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I'm Sorry I Asked! Ad Retargeting and Psychological Reactance

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Republished from The Decision Lab. The Decision Lab is a behavioural science consultancy dedicated to creating social good by helping individuals, organisations, and governments make better decisions. I am a Staff Columnist for The Decision Lab. Subscribe here for the applied behavioural insights newsletter.

Original article published here.


Help! This is a real cry for help! I am being followed. Incessantly.

Everywhere I go.

I was checking my mail, and there it was, looking down at me.

I was gloating over a political argument reading important news on Twitter and it barged in.

I was checking out Jennifer Aniston’s first post looking for a recipe on Instagram and it popped in.

Was this my fault? All I did was search for a laptop backpack and now I am being hounded by bags. All across the internet. Everywhere I go.

“Check this one out!”  “Get 50% off” “Bags you might like” “Others like you bought this bag.”

Whoever needs to hear this, here’s the deal. I don’t want a bag. I am not looking for one. It was a mistake. I am sorry. I love my bag. Please, just let me be.

But, it doesn’t matter. Because if it’s a bag today, it will be a flight search tomorrow. Or a dress I looked at. Or a search for golf classes I did for my friend.

Unless you have been on a digital detox, you will have been through this. This constant hounding by companies because of a single, perhaps haphazard search you did. Also called retargeting in the world of digital marketing, this refers to the practice of serving personalized advertisements to customers on the basis of their browsing history.

Dynamic retargeting goes one step forward. Not only does it serve personalized ads on the seller’s website, but it can, quite literally, hound you down on any website or mobile app you visit and serve you these ads, based on your past browsing experience.

From a business perspective, this makes sense. If you visualize a marketing funnel, here’s a customer who has shown both awareness and interest, and is seriously considering a purchase. The intent is not firmed up yet, so what better time than now to bombard him with ads and coax out that latent intent?

There’s only one tiny, almost missable problem with this. We forgot to consider human nature!

Maybe this will help clear the matter.

Many years ago, the King of Prussia, Fredrick the Great (also known as Fritz) decided his subjects needed to start eating potatoes because they are a cheap source of carbs. He introduced the vegetable through town criers, gave out free samples, distributed recipes — in other words, everything that could be counted as marketing in today’s world. Nothing worked! People refused to buy potatoes. Finally, he tried something clever (which would not count in today’s marketing): he planted potatoes in the royal garden and built walls all around it, with security guards walking around all the time. The only catch was, the guards were told to be lenient and the walls had holes for people to look in. And look they did! “What is it that the royal family is having, that we cannot?” And just like that, someone snuck into the garden, stole potatoes and the rest, as they say, is history! Even today, Fritz’s grave gets potatoes as offerings instead of flowers!

Why we resist the potatoes

The thing is, people don’t like being told what to do. When their sense of autonomy is threatened, they might even do the opposite of what they are told to do. In social psychology, this is known as reactance. Reactance theory (Brehm, 1966) explains human behavior in response to the perceived loss of freedom in an environment. When there is a threat to a person’s freedom, he will attempt to restore the freedom by exhibiting opposition or resisting pressures to conform. Like not eating potatoes because he was told to — or eating them when told he can’t.

Consumer behavior, too, reflects these impulses — which means that, when bombarded with commercial messages of persuasion, we may react negatively in response to the ad. Edwards and co-authors (2005) show this in their study of another equally intrusive advertising medium — pop-up ads — for which the negative reactance to the perceived loss of freedom overrides the potential value of the content. If data is anything to go by, retargeting has this issue as well. According to InSkin Media’s consumer survey, 55% of consumers put off buying completely when they see retargeted ads. A whopping 53% find the ads annoying. And worse still, when they see the ad 10 times, more than 30% of people report actually getting angry at the advertiser.

If that’s not reactance, what is?

Effective retargeting

Should companies stop retargeting? Probably not. But, it does help for advertisers to start thinking about the negative effects of such strategies, and, at the very least, to consider putting up limits on how much they retarget. No company wants to spend their advertising budget to drive customers away. So, as you embark on your holiday purchases online, think French fries. They wouldn’t exist if not for this basic human need for freedom. Breathe in, breathe out when you see that annoying ad pop-up. And if you see bags flashing beside this post, ignore them — they’re probably meant for me!


  1. Miron, A. M., & Brehm, J. W. (2006). Reactance theory – 40 years later. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 37(1), 9-18.

  2. Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. Academic Press.

  3. Edwards, S. M., Li, H., & Lee, J. H. (2002). Forced exposure and psychological reactance: Antecedents and consequences of the perceived intrusiveness of pop-up ads. Journal of Advertising, 31(3), 83-95.


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