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Published January 5th 2017

Five Examples of Creepy Marketing: When Personalization Goes Too Far

The Brandwatch React team examines the fine line between a great personalized experience with a brand, and downright creepy marketing.

As insights get deeper, ability to track customers across the internet gets more advanced and the great pools of customer data expand to lakes, it’s time to talk about the line between a great personalized experience and downright creepy marketing.

There are more opportunities than ever for marketers to create personalized campaigns that provide value on an individual basis, but not everyone appreciates being reminded how much a company knows about them.

While it has been proven that people tend to like aspects of personalisation that make life more convenient, things like facial recognition to target ads and being greeted by name in stores can be a step too far for some.

One project is even designing clothes that confuse facial recognition software in a bid to protect privacy as the technology is used more and more for commercial purposes.

“Even when you are marketing to your entire audience or customer base, you are still simply speaking to a single human at any given time.”


As technology makes it more and more possible to create a more tailored experience for each individual human, the line between delighting and freaking out the customer is growing ever more blurry.

While inviting the convenience of smart home technology designed to listen to us into our most private spaces, we might all squirm a little if our Starbucks barista in a strange city wrote our name on the side of our cup without asking what it was.

The Brandwatch React team wanted to take a closer look, and used Brandwatch Analytics to identify instances of people describing marketing campaigns or adverts as “creepy” between August and December 2016 to see where things can go wrong. Below are some of the examples we found in the data.

Reactions can vary widely.

Incredibly insensitive

That said, reactions to this one will probably be quite similar.

While personalization can do wonders for getting someone interested in your products and services, perhaps companies in some fields should tread carefully.

Haunting purchases

Today, Karen (Emma Thompson’s character in Love Actually) could just have easily suspected her husband Harry of having an affair by browsing on the family laptop and noticing a whole bunch of ads for jewelry appearing alongside the sites she visited.

That is, of course, if Harry were to be stupid enough to browse for jewelry for another woman within the vicinity of his wife. Oh, wait.

In many cases ads for things we’ve looked at or purchased following us around the web can give us useful reminders or good deals.

It’s fairly basic and not too invasive personalization, but it can also have it’s downfalls when the cereal you’d been buying regularly for your now deceased relative pops up in your inbox as on offer, or table decorations for your now canceled wedding continue to follow you around the web.

We know where you live

Location tracking is perhaps one of the most unsettling realities of having a smartphone.

Your iPhone, unless you tell it not to, knows exactly where you almost all the time. It can even tell you how long you spend in different places and the frequency at which you visit them (if you’ve not tried it, find out how here).

According to Advertising Age:

Digital ad behemoths Google and Facebook have also introduced capabilities for measuring the effect of ads on their platforms on in-store visits. The companies use their own location data, generated on their platforms, to gauge store visits for ad clients.

Plenty of apps you track our locations, from Pokémon Go to Uber, but we’re not always comfortable with that.

Going public

It turns out we’re not all big fans of our preferences being made public, either.

Offer Moments‘ digital billboards, described in the video below as being inspired by Minority Report, are designed to show you ads based on your social media profile and what you’re currently wearing as you walk down the street.

As Abdul says, “it’s a little bit scary.”

Spotify also came under some scrutiny for their end of year ad campaign that surrounding user data. While their ads ran along the lines of “Dear person who listened to the ‘Forever Alone’ playlist for 4 hours on Valentine’s Day, you OK?”, a writer for the Independent wrote that they would be less than impressed if their hour long loop of “Bloody Motherf***ing Asshole” on Presidential Election Day appeared on a billboard a month later.

Whether using an individual’s listening habits as the punch line of a holiday marketing campaign is up for debate – I personally thought it was pretty hilarious.

The most magical place on Earth

Disney World takes personalization to a whole new level.

From being greeted personally by your favorite Disney character to getting your holiday snaps added to your personal album by touching “Mickey-to-Mickey” with Disney photographers, Magicband wearers get all sorts of perks for their family that are tailored to them. It literally goes this far:

Perhaps it’s strange that in the safely synthetic environment that is Disney World we’re more comfortable with intensely personal experiences when similar activity from brands in the real world would probably freak us out.

I love Frosties, but if Tony the Tiger greeted me in the supermarket saying “hey Gemma, you’re grrrrrreat!” I’d probably be on my way out pretty quickly.

How not to cross the line

The smarter technology gets, the more opportunities there are to target and wow consumers.

According to Econsultancy, it is likely that consumers appreciate a lot less personalisation than most marketers believe. Instead, creating personalized campaigns without using all of the data you have on a customer and not identifying them personally in the material can avoid the creepy label and encourage more engagement with your message.

Personalization will undoubtedly continue as a marketing theme going into 2017 and it could expand further afield.

Late last year Charlie Brooker, in episode two of Netflix’s season three of Black Mirror, warned of the dangers of allowing too much personalization into video games and, given it was the most terrifying episode, we definitely hope those warnings are heeded.

Are you a journalist looking to cover our data? We have plenty more. Email us [email protected] for more information

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