People have grown accustomed to being tracked online and shown ads for categories of products they have shown interest in, be it tennis or bank loans.The article later goes on to contrast this technique of following you around with products you looked at before with behavioral targeting like Google is doing, which learns your broader category interests and shows ads from those categories.
Increasingly, however, the ads tailored to them are for specific products that they have perused online. While the technique, which the ad industry calls personalized retargeting or remarketing, is not new, it is becoming more pervasive as companies like Google and Microsoft have entered the field. And retargeting has reached a level of precision that is leaving consumers with the palpable feeling that they are being watched as they roam the virtual aisles of online stores.
In remarketing, when a person visits an e-commerce site and looks at say, an Etienne Aigner Athena satchel on eBags.com, a cookie is placed into that person’s browser, linking it with the handbag. When that person, or someone using the same computer, visits another site, the advertising system creates an ad for that very purse.
If the goal of the advertising is to be useful and relevant, though, I think both of these are missing the mark. What you want to do is help people discover something they want to buy. Since the item they looked at before obviously wasn't quite right -- they didn't buy it after all -- showing that again doesn't help. Showing closely related alternatives, items that people might buy after rejecting the first item, could be quite useful though.
As marketing exec Alan Pearlstein says at the end of the NYT article, "What is the benefit of freaking customers out?" Remarketing freaks people out. If we are going to do personalized advertising, the goal should be to have the advertising be useful, either by sharing value with consumers using coupons as Pearlstein suggests, or by helping consumers find something interesting that they wouldn't have discovered on their own.
But, publishers should be careful when working with these new ad startups. A startup has a huge incentive to maximize short-term revenue and little incentive to maximize relevance. For the startup, as long as it brings in more immediate revenue, it is perfectly fine to show annoying ads that freak customers out and drive many away. Publishers need to force the focus to be on the value of the ads to the consumer so their customers are happy, satisfied, and keep coming back.