When Targeted Promotions Really Miss

“Why does Facebook think I’m a plus-sized woman who wants a payday loan?”
-Brian Henriksen, Assistant Vice President, Operational Risk Management, U.S. Bank

While Brian Henriksen is not a plus-sized woman and has never, to his knowledge, needed a payday loan, both Google and Facebook feel certain that he is, and as such offer him many totally irrelevant shopping opportunities for goods he does not need. And, although Henriksen acknowledges that he also sees plenty of online push ads for things he does want – video games, camping equipment and “other extremely manly things” – it seems that no matter what he does, he will never be able to convince the Internet that he is not a large lady with periodic cash flow issues.

Here at PYMNTS we spend a lot of time hearing about the wonders of the data-enhanced consumer experience, complete with buzz phrases – “one-to-one retail experience,” “personalized retail journey” and “individualized retail”  just to name a few.  It’s a good idea in principle with a solid aim — converting consumers into community members who feel like they do more than just shop with a brand. And when it works, it pays big dividends — Apple addicts literally and proudly self-identify as a cult, and Disney devotees over the course of a lifetime will spend on average of $100,000 on assorted merchandise and vacations.

But, when it misses, it’s not so good.  In minor instances, like Henriksen’s, it will mean seeing weird ads since the Internet’s ability to harvest data has caught up to the industry’s ability to put that data into a useful context.

Sometimes however, the miss is bigger, such as when companies try to build those consumer communities and build controversies instead. In these instances, the attempt to build the “one-to-one” consumer experience takes an unfortunate left turn into the “one-to-weird” consumer experience, which ends up moving people closer to the door than the checkout line.

PYMNTS has picked out a few of our favorites of when that happens — and why.


Amazon Mom –  Too Exclusive

Amazon Mom is a pretty simple concept by all accounts. It’s a special membership program offered by the retail giant that provides discounts, recommendations and other information to help moms deal with being a parent for little ones from birth through the toddler years. The most notable benefit of the program is 20 percent off of diapers. Membership is free and comes with a 30-day free trial membership in Amazon Prime.

Though it is called Amazon Mom, the sign-up page for the program makes it clear – in bold type – that the program is open to parents of any gender and caregivers of all stripes – not just moms. And while the program says that it’s open to all, its name has stirred up lots and lots controversy. Petitions to change the name of the program to Amazon Family (which is what it is called in the U.K. and Europe) have started picking up steam this week.

“It’s not about a name and it’s not about me personally being offended. … It’s about a company that looks at the U.S., then looks at England, and then decides that over there, parent equals mom or dad, while here, well, we’re not ready for that yet,” wrote parenting blogger Oren Miller.

Miller first began his campaign against Amazon about a year ago, but the issue did not initially get much traction. That changed earlier this week after Miller succumbed to a battle with lung cancer on Saturday, Feb. 28. And suddenly his cause saw national attention from CNN and the “Today Show.

“The issue matters to me not only because my friend Oren thought it was important, but because it is important that an influential company like Amazon acknowledges that we as a society have changed. Dads do more now — more grocery shopping, more housework, more of everything that used to be considered strictly Mom’s purview. That should be acknowledged, if for no other reason than it’s true,” noted “Today Show” contributor Carter Gaddis.

The now big push for the name change is not a case of “dads versus moms,” according to Gaddis, but is instead an issue for parents everywhere “because most of us believe that Amazon is better than this.”

And just to make sure that Amazon lives up to its best potential, the name change advocates have taken to Twitter in droves using the #AmazonFamilyUS hashtag to call for Amazon to make the change. The week has also seen dozens of dad bloggers from around the world putting up coordinated posts across social media platforms and various blogs under the #AmazonFamilyUS header.

“[Amazon] is a tech powerhouse and represents the future of commerce in the world. In that vein, for them to make that change would be particularly meaningful, because of what they stand for,” noted Doug French, co-founder of the Dad 2.0 Summit, an annual conference of dad bloggers.

So far Amazon has offered no public comment, though protesters remain hopeful.

“I think the fact that they’ve been so silent means they are talking about it behind the scenes,” parenting blogger Chris Routly said. “I can’t imagine that them talking about it like this would result in a scenario that they come out with a statement of ‘too bad.’”


McDonald’s “Pay With Love” –  Just Too Weird  

In a turn of events that will doubtlessly depress a generation of poets, it turns out people would rather pay for a Big Mac with money than love.

It was certainly an eye-catching idea. In the 12 days leading up to Valentine’s Day, McDonald’s let customers pay for their various burgers and McNuggets without ever reaching for cash, cards or even digital wallet-enabled phones.

No, McDonald’s instead allowed certain customers chosen at random to pay with love – if love is defined by selfies, high-fives, singing and hugs.

A spokeswoman explained, “We want to thank our customers for making our day and hopefully they will make someone else’s as well – that’s what Lovin’ is all about.”

They even kicked off the campaign with a high profile Super Bowl ad.

Except unfortunately, awkwardness is what it really ended up being all about.

“A [McDonald’s] crew member produced a heart-shaped pencil box stuffed with slips of paper, and instructed me to pick one. My fellow customers seemed to look on with pity as I drew my fate: ‘Ask someone to dance,’” Kate Bachelder wrote for The Wall Street Journal.  “I stood there for a mortified second or two, and then the cashier mercifully suggested that we all dance together. Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I forced a smile and ‘raised the roof’ a couple of times, as employees tried to lure cringing customers into forming some kind of conga line, asking them when they’d last been asked to dance.”

Bachelder went on to describe sitting down with her free breakfast, feeling both embarrassed for herself and for the executive team that did not leave this particular idea behind them in the board room. At the end of the day, she (among many other commentators) ruled that the promotion felt an awful lot like McDonald’s was just trying too hard – and (as is customary with those who try too hard) was coming on way too strong.

But she did offer some advice.

“Here’s some free advice for [McDonald’s CEO] Mr. Easterbrook from a McDonald’s customer of long and happy experience: It won’t work. You can’t give McDonald’s a makeover, not when, as the Journal notes, there are 4.6 locations for every U.S. county. McDonald’s should dump the “love” mantra and get back to the excellence mantra that made the Egg McMuffin a world-wide phenomenon.”


Uber’s “Hot Chick” –  Just Gross

Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick, once described in a GQ profile as a “bro-y alpha nerd,” is known for making colorful comments.

Uber is also known for offering wild promotions – Christmas Tree deliveries, weddings on demand, BBQ pedicabs at SXSW, a competition between Facebook and Google employees as to who could rack up more rides – it could be argued that Uber never met a publicity stunt that it didn’t like.

It can also be argued that at least one should have been left on someone’s cutting room floor.

It was called “The Hot Chick” promotion and it was pretty straightforward – it would pair French Uber riders with some particularly lovely lady drivers.

The slogan for the program offered on Uber’s blog?

“Who said women don’t know how to drive?”

The promotion was released with an app called “Avions de Chasse” –  which was described thusly on the English version of their website.

“Avions de chasse” is the French term for “fighter jets,” but also the colloquial term to designate an incredibly hot chick. “Lucky you!,” it read. “The world’s most beautiful “Avions” are waiting for you on this app. Seat back, relax and let them take you on cloud 9!”

It should be noted that Avions de Chasse is a separate company from Uber – but that this was an official partnership offered through Uber to encourage ridership.

“It’s going to be the most beautiful thing on Earth,” the post on Uber’s blog suggested of the free ride promotion (a blog post that has since been deleted).

But as it turns out, the rest of the Earth did not see it as beautiful, so much as grossly sexist and kind of creepy. After a tsunami of social media complaints and a Buzzfeed article on the promotion, Uber rapidly pulled it back.

A few days later, they officially apologized.

“It was a clear misjudgment by the local team,” wrote an Uber spokesperson in an email statement.

A tweet from the local French office @UberLyon expressed a similar sentiment: “We have canceled the partnership as on this occasion we clearly misjudged the situation. We apologize to anyone that has been offended.”

Building a personalized shopping experience is risky.  While tech makes it easier to gather data, at the end of the day the retailer still has to understand their customer. Because when the retailer misses their mark, they don’t just face the risk of failing to convert the consumer into a community member – they run the risk of running them off for good, or at least damaging the relationship in the long run.

Remember the old New Yorker cartoon featuring a dog sitting behind a computer terminal with the caption, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog?” Peter Steiner’s iconic cartoon was published first in 1993. Twenty-two years later, despite the many advances in data analytics and intelligent targeting, in some cases, some perhaps still don’t. And those who do may not always spend enough time analyzing that data to know what those dogs like to buy, what they like to be called, how they like to pay, and what’s in and out of bounds.


There are no easy answers, but there are perhaps some obvious observations.  1) Dads are people too.  2) No one wants to sing for their lunch or dance in public for any reason. 3) If it sounds at all like prostitution is being offered, it is not going to play in Peoria.