I Got 99 Problems and Big Data Is One
Creativity Marketing Transformation

I Got 99 Problems and Big Data Is One

On the increasingly rare occasions I log into Facebook, I’m often greeted with ads for sweatshirts that say things like, “I may live in Cali, but I’m always Texan.” The designs are awful, and the thought of that painted-on screenprinting rubbing against me and sticking to my T-shirt underneath makes me cringe. Still, I can’t help but laugh at these attempts at creepy data marketing, an increasingly common and comically impersonal tactic that’s flooding our social media feeds lately.

Love Is Blind, but Data Can’t Be

Companies will pay a lot for big data, such as where you were born, where you live now, what you like, and where you check in.

While home for Thanksgiving, my father read aloud from Facebook on his iPad (did I mention that Facebook really isn’t that cool anymore?), “‘I love Texas, but I’m a Memphis Boy.’ How do they know that?” My sister and I cackled, less at his naïveté and more at another hilarious miss by aspiring marketers trying to cash in on precise data and cheap T-shirt printing.

Then there are the big companies like Budweiser, which have heard that the kids like Jay Z and zombies and don’t really ride horses anymore. “So,” this raw data would suggest, “let’s replace the beloved Clydesdales with hip, cool, data-driven things like blood-red beer and rap music!” This went over about as well as a lead balloon, so it was no surprise that Budweiser was quick to amend the announcement with, “the Clydesdales aren’t actually gone, we just wanted to try some other things, too.”

So, what happens when marketers start foaming at the mouth over all of this new, crazy-specific data, forgetting about their design principles and all the great ad campaigns of the last century?

Awkward things.

Not only do the guys who still buy Budweiser decide that maybe they’d better look at Coors once their beloved, flavorless brew starts associating itself with music and monsters they can’t relate to, but the target demographic of Budweiser feels insulted, too.

What did that marketing meeting sound like?

“The data says Gen Y really likes Jay Z.”

“Yeah! And zombies!”

“Think we can get both?!”


This will sell more beer!

Photo Source: Billboard

Or, did a bunch of senior execs just Google Jay Z, find his feature in Kanye West’s “Monster,” and decide this was the hippest, most-relevant thing they’d ever seen?

Data Is Business, Man

I think Jay Z is okay, but I definitely don’t like zombies. And when I think of how to spend my hard-earned beer dollars, neither a businessman nor business, man, or zombie is going to sway me. In fact, when I wear a beanie and urban hiking boots and comb my beard and hang out in a dive bar, I’d rather people think I wrangle Clydesdales and chop down trees than that I associate with rap moguls and brain-eaters.

Big data is great. It helps us make sure we’re spending our ad dollars wisely. But it can’t design ads for us. It also can’t keep its finger on the cultural pulse in an authentic way that makes sure it’s selling to actual people and not just what they may absent-mindedly like on Facebook. Sure, there’s a lot of value in watching the trends of likes, retweets, and hashtags, but even ever-connected Millennials don’t tell the whole story online. There’s no replacement for marketers who know their audience and use creativity to speak to them in new ways.

Crossing the Line

There has to be a fine line somewhere, too—some unspoken rule that says, “Hey, it’s cool they get people like me, but I wish they wouldn’t make it so obvious that they’re actually just Facebook-stalking me.”

There’s a lack of finesse in big-data-driven marketing that’s laughable at best and downright disturbing at worst. Whether it’s data-heavy schemes that produce sidebar ads reading, “25-year-old Guys in Yourtown, USA Who Love Cycling, Dogs, Coffee, and Music: One Weird Trick for Teeth Whitening” or mega-corporations abandoning the great advertisements we all love for inexplicable data-driven mashups, the result is clumsy. If big data said that Millennials would love to see a commercial involving Jay Z riding a Clydesdale into the Super Bowl, well, I might agree with that. But just because Facebook has figured out how to recognize my face—the results of which are creepy—and tags me in photos I wish it hadn’t, doesn’t mean it knows me. And just because I liked Green Day when I was 13 and haven’t unliked them since, doesn’t mean Budweiser should clamor to recruit Billie Joe Armstrong as its new spokesman.

That reminds me—I haven’t updated my current city on Facebook. I actually don’t live in California anymore!

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