Online ads are like salespeople. Sometimes they’re helpful — and sometimes they trail you while you shop, make suggestions, “check in” on you, and all but shove you to the checkout.
Those online ads “chase you around the internet,” says Neeru Paharia, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. They get in your face to convince you to spend.
And while online advertising isn’t all bad — it can expose you to products from companies that can’t afford TV ads, Paharia says — the persistence and targeting can lead to unplanned purchases.
How online ads (stalk and) tempt you
Say you’re shopping for jeans, and the salesperson takes your measurements and learns about your style to suggest a fitting pair. Marketers learn about you, too, in order to advertise exactly what you want. Retailers’ targeted advertising tools work within websites to collect your data and track your internet activity. If you browse home-improvement blogs, for example, marketers may show you ads for power drills.
Or maybe you’ve been eyeing a specific pair of sneakers. Marketers may plant ads for the same kicks on social media, in articles and sponsored emails. Even if your brain knows that these repeated ads are targeted and designed to make you spend money, your heart may feel that they’re serendipitous. “The more that we come in contact with something, the more it feels like it should be part of our lives,” says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.”
Apps track you in even more ways than browsers, says Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor consultancy. Most people “mindlessly” agree to app terms, she says, which often grant access to text messages, contacts and other information. “You’re leaving this huge cloud of data that’s just emanating out of your phone or device and going directly to those who want to sell you something,” Herold says.
App providers may sell this “personal data exhaust” to third parties for marketing and research, she says. With this information, marketers can serve you especially relevant (and tempting) ads. Consider a running app that tracks your routes. “Maybe [marketers] know from the data that you like pets, and they see that you’re running by a pet store,” Herold says. “They can make it more likely that you will purchase something there by showing you an ad for a sale or even offering a coupon.”
In social media
You may see targeted ads on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest — sites where you can easily buy the products advertised. For example, ads for sneakers may show up in an Instagram post or story, where a tap or swipe sends you to the retailer’s website to buy them.
Fear of missing out can compound the urge to buy products highlighted in your feed. After all, friends’ curated profiles can make it seem like everyone but you is running on the beach in fancy sneakers, remodeling their kitchen with a power drill, and spoiling their dog with new toys from the pet store.
As Yarrow puts it: “As long as we’re using social media as a way to gauge what we’re capable of having, we’re never going to feel like we have enough.”
How to avoid impulse buys
Keep data to yourself. The less personal data available to marketers, the harder it is for them to inundate you with targeted ads. Remove every app you don’t use, Herold says, and for apps you keep, “change the privacy and security settings so they block as much of the tracking as possible.”
Online, clearing your cookies — a kind of tech that tracks your activity — and using incognito mode can help you browse the internet a little more privately, Herold says, adding: “Using an anonymous browser, like Tor, will provide even more privacy for your activities.” And if you want to check out those sneakers, you’ll give away less data by going directly to the retailer website, rather than clicking an ad.
Pause before you purchase. Buying something through an online ad is tempting, because it’s quick and abstract. “You see a product, you love it, you wish it was yours, and suddenly it is,” Yarrow says. “It feels like magic.”
Break that spell by waiting at least 20 minutes before making what could be a more rational decision, Yarrow says. In that time, demystify the purchase by considering other uses for that money. “You’ve got to make it real,” she says. Maybe the cost of those shoes is half a student-loan payment.
If you can, wait a couple of days, Yarrow says. “My guess is that at least half the time, you will forget about it forever.”