The Problem with Personalization: Are Local Ads Hitting Too Close to Home?

by Sherice Jacob

Last updated on February 28th, 2018

We like coupons and deals. We see the benefits.

But are online marketers crossing the line?

A recent study by Pew has revealed that while U.S. based consumers like targeted local search results, daily deals and coupons from their area, nearly 75% of them feel that tracking their searches and delivering contextual ads is a violation of privacy.

So what does this mean for local businesses and targeted marketing?  Let’s take a closer look at the way retailers are targeting ads online and offline, and just where the line is between convenience and cautiousness.

Target Hits the Mark a Little Too Soon

Earlier this year, Target’s targeted advertising methods tracked shoppers using their previous purchases, credit card details and other personalized information.  This worked so well, in fact, that Target was able to find out that a teenage girl was pregnant before her father even knew about it.  Of course, you can opt-out of getting advertising related to your shopping habits, but not out of being tracked by companies.

Personalized shopping ad

An example of a Target ad for a women in a sunny locale versus a male in a rainy locale.

So are personalized ads bordering on “creepy stalker” or are they more like “welcome deals?”

Obviously, companies want you to feel like they really “know you” but at what cost to your privacy?  Many internet users have the same concerns as shown by the Pew Research study below:

pew personalized search
pew personal ads

What Information Are You Sharing with Retailers?

The pervasiveness of personalized search and recommendations has people rightfully edgy about what they (knowingly) share.  Ideally, retail stores and online outfits would be much more open and transparent about what they collect – and why, while giving consumers a way to opt-out of it completely.

Of course, this inadvertently leads companies to complain that most people, if given the choice, would indeed opt-out.  But I’d remind them that once there’s a firestorm about a company’s particular privacy missteps (*ahem*Facebook), it becomes a massive uphill climb for them to make changes and scrub their image back to squeaky clean in the minds of shoppers and users.  Ignoring your customers and hoping you can snatch their shopping habits without any recourse is a recipe for disaster.

Hyper Local Advertising

An example of a hyper-local ad targeting your location by way of a smart phone GPS

Make the Exchange of Information Worthwhile

One of the more frightening examples of personalization followed me for a good month after I saw it.  I had been searching out particular stock photos for use in a client’s website design and saving them in a lightbox.   Now, everywhere I went, I saw said ads for the stock photo company along with the exact aforementioned lightbox items.

I was just thankful that the site I was designing wasn’t for a slasher horror movie, otherwise I’m sure the ad choices would’ve raised a few eyebrows from passers-by!

The bottom line is that companies need to stop grabbing at every little scrap of personal information about us from the myriad of social and shopping services, and start treating us like valued individuals.   If you’d like to recommend something to me based on a previous purchase, let me choose which store to receive it from, which items not to see (for example, when buying gifts for others) and how often to receive the information.

Starbucks Ad
To me, ads for Starbucks would always be welcome!

I’m sure that the companies involved would get a much better return on their investment, and customers wouldn’t feel like every ad was an intrusion on their privacy.

Share Your Thoughts!

Have you had an unusual experience with personalized advertising?  Or do you feel it’s a minor annoyance compared to the deals you get?  Share your comments and stories in the comments below!

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Sherice Jacob

Sherice Jacob helps website owners improve conversion rates with custom design, copywriting and website reviews.  Get your free conversion checklist and web copy tune-up by visiting


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