Why Instagram Keeps Serving Me An Ad For What Looks Like A Pile Of Fossilized Poo
Of the dozens of Instagram ads I viewed in the past few weeks, one made me do a double take every time.
Mostly, because it contains what looks like a pile of poo.
Like, fossilized poo. A bit crumbly. Or dirt clods. Or … something brown? And definitely not attractive.
Here it is:
Instagram ads are usually polished and pretty. This stood out for the obvious reason that it is none of those things, but also because it was completely mysterious. It had no caption describing what I was seeing — just the price, and the assertion that I had “great taste,” and that it had caught my eye. Uh, yeah it had!
So, I lingered. I scrutinized. I screen-shotted. And ultimately, I clicked.
The Pile of Poo Ad™ took me on a journey into the hidden world of Facebook’s advertising algorithms — how they decide what to show us, and how they sometimes fail. And, yes, I did eventually learn where the ad came from.
“Facebook is trying to decide if this is relevant,” Carter Baker, associate director of digital media at creative agency The Many, said. “Facebook thinks it is. You clicked the ad, you spent time on the website, you took screenshots, or you probably saved it. The ad, the machine learning, now thinks this is a high engagement product. But it’s not smart enough to know that a human would say, ‘Oh, that’s because it looks like something… different.'”
Baker’s best guess is that it’s a Facebook Dynamic Ad programmed to serve product images from Wayfair’s catalogue in a carousel of images. Mashable reached out to Facebook for confirmation, but didn’t hear back before publication. However, on Facebook’s page explaining dynamic ads, Wayfair is showcased in a promotional video.
Facebook’s website, and Baker, explained that these ads are an automated way for Facebook advertising clients to get their products in front of Instagram users. Brands upload a product catalogue, which allows Facebook to automatically ingest product images, and other data like prices, into its advertising system. In the case of the pile o’ poo ad, it displayed multiple product images in one carousel. Baker said a telltale sign of these sorts of ads is a product image on a white background.
A person isn’t choosing the products for these types of ads. Facebook’s machine learning engine picks out the products that it thinks would be most likely to result in a click, and ultimately a sale.
There are a lot of factors that go into populating these ads — especially the all-important lead image, which has to grab a scroller’s attention.
“Dynamic ads or more or less an evolution of retargeting,” Baker said. “Wayfair might have tens of thousands of products in their catalog, so dynamic ads serve the product that their users have either seen before, or a product that it thinks the user is going to potentially be interested in.”
Retargeting means showing a person a product in an ad that they’ve already viewed on a website. You know when you check out a pair of shoes online, and then you see an ad for that exact same pair of shoes on social media or at the top of an unrelated website? That’s retargeting, which is often enabled by a piece of Facebook code companies add to their websites.
The second, third, and fourth time I was served the Pile of Poo ad, retargeting was definitely what was going on. But what about the first time? Baker said I probably saw the ad because other people had the same puzzled reaction I did.
Facebook’s automated systems likely noticed that this product had high “dwell time,” which means people spent a lot of time looking at it. People were probably also curious about what the heck this actually was. All of that engagement led the ad engine to believe that this was a popular product that other people would likely also be interested in.
“Many people probably see this product and are like, ‘Wow, what the heck is that? That looks like poo,’ so Facebook thinks that it’s a highly interactive ad,” Baker said.
Many people probably see this product and are like, “Wow, what the heck is that? That looks like poo.”
Essentially, the main reason I was served the ad was because people similar to me, or people in my extended network, stopped and looked at the ad, too.
So, what is the pile of poo? It turns out it’s… firewood! Irish firewood, to be precise. You can totally see it once you know what it is. But the fact that it had no descriptive caption made the product all the more enticing.
I asked Baker if he thought this ad was a success, or a failure. Because it did not actually lead to a sale, and because I was not actually interested in purchasing firewood online, Baker thought it was a failure.
However, in a way, the firewood ad actually shows Facebook advertising working exactly the way it is supposed to. As Baker said, it thinks this is a “high engagement product.” And it did result in me looking at the product, and going to the website — where I ultimately scrolled through other products.
It also managed to cut through the noise of Instagram. I truly could not tell you what the last ad I saw on Instagram was. But this ad made me notice Wayfair again and again and again. I’d scroll, I’d see the pile, I’d double take and dwell. Eventually I’d click. I’d call that a success.
Facebook couldn’t tell that people were dwelling on the ad simply because they thought it was weird or funny. But it did know that people were looking. Truly, this ad showcases the pros, and the pitfalls, of automated advertising.
“Machine learning is powerful,” Baker said. “But it’s also got blind spots.”
I haven’t seen the firewood ad in a while now. Maybe it gave up on me, seeing that I visited the firewood a handful of times without making a purchase. Baker thinks this is likely, and that it’s a sign of Facebook advertising self-correcting.
“Eventually, Facebook will learn that no one’s buying anything,” Baker said. “Right now it’s like, people are stopping on it. But eventually they will recognize that no one’s actually doing anything afterwards. And so this ad will then fall into darkness and not be shown anymore.”
The firewood may be gone, but a new ad has risen. Last night, I saw a Wayfair ad for a truly inscrutable object: An $800 pile of velvet flowers that honestly looked like a stack of intricately embroidered Jewish prayer caps called kippahs.
Turns out, it’s a floor pouf.