Hyper Targeted Advertising Prank Leads to Broader Conversation

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Facebook’s advertising practices have sometimes come under scrutiny for being too targeted to their intended demographics and for collecting too much user information to craft the ads. A few months ago, 27 year old marketer Brian Swichkow played a prank on his roommate to prove a point about Facebook’s data collection practices and to help drive traffic to his blog by showing that hyper-targeted advertising really works.


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Swichkow’s roommate, Roderick Russell, began seeing targeted advertising in his Facebook sidebar back in June. Russell, a professional sword swallower, began seeing advertisements targeting his condition of having a severe gag reflex when swallowing medication, but not while swallowing swords. The ads only increased in specificity in the weeks that followed and led Russell to eventually believe that he was being actively tracked. He even stopped using his cell phone for fear of it being bugged.What began as a prank turned into a conversation about the effectiveness of hyper-targeted ads. Using Facebook’s advertising platform, Custom Audiences, some marketers target as few as 5 people with individual advertisements to help communicate a specific message to individual people. One marketer called this process “niche to one” advertising.Swichkow’s prank was posted to his new marketing blog, mysocialsherpa.com, and was subsequently posted to the popular social news website, Reddit. The post gained popularity and so did Swichkow’s blog, making the prank a success. Brian eventually told his roommate about the prank to alleviate his concerns.

Following an abundance of hyper-targeted ads on Facebook in the months that followed Swichkow’s original prank, Facebook implemented a policy that requires at least 20 people in a marketing list before a campaign can be run. Despite these new regulations, Swichkow has found a loophole that adds 20 people to a given campaign, 19 men and 1 woman for instance, and then specifies an ad that only reaches women, bypassing Facebook’s new list size policy.

A key takeaway from the prank and hyper-targeted advertising effectiveness in general is that ads must be perceived to be found by the potential customer, rather than an advertisement finding them. Ads designed to target customers that hit a little too close to home make potential sales leads feel vulnerable and sometimes deter them from buying or engaging with the brand altogether.

Hyper targeted advertising is considered an art form by brand strategists like Peter Tompson, a marketer who found Swichkow’s blog after the prank. In the case of business to business targeting, some targeted ads may bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales and must be executed perfectly.

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