One Weird Trick

Imagine Don Draper sitting back in his chair, looking out over Madison Avenue. His team of copywriters sit behind him, awaiting his next iconic ad idea.

“It’s a medium-sized square. Inside it a squiggle of a woman. One where she’s clutching her belly fat and looking down at it in distress. Some copy above it reads: ‘One Trick.’

No, wait.

‘One TIP to a Flat Belly.’

And it needs to be a Weird, Old Tip!”

That never happened. But the ad did:

If you’ve spent any time on the internet you’ve seen that ad or something like it. You’ve also seen ads like these:

Dermatologists Hate Her! She is 51 Looks 25 Local mom exposes shocking anti-aging secret. Learn thee $5 trick to her stunning results. LEARN THE TRUTH NOW

And, if you’re old enough, you remember this gem:

As the internet has vastly democratized content publishing, so has it the ability to make and distribute ads. And, as ad networks and publishers accrue more and more data, ads can become more accurate. So, with all this increased sophistication, why have ads gotten so weird?

First, consider the modus operandi of advertising: to get your damn attention. If no one is looking the ad has effectively failed. The Mad Men of Madison Avenue certainly made it all look very good; it all had a certain sheen to it, a certain sophistication. But where advertising may have once been more about art, it is now almost exclusively about utility.

Clicks. Click-throughs. Opens. Impressions. Plays. Interactions. These metrics didn’t exist in the late 50s. Now the ad agencies live and die by them. Every ad must produce as much revenue as possible while maintaining a conservative bottom line, usually amidst an increasingly shrinking budget.

Another factor has also played into this uglification of advertising: A/B testing. One ad in particular got me thinking about this topic. Its an ad I saw for the Robinhood financial/brokerage app on Instagram.

The comments to this post were understandably “wtf” and “lol who screwed this ad up.” But one comment stood out to me:

“ah this must be the pic that won the ab test.”

Robinhood could have screwed up, sure. But I’ve seen this ad numerous times over a series of weeks so that’s not really feasible. What is feasible is that a company that makes it’s money providing a service that has been around for centuries just works. There is no need for prose, beautiful imagery, or striking fonts, it just needs you to read that one line of text below the photo and, hopefully, click the Download button.

A/B testing has led to incredibly productive advertising, web layout, and design. For example, the homepage for Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential campaign experienced a 40% increase in donations after the team A/B tested a couple different photos, slogans, and button commands. Without A/B testing, the campaign would have chosen, on instinct, a photo that woefully under performed testing.

A/B testing allows Netflix and Amazon to constantly experiment with new page layouts, optimizing for those that get us to pay – or play – the most. There is a good chance that when you and I log into Netflix this evening that we will be served very different layouts. A/B testing allows companies to test display ads across a vast network and quickly whittle down their options to the most effective. Another, albeit less sophisticated, example of A/B testing is the recent crop of companies creating several sub brands on Instagram and watching to see which accrues the most likes. Based on the winner, a brand may create a new product line or introduce a new sub brand.

Obviously, the gains to be had are quite clear. But how did we end up with advertising that’s so weird? Well, they result from techniques practiced by the likes of The New York Timeswhen it comes to crafting eye-catching headlines as much as they do the techniques that allow Amazon to get you closer and closer to the Buy Now button. They result from A/B testing.

Combine this A/B approach with the proliferation of do-it-yourself social media advertising platforms and increasingly money-hungry online publishers and you’re left with Facebook feeds filled with bizarre ad copy and online articles that dedicate over a 1/3 of their pages to just inane display ads:

While personally this doesn’t bother me, I have to wonder if this is the logical conclusion of advertising. Have we reached the quantifiable limits of how effective a picture and some copy can be? Will this ultimately result in a return to a more antiquated, stylized form of advertising?

Maybe this is the end of advertising as we know it. Commodities, things like paper towels and soap, will jockey for your attention with discounts and promotions while more elastic items, like shoes or cars, will be promoted exclusively by influencers.

Whenever I catch myself maligning an ad like the aforementioned Robinhood one, I have to remind myself that my commentary is actually evidence of the ad’s efficacy. I’m still talking about the brand paragraphs later. Maybe tomorrow you’ll bring up the app to a friend, subconsciously reminded by this blog post. That friend may in turn download Robinhood, place a trade, and incur a brokerage fee. What kicked off this chain of events? An A/B test told someone in marketing that the blonde girl performed better than an alternative photo that I’ll never see.


  1. I agree with you ads have gotten weird and sometimes have me questioning did someone in marketing screw up? The revolution of the internet and the hype to go viral has changed the way we look and interact with companies, thanks for highlighting this journey! I can attest to weird ads my company has officially adopted a jiggle and all I hear is how people hate cause it but they remember it…

  2. Oh the Mad Men days of advertising. They were simple, creative and catchy. Built more to cater to your humor and be relatable. I think as emerging technology continues to evolve, advertising will lose its edge and humility. It won’t be what we saw back in the Mad Men days because people are more concerned with content that is full of data-driven tactics and layouts. I had no idea about the A/B Testing companies were using – this will certainly change advertising for good.

  3. We’ll watch a video later in the semester (or at least one of the groups will) that comments on these very issues. Nice post!

  4. dilillomelissa · ·

    This is a really interesting topic. I’m glad you highlighted how weird ads are because I literally cannot grasp some of the things I see. To me, half of it seems trashy, but at this point, the norm of much advertising. It doesn’t bother me to any extent either, but I have always wondered why ads like this exist. A/B testing was a topic I’ve discussed a bit in class, but haven’t really thought about when I personally see ads on the Internet. It puts things into a different perspective for me now consciously knowing how different layouts will come into play on my screen compared to others.

  5. Great analysis of how ads have changed over the years! With so much content splashing across our screens, we only really pay attention to whatever catches our eye. I think that companies use weird and unusual ads to draw our attention in because they understand that we could be looking at literally anything else. We scroll through social media so absentmindedly sometimes that we don’t really consume what we are looking at unless we have a reason to. I think A/B testing certainly helps companies determine what exactly makes someone stop scrolling and give their ad a second glance. With so many platforms offering to skip ads or not show ads altogether, companies will need to stay creative so that those of us who still look at ads actually want to look. The power of influencers has grown immensely and I think it will continue to grow as social media does as well. Great post!!

  6. I actually worked for an agency this past summer in which I briefly got to listen in on discussions considering their A/B testing. They would place a limited amount of ads in test markets, sometimes with as little as font, sizing, or color changes and be able to see which ad maximized clicks and led to actual purchases or interactions. Then that was the ad to be promoted nationally. This is a great way to bring data into the mix instead of just leaving it up to creatives who might be biased one way or another based on how attached the are to one copy or another of an ad. Also love how you tied this in to all of the random ads we always see pop up, because it shows that it’s not just someone in marketing goofing off, it’s an ad proven to get your attention – and it works! Data analytics really is behind everything, even the most random things.

  7. MiriamPBourke · ·

    Great post Jim, and such an interesting topic. Unfortunately today I think that a lot of our organizations are leaving decision making to algorithms alone. While that’s fine in in some cases, for ads, I think the why behind the click can be very important to understand. I also think understanding the sentiment that is around it is also crucial.

    Take the news for example. Headlines are often written to maximize click-throughs. But what happens when the headline is so far away from the actual story that you end up leaving the site with less trust in it’s reputation as a source. Now put that on a macro scale. One of the biggest problems I see that has arisen from the click-bait culture is that, in their quest for clicks, we have lost our faith in traditional news outlets.

    I think weird ads will always exist but I do think companies should be looking at their brand perception in the long term if they really want us to respect them. But maybe that’s just the marketing manager in me. Maybe nobody else cares what a brand stands for, or maybe these lifespan of these ads is so short (they’re gone in the scroll of a timeline) that it doesn’t affect brand perception at all.

    1. Loved the blog post and I share a similar sentiment as Miriam. Most ads are simply measured on their click rate in a binary win-lose fashion and AB testing is used to accomplish this specific goal. But what if the cost of that click is that the user has a bad experience and frequents a given site less frequently? While a lot of modern-day ads go further to track things like eventual purchases (through the use of cookies) I still feel like people should be asking more creative and more interesting questions than ‘did they click the link?’. Online advertisers may find that ads which make people feel good about themselves lead to a higher purchase rate than ads that use catchy and misleading copy to seduce people into clicking. Or maybe I’m just being naive and those clickbait titles truly are the most efficient way of luring in impressionable people.

  8. cynmzfigueroa · ·

    Instagram story ads has some content that are pretty uncanny valley, I do wonder if it has more to do with how easy it is to set one up yourself and that maybe the key to successful conversions hasn’t been cracked yet. Although brand integrity is important I do think brands are looking to bend the rules some to capture attention in the short term since it really is the best way to get in front of folks. The A/B testing aspect of it is fascinating as well, I remember reading how Google A/B tested something like 200 shades of blue to see which one made you more likely to click. Where Google might have the user base to support that type of testing, maybe companies with a smaller base are forced to test not so subtle messages to maximize their testing opportunities.

  9. Great post! That Robinhood marketing post is strange situation. The change in marketing is shocking in recent years. As stated before, it is really all about what can make an impression on our lives. I believe with the rise of social media, this is about what can grab our attention the fastest and make us care for that brief moment. Marketing is now down to the moments and once you have a consumer’s attention you better deliver quickly.

  10. Loved this post! Obviously we’ve studied A/B testing a lot at school, but rarely were the case studies ones that seemed relevant. My favorite example you used was Obama’s campaign… as many of us loved him it’s crazy to think what could have happened if they had chosen the wrong campaign image/ slogan and not had that 40% increase in donations.
    I also thoroughly enjoyed the “old” ad campaign claiming you won something as I think a lot of us remember them and may have been enticed to click one or two times.

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