11 Hilarious Retargeting Fails to Kick Off 2018


What’s funny to you?

Probably not retargeting.

During our first retargeting campaign here at AutoGrow, we did an experiment.

We retargeted anyone who looked at our blog posts. The goal was to have them come back and opt in to our free video training.

It worked but there was a major problem. The cost per conversion was over $3, which is high.

We were seeing results, but it was clear retargeting wasn’t paying for itself.

Since then, I’ve become more focused on how to do retargeting the right way.

Here’s my definition, straight from my premium funnel training course:

If you don’t quite grasp retargeting or it hasn’t performed for you, that’s okay. You’re not the only one.

The following 11 hilarious (and sometimes cringe-worthy) retargeting fails prove they’re more common than you think.

Of course, we’re not here to poke fun at these companies. Each of these gaffes is a learning experience.

For that reason, I’ve included a section for each example on how these retargeting fails can be fixed or prevented.

What better way to enter the new year than by learning (and laughing a little)?

Let’s shrug off 2017 and have a little fun.

Retargeting Fail #1: Macy’s Ad Spoils Christmas 

How It Was a Failure: Don’t you just love Christmas? You’ve probably been busy all week opening presents and celebrating the holiday.

How many of those gifts were a surprise? If retargeting had its way, it would be far fewer than you’d prefer.

Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land almost had his Christmas wrecked thanks to retargeting. His wife had been browsing online for a jacket for him from Macy’s. Even though she didn’t buy it, a Macy’s ad with the jacket kept popping up everywhere.

Sullivan said his wife’s actual gift for him was also advertised, as were gifts for his children.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: If you, too are being plagued by retargeting ads online, Sullivan recommends opting out of these ads. That should make them go away for good.

Here’s a screenshot of how Sullivan did it:

Retargeting Fail #2: Double the Browsing, Double the Retargeting

How It Was a Failure: Matthew Perosi, founder of jewelry business resource jWAG, wanted a new camera card.

He typically went on Eye-Fi to buy these. Like most shoppers, he thought he’d also check prices and shipping times on Amazon to get the best deal. After a bit of research, Perosi found the prices and shipping times were about the same.

He decided to do what he always did: shop at Eye-Fi.

Since Amazon and Eye-Fi both had active retargeting campaigns, Perosi began seeing twice the retargeting ads.

Perosi says the above ads were “stacked,” and the most that would appear at once was two. Still, that’s invasive. He also said the ads followed him to Facebook.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: Perosi shares a tip on how companies can stop frustrating their customers with retargeting ads once they buy a product from their company: “…always take that extra step in your setup to ensure users are removed from your retargeting product ad campaigns after they have purchased that product.”

Retargeting Fail #3: Retargeting Ad Links to Out-of-Stock Items

How It Was a Failure: Tim Parry at Multichannel Merchant wrote about his retargeting experience with Lids, a hat retailer.

He had recently shopped with them. When he saw a retargeting ad with Lids hats and other apparel for sale, he decided to check it out.

Sadly, the ad was deceptive. Parry went to Lids’ website only to find the sales items were mostly sold out or had only limited stock available.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: Parry recommends this tip: “Make sure your inventory management system is speaking with your affiliate marketing program. If those two worlds are aligned as one, these false-hope customer scenarios won’t take place.”

He also suggests companies “set realistic safety levels” to avoid assuming items are in-stock when they are low-stock or out of stock.

Retargeting Fail #4: “Chased Around the Internet by a Shed” 

Photo courtesy of Zoomax

How It Was a Failure: Stuart Heritage at UK news site The Guardian had the same browsing habits of many victims of bad retargeting. He was just shopping around, in this case for a shed.

Even though he didn’t find his shed, he noticed shed ads were now following him.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: While this is a hilarious story, Heritage got quite tired of looking at sheds. He eventually opted out of the ads.

While Heritage does recommend ad blockers to avoid being chased around by-products, he says he has an issue with them.

He doesn’t want to block all website ads, especially those sites that rely on ad revenue to keep running. That said, with AdBlock, you can disable ad-blocking for certain sites or pages.

Retargeting Fail #5: Retargeting Ads Make People Feel Ashamed of Themselves

Photo courtesy of NYTimes.com

How It Was a Failure: This one isn’t funny so much as it’s just sad. Julie Matlin had an unfortunate experience with retargeting ads.

She was first retargeted by Zappos ads after she almost bought a pair of shoes.

Okay, that’s not so bad. Next, Maitlin said she was retargeted by an online dieting service she had briefly used.

“They are still following me around, and it makes me feel fat,” she said.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: Retargeting probably isn’t the best means of advertising for every company. A dieting company especially, must be careful. If someone uses their service (or even contemplates it), it can be kind of cruel to keep chasing them around with ads.

It’s best to follow the advice from Tim Parry above and track who has bought the dieting product and then cease retargeting for that user.

Retargeting Fail #6: Digital Marketer Jason Swenk Says He “Misses” His Subscribers

How It Was a Failure: Jason Swenk is a digital marketer who specializes in training for digital marketing agencies that want to grow. He also offers consulting services.

Despite his expertise, he produced a carousel ad on Facebook that came across as a little unsettling…

The ad only appeared if it had been 30 days since a subscriber had visited Swenk’s site. The language used here is personal, off-putting and more than a little creepy.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: Making subtle tweaks to your post language can help you avoid coming across as desperate. In this case, omitting the first sentence altogether makes Swenk’s message more effective.

Retargeting Fail #7: Perfect Audience Tries and Fails to Play up the Creepy Factor in Retargeting

How It Was a Failure: Listen, on the surface, retargeting can be pretty unsettling. A user logs onto a site once and that’s all it takes. They don’t even have to buy a product to be plagued by ads begging them to buy.

Perfect Audience is a retargeting service itself, and one that we use here at AutoGrow. Of course they’d be well-versed with how weird this marketing practice can be. That’s what probably inspired them to make a tongue-in-cheek ad about retargeting.

The ad is supposed to get people to sign up to use Perfect Audience. I don’t know about you, but I see that guy and the last thing I want to do is get involved in retargeting.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: Think about your audience. Perfect Audience was going for a funny, humanized portrayal of the weirdness of retargeting. They did their jobs a little too well, enough so that anyone who sees that ad is going to want to take a long Internet break.

Retargeting Fail #8: Retargeting and the Nearly Spoiled Engagement

How It Was a Failure: Christopher Radcliffe at Econsultancy wrote an amusing piece about how retargeting almost spoiled his engagement.

He started his search for the perfect ring online.

Like many retargeting victims, Radcliffe didn’t buy any of the rings from his first round of research. It didn’t matter, though. The damage was already done.

The rings were now everywhere he went online, and they almost clued his future fiancée of their impending engagement.

It didn’t stop there, either. Once Radcliffe popped the question, he says he was continuously stalked by marriage-related ads on Facebook.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: Radcliffe recommends clearing cookies to remove of engagement-ruining ads.

Retargeting Fail #9: A Tale of Bad Timing: Travel to Florida During the Zika Outbreak

How It Was a Failure: Oops.

The timing of your message is almost as important as the message itself.

An unnamed travel agency found that out the hard way. They majorly goofed when they made an ad for discounted flights to Miami.

The issue? The ad appeared on the Miami Herald’s website, which at the time was covering the Zika outbreak in Florida.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the travel agency’s ad. Quite the contrary. Had this been on any other page of the Miami Herald’s website, we wouldn’t be writing about it.

Timing is very important, as is common sense. The travel agency maybe shouldn’t have been advertising trips to Florida during the Zika outbreak.

Retargeting Fail #10: Spreading Lies Through Retargeting

How It Was a Failure: Australian digital marketer Dana Flannery wanted to buy some Minions gear for her son, who had a winter trip coming up. Note, she didn’t want official Minions merch, but handcrafted gear instead.

Due to time constraints, it was crucial the item ship from Australia. That would allow it to be delivered to her before her son left.

Having browsed Etsy already and found nothing that fit her needs, Flannery began looking elsewhere.

When she hopped on Facebook, she saw a retargeting ad for Etsy. It made Etsy seem like it had the Australian-based Minions gear Flannery needed, since the shop owner advertised was from Australia.

She thought, okay, maybe she had missed something. After all, there was a designer who fit the criteria in the ad.

Flannery went back on Etsy. This time, she searched more thoroughly.

Guess what?

She still didn’t find the product she was looking for.

Here’s where Etsy started to get tricky. She’d see some products that said they were made in Australia. Then, when Flannery clicked the listing, the product would only ship to the US.

As you can imagine, she bought her Minions gear elsewhere.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: Don’t be deceptive in your ad just to get people to come back and give your site a second look. You’re just going to waste their time and possibly dissuade them from ever doing business with you again.

Retargeting Fail #11: Childless Retirees and Baby Stroller Ads Don’t Mix

How It Was a Failure: This ad for baby strollers and other baby gear popped up on a USA Today article about planning for retirement without children.

At best, this is a funny but foolish mistake. At worst, it could offend some USA Today readers. They might feel like the site is making fun of their childless state.

How to Prevent/Avoid the Same Mistake: John Douglas at advertising company Sizmek notes how “anti-targeting any pages with a ‘retirement planning’ context probably could have done the trick to solve this incongruent context.”


If you’re looking to up your retargeting game, check out my free video training series on how to create a 6-figure sales funnel.

Sure, most of these 11 retargeting gaffes probably gave you a chuckle, but others were pretty unfortunate. Some of the marketers and companies that made these mistakes are big names, proving that retargeting errors can happen to anyone.

Let’s learn from their mistakes. To review:

  • Opting-out or deleting cookies will remove most pesky retargeting ads that consumers experience.
  • Inventory management and affiliate marketing must keep the lines of communication open, especially if you’re a retail company advertising clothing or similar products.
  • Misleading customers with your retargeting ads could leave them with a bad taste in their mouths. If you don’t have what a consumer is looking for, don’t make it seem like you do.
  • Watch the language and images you use in your retargeting ads. If these are too creepy, the ads will not have the desired effect.
  • Use anti-targeting to avoid advertising to audiences outside of your target market.

Have you ever made a retargeting mistake like the 11 examples above? Is there one example that really hit home? Which one? Let me know in the comments

Keep Hustlin’, Stay Focused,


Back to posts
Read previous post:
10 Pros Share Their Best Hacks for Creating Explosive Content

You probably have a daily or weekly routine you follow for creating content that (you hope) will drive traffic. The...