It’s no surprise that most mystery authors’ search histories are alarming. After all, they contain deep dives into sundry murder methods, plausible alibis, inventive ways to dispose of pesky bodies, and oh so much more.

Although I’m sure I’m on some kind of watch list, I don’t fear the proverbial knock on the door so much as targeted ads and news recommendations based on my search history, purely for their annoyance factor.

After watching a true crime program about cruise ship murders, I trolled the internet for ship-shape crimes. Now my newsfeed is filled with stories about people falling from ship balconies. (I expect to read about a chocolate fountain drowning any day.)

Then there was the time a vintage true crime podcast inspired me to scour Google for more information. Which in turn inspired Google to serve up ads featuring axes, scythes, plow sharpeners and getaways to country houses decorated in Early American Horror.

Targeted advertising isn’t limited to crime, of course. Big Data uses our web history, viewing habits, geography, age and even names to serve up ads and articles marketers believe will inspire purchases. This has spawned not only “swagvertising” with clothes emblazoned with our names and astrological signs, but also digital cookies that dunk us in a giant vat of programmatic content that stalks us across the internet’s landscape.

Even companies are at risk for this kind of data-driven creepiness. Ad bots serve up promos by combing through news copy, sometimes to cringe-worthy effect. Case in point: an article about a horrific earthquake interrupted by animated meteors to promote a disaster movie.

My online habits have provided rich fodder for marketers. Google searches, emails and social media scrolls about topics including the royal family, dental plaque and whether jeans should be tucked into boots have yielded an onslaught of ads with varying degrees of relevance. The upside: I now know what Meghan Markle likes for breakfast, why I should do This One Simple Trick to look younger, and which dental schools would like me to apply and start my exciting new future now!  

These kind of ads are relentless and ubiquitous. And usually ill-timed.

My favorite example is a friend whose online work presentation was accompanied by ads promoting undergarments guaranteed to give her a bigger backside.

Cue the awkward silence as she tried to switch browsers and minimize ads that popped up in the world’s most embarrassing game of digital Whack-A-Mole.

Had she searched for ways to pad her frame? Maybe. Maybe not. The important thing is that she’s almost guaranteed to receive some kind of prosthetic derriere from work friends for Christmas.

Her experience has instilled a real and persistent fear in me. I now wonder if my presentations will be accompanied by images of my books, articles about arsenic, news about dismemberment or ads for rashes. Time and the gods of advertising will tell.

Of course, there is a positive in all this. The idea of targeted ads based on someone’s habits seems ready-made for a mystery or thriller. Maybe a murder victim’s search history includes research into stalking laws. Maybe a suspect’s Facebook feed is peppered with promotions for exotic knives. Maybe the police find text ads for self-defense courses on the phone of the victim of what appears to be a tragic car accident. The possibilities—and the plot lines—are endless.

What about you, dear friends? Have you fallen victim to annoying targeted ads? Do you have any funny stories to share?

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on

42 thoughts on “Searching…

  1. For a while I was getting a lot of ads for New York real estate. Most of them claimed to be “great deals” that would be way overpriced for where I actually live. I don’t know what I searched on to get those. I don’t recall ever looking for real estate anywhere even close to New York. But I guess when you’re in charge of selling a house for $3 million you can afford to cast a wide ad net!

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Kathy, that happens to hubs and me alla time! There’s no way we’d be caught dead in our house with one of those Alexa or Nest Russian/FBI spymasters in our house, but one evening we were chatting about something so inane I can’t even remember (which is what happens when you’ve been together for—gulp—40 years). Before bed, I skimmed through facebook and there it was, lurking … this thing we had just talked about! If I ever remember it, I’ll try to recreate it, perhaps make my own indie horror film about it.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Even better – if you’re on Goodreads, any book you buy or borrow on Amazon is copied to your Goodreads reading list. Check mine out and you’ll find treatises on polyamory, bdsm, the second amendment, an army field manual for snipers, and serial killers…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve got to say I usually tune out the ads when I’m surfing the net. Sometimes I can’t seem to get away from them, however. Can’t think of any that really stick out as especially funny or embarrassing, however. I guess I’m just a boring person.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Such a great post, Kathy. That story about your friend is hilarious in a very embarrassing way. Ads based on searches I’ve done pop up all the time but I never thought about one popping up at an inopportune moment. I’ll have to consider that in the future. I recently did a search for assisted living, should we need that for my mother, who’s had some health issues. I’m hoping some useful ads actually pop up! None so far. The one time I need them!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Very thoughtful post, K! It’s unbelievable how much information is gathered about us. One time I was talking on the phone to someone about an item–I don’t remember what: let’s say a beach towel–and the next day my ads were full of beach towels. I find that super creepy and worrisome. And who, exactly, is listening in? *shivers*

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yessssssssssssss. I swear that Big Data is listening to my conversations. (And, yes, I realize how paranoid that sounds.) So many times, I’ve been marketed products based on chats in person and on the phone. Sounds like a Stephen King book!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m like Mark. I don’t pay attention to the ads that pop up–although maybe I should.

    I do get random mailings, though. In the mail, I still receive coupons for diapers and such. I’m also getting the Bon Appétit magazine (which I never subscribed for). I’m not sure how marketers are thinking I can whip up gourmet meals while also juggling newborns. On the fun side, I’m also now getting more pets-related flyers (maybe the Sassy Cat Mystery tie-in?).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s so interesting about the pet-related flyers! That would be cool/fascinating if it were related to Sassy Cat!

      And lol about gourmet meals and newborns. In my world, never the twain met! (Actually, that seems to be true for gourmet meals and teenagers, too.)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Jen, I still get postcards from insurance companies who want to help me save money on my teenage drivers. Um … my youngest will be 30 this year. But don’t get me wrong … as a printshop owner, I LOVE getting mailers, but they do make me laugh.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Yes, I’m always amazed at how quickly the ads pop up after your web search–within seconds sometimes. Yikes! Makes me want to do a bunch of searches for soothing travel spots, fine liquor, and delicious foods, so those will be the ads that populate my web browser…

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Great post, Kathy! I’m a little jealous that axe manufacturers haven’t targeted ads to me, lol!
    But, no kidding, often when I email my agent an ad pops up in Yahoo for a coffee mug that says world’s best agent!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Kathy,
    I wish I had a story. Alas, I have never noticed the ads, so I got nada.
    So I will tell you another story.
    My daughter and I do Hunt A Killer packages. And I dabble in murder mysteries. So I am always looking stuff up on the internet. My daughter does not flash ads in front of my eyes, but she does definitely question (and is concerned/afraid) about my knowledge base!

    I can tell you no ads will ever show up for AL that are useful. Most of their websites are of no use. You can’t get information over the phone the majority of the time. They want you to waste your time driving around, interviewing them in person and give them all kinds of info (Maybe it’s different now because of Covid, but not when I was looking last year for daddy).
    So give up on waiting for them. Take the bull by the horns and start yourself, sadly.
    You are not on your own though, girl. Tag me with any questions. I should be able to at least steer you in some good directions.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Kathy,
        Obviously you have to hunt down a killer. It is a company out of Maryland that creates “cold cases” or “cases the police don’t think are murder”.
        It’s a six month subscription for one case. Some say it is too expensive, but to spend 2 hours once a month for $30 is not bad. A movie for 2 cost just as much!
        We have been doing it since the company created the mailing subscription. Before that, they were like an adventure bonding experience for companies and things like that IRL.
        They are done in different parts of the country, and different decades. We’ve done anything from 1930s to almost current time frames.
        You get a bit of the clues each month in this red and black box that say HAK. Some are easy, some are hard. Some have ciphers, some don’t. I think it’s neat, that you get to touch things. We’ve had to decipher cryptic notes, read love letters and newspapers and maps, find the code to ‘pick a lock’, find a clue on cuff links, look at hotel registrations, things like that.
        You get pictures, sometimes maps, police reports, sometimes videos or other stuff online. You need to eliminate suspects, or find a specific thing (the subs now have a goal each month).
        They also have a website where you can get hints if necessary.
        Or you can order what’s called a premium case, where everything is sent in one box. We just got a premium box today, that my daughter and I will be working on this weekend. Those run about $100, for usually about 6 hours of work.
        We create a murder board, write a timeline, take notes in a book, all kinds of stuff.
        And I even bought fake detective badges and ‘detective’ flasks for us to use when we are sleuthing.
        It’s pretty cool.

        FYI, when we first started, one month it was delivered to the wrong house. I hear a knock on the door about 7PM. By the time I opened the door, the box was on the stoop, and a red mustang was tearing down the street!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Kathy, you are a constant source of entertainment and thought-provoking commentary. And this? “… but also digital cookies that dunk us in a giant vat of programmatic content that stalks us across the internet’s landscape.” You should be a writer!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Kathleen,
    Your post is so true. For a story I was writing, I googled money laundering. For the next few weeks, I got side ads about where to invest my money, got an extra $1,000, etc. Even funnier is I also got ads for getting tough stubborn stains out.
    You got to love Google.
    Thanks for the post and the laugh.
    Carole Lynn Jones

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Sometimes I’m careful in what I am searching because I know I’m going to get an ad that pops up when it shouldn’t. Even when I try to get rid of the cookies to the site, those ads keep finding me.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Kathy, so funny! You make ads sound fun–or at least very intriguing. After watching The Social Network, I did opt out of personalized ads on Google and my iPhone — just redid my settings. Definitely worth it–you get ads, but just random ones that don’t really grab your attention. But I have noticed nonetheless that I am blasted with ads based on someone spying via my texts and Messenger. Now the Evil Ones are sure I could be suckered into perusing nursery furniture and toys and clothes for my daughter’s new baby–not to mention reverse mortgages and “final plans.” Oh, and multiple pharmacy items and helpful shots. Brr. (See, that’s how you can get assisted living info, El. Google Pottery Barn Kids.

    Liked by 1 person

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