroadwayWorld.com for the latest on the Great White Way, I see an alarming ad with an older man knee-bracing a swollen limb under the headline “Bone on Bone?” Ouch. Swiss Air entices me to visit Venice and Florence... cities not actually on my Covid agenda, yet. YvesSaintLaurent lures me toward Black Opium, a perfume for women.

KnowYourMeme.com (a repo of meme info) flatters me with an ad for Oracle NetSuite and a call-to-action to download a white paper aimed at the chief financial officer (CFO), which I am not. I’m getting a suspicion these sites have somehow ID’d me as a business guy (true) and are trying out various roles (SMB? no... how about CFO?), but this fear is allayed by the next two ads, which I don’t understand: one for something called ‘MX KEYS MINI‘ and another for a Basilisk v3 with “Full Spectrum Customizability,” which looks like a mouse powered by a tiny nuclear reactor. (It’s for gamers, which I’m not.)

Dropping by Adweek, I’m invited to explore DisneyTech, a job site for Disney (not looking)... and Swiss Air again, this time trying to get me to go to Switzerland, which is probably lovely this time of year.

Toddling back to Forbes to recheck some fine points in the McConaughey story, I enjoy different ads for Ralph Lauren eyewear, modeled by a woman who looks like her kale wilted; and Cosabella Petite 28A to Ultra Curvey 36L inviting me to feel great in “your everyday bralette,” a word I’ve never seen before.

Finally, I’ll mention that Taboola ‘outstream‘ ads, at the bottom on the page, made up in entertainment value what they lacked in relevance. On CNBC.com I saw one with the headline “${city:capitalized} Seniors Are Living Good In These Incredible ...”

Which is one way to deal with a lack of location data, I suppose.

Back in the normal

My future world is alarming and tragic. I feel as though these poor publishers are basically rolling a set of pixellated dice, hoping to interest me in something... anything. Almost none of the ads have a prayer of converting me to anything.

Going back to the familiar world, I prime the pump by visiting my boys at HugoBoss.com to check out the new line of Boss x NBA Knicks-branded athleisure, and of course the Cadillac Escalade 4WD Sport Platinum to wear it in, knowing full well what comes next.

Nor am I disappointed, feeling as though I am falling into a warm bath of relevance and recognition that is comfortingly repetitive, like Top 40-radio. For reader, I suddenly saw a lot of ads for Hugo Boss x NBA athleisure (although not for my Escalade, probably because supplies are limited these days).

Visiting Forbes again, I see ads for the Teaching Company (I’m a customer), the Joyce Theater (ditto) as well as ads for direct competitors of my employer and for my employer itself. Capital One rotated some ads touting their “ML for Causal Analysis,” which is something I actually understand. And there were ads for mid-cap stock funds and SurveyMonkey research instruments, both of which I’m considering.

Over on CNBC, I am flattered to see the site has obviously mistaken my browser for that of a much richer man: there is an inspiring banner urging me to ‘Own Your Sky,‘ trying to sell me a jet.

At Adweek and BroadwayWorld and so on I notice a very familiar and similar ad experience, proving that programmatic advertising really does target the browser and not the publication. It works as advertised. Most of the ads are retargeted, some are competitors of brands I use, and others are just categorically appropriate things that people in my age and income bracket might buy (cars, funds, supplements).

Above all, it is a world that I recognize.

So, what did we learn about these colliding worlds?

My experiment is anecdotal, but it did surprise me in four ways:

Publishers aren’t adept at handling users with no IDs. There were far fewer contextual ads than expected and more low-awareness (and presumably low-bidding) advertisers filling space.

Retargeting is definitely overused. It has a role as a reminder and incentive to act but quickly devolves into negative returns for the brand.

We consumers are kidding ourselves if we think advertisers “track your every move” and know everything about us. If that were true, targeting would be a lot better than simply retargeting.

And finally, the untargeted experience is truly awful. Nobody could possibly want it: not advertisers, publishers or consumers. If it wins, the open web won’t have a chance.

For all concerned, there has got to be a compromise on the continuum of privacy and relevance. Let’s make that a New Year’s resolution.

Martin Kihn is senior vice president of strategy at Salesforce.

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