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Why Is That Ad Following You Around the Web?

Marketers use 'behavioral retargeting' to sell you products

"It's exciting for marketers," says Teresa Caro, senior vice president of social and content marketing at Engauge, an Atlanta-based digital marketing agency. "But we also have to think about the consumer who we are targeting, and whether they'll find that incredibly helpful or incredibly creepy."

For all the talk of effectiveness and relevancy, retargeting can backfire. No one likes being followed by an ad, even if we know it's anonymous. It gets even more worrisome when companies that we've given identifiable information to, such as Facebook, Amazon and Google, get involved.

"Facebook has so much data on everyone already," says Jeremy Leon, a social media strategist at New York-based marketing agency Laundry Service. "The fact that they now know what you're doing all across the Internet is kind of scary."

The good news is you can control how much or little you are targeted (and retargeted) by advertisers.

See also: How to shop safely online

Some of the Web's biggest companies, such as Amazon and Zappos, allow users to choose the kinds of recommendations they get in their profile settings. For complete browsing privacy, set your Web browser not to accept cookies (generally located in the settings menu). However, this means you may have trouble logging into websites where you have an account. A less drastic alternative is to simply reset your cookies every few days — just go to your browser settings and clear your cache. That way the next time that stubborn blue shirt shows up, you can tell it to just go away.

In Europe, websites are required to tell visitors that they use cookie tracking. No such requirement exists in the U.S.; in fact, a Delaware judge recently ruled that cookie-based tracking was not harmful to Web users. Advertisers generally follow best practices to avoid bombarding users. Caro says it all comes down to trust and transparency: "When you know it and you trust it, then it's not an issue."

Adroll, Criteo and others place a small question mark button on retargeted ads. Click the question mark, and the ad explains the practice and offers the option to turn retargeting off. Only 3 percent of those who click on Adroll's explainer message decide to opt out, which tells the company that most people don't mind retargeting, says Lauren Vaccarello, the company's vice president of marketing.

Erin Griffith is a freelance writer for AARP Media.

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