several people holding smartphones

Gordon Stewart


They are listening!

So this morning, as we commonly do on Mondays, our team watched the top 5 most creative tv ads in the Country from a list curated weekly by Ad age magazine. Each video link on the list was embedded from YouTube on Ad Age’s landing page. One of the ads was for a new adult event program created by Lego called “Lego Lates” where they encourage adults to gather and socialize while challenging each other with some newly advanced Lego kits. 


We discussed how It was a great combination of a Brand’s genuinely innovative idea to spark sales to a new age segment while presenting a beautifully crafted ad showing how they intended adult participants to interact with their product. Here is the idea–here is how you do it–its the perfect and quintessential 1-2 punch in marketing.


Suddenly something amazing happened while our group was discussing the ad–within one minute after the ad was viewed by us, Sutton, our graphic designer, noticed that he was served an ad on Instagram for Lego Lates. Amazing. 


Upon his own admission, he had never heard of the new program nor ever searched for anything even relating to Lego. It seemed beyond coincidental that this ad was a direct result of us watching the video and presently discussing it in our meeting. This is where a lot of people are tempted to resort to the now universal suspicion that “they are listening”. While we know the technology exists just as it does with Alexa or Siri, the distinction has always been that we initiate the command or permission to listen to us only when we prompt them by initially approving it within the application then triggering them exclusively by their name to hear our short command. We suspect once the command is given, they are no longer listening since they do not continue to communicate with us or pursue additional conversation with us. Most of us assume since we have not given permission to listen in on us continually, that the phone is no longer listening at that point. 


Apple has vehemently denied their phones “are listening” and stated their software applications only have the ability to respond to commands, that it keeps our phone numbers anonymous and does not even have the storage capacity to be listening all the time. They also claim that 3rd party apps cannot record you unless you specifically provide consent–however they admit they do not always monitor the apps for compliance. Once an app gets through their app store gate, there is very little oversight which is worth noting.


Let’s review the specific situation here- we have a group of people in the same building, on the same Wi-fi and watching the same stream from my iPad to a larger Samsung monitor which is broadcasting various YouTube video embeds from a website. YouTube is owned by Google of course so it would make more sense if we were served an ad by the Google network- but only one of us got an ad immediately and it was from…instagram. Hmmm.  How did Instagram know we were watching and discussing a YouTube video embedded on a website and know exactly what it was about? Why only Sutton that got served an ad?


Lets look more closely at Sutton’s phone–for those wondering, under the settings of his iPhone, his specific Instagram app did have its microphone permission turned on. That certainly sets it up for conspiracy theorists to begin constructing the allegation that “they must be listening”.  But consider this, the rest of us had our microphone permission turned on also under the instagram app by default. The rest of us never got an ad. We were all watching it and talking about it equally. I believe the difference here is the demographic and targeting options Lego chose…


You know by now that pretty much ALL websites have both Google and Facebook Universal tagging on them right? Most brands make sure they are set up correctly on their website so they can monitor their various traffic sources to their website on Google Analytics. These tags or “cookies” are the lifeblood of these platforms to be able to monitor countless traffic dynamics for targeting purposes and it is how they determine who is currently in the market for specific products. Basically, if you looked up a product on a website somewhere, Facebook and Google immediately assume you are in the market for that product and enable your browser profile to potentially receive targeted ads for the next 30 days. Data travels lightning fast so when I say immediate, I mean immediate. So, if Lego had set their targeting to audiences they believed most likely to convert (such as socially active male, newly wed twenty-somethings without children yet who are visually oriented and possibly enjoy crafts and puzzles) they got the right guy. Nobody else on our team fits that particular profile as perfectly as he.


Meta (Facebook & Instagram) knew someone at our I.P address (office location) was watching the Lego video on a website (They would never have known if it was being watched exclusively on a YouTube channel since they obviously can’t put their cookie on a competing platform’s property but the fact it was actually being streamed from a website with a very Facebook cookie made it possible). Of the 5 people watching at our I.P address, perhaps Sutton’s profile and browser history was the closest match to Lego’s choice of targeting. Just to add to this point, I was the one who found the website and was the one streaming the video from my iPad to the TV but I still have not received an ad yet. (I’m a 50 year old male that is no longer socially active haha and has 4 kids…but I too am visually oriented and might enjoy a craft or puzzle from time to time). Perhaps in my case, I was out of the age range or disqualified by being a parent, etc..)


There is no way to know exactly how Lego set their targeting up but these legitimate differences in our profiles may have had a significant impact on their ad deliveries. At the end of the day, our diverse group was all watching the same thing but only one of us got served immediately with an ad and it was from a seemingly disparate platform. I believe this to be the most likely explanation. For the record, Apple continues to deny advertiser’s listening capabilities, the software applications they approve do not have any significant audio storage capabilities and these platforms still do not provide us marketers with the ability to target by hearing spoken words…yet. It is also hard to believe that with all the congressional and legal concerns for privacy that have embroiled these 2 companies (Facebook & Google) that they would risk harboring a secret technology that is as widely controversial as listening to our private lives without our consent. 


But I admit, sometimes it is just easier to explain to people “yup, they’re listening!”

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