Welcome [insert name] to the Unlimited

Call me by your name: the personalised Skinny ads freaking people out

Some TVNZ OnDemand viewers have reported feeling alarmed at a series of ads that address them by their names. So how does it work? Jihee Junn finds out.

Recently in a Spinoff Facebook group, a rather lively discussion was sparked by a post about an ad shown on streaming platform TVNZ OnDemand. 

“Does the Skinny Mobile guy know all your names or does he call everyone Rebecca?” the post’s author, Rebecca Moody, asked fellow members of the Real Pod Corner. “When watching TVNZ OnDemand, it totally freaks me out when he says my name – like did they just get him to record everyone’s names and then link to our accounts? I’m investing in a tinfoil hat very soon.”

Soon, it became clear she wasn’t the only one getting a custom shout out, with at least a dozen more comments reporting similar experiences of having the bejesus scared out of them by the ad’s Morpheus-like character, welcoming them by name “to the Unlimited”.

“Oh my god, this just happened to me and I almost screamed,” commented Kellie Ngaire, another rather alarmed user. “Then I remembered this post and came here to reassure myself that I’m not going crazy.”

So how does it work? According to TVNZ and Skinny’s parent company, Spark, TVNZ pulled 200 of the most popular first names currently registered on its streaming platform. Those 200 names were then recorded by Skinny’s creative and rendered into a personalised version of the video. 

If a name from their list matched the name on the user’s TVNZ OnDemand account (such as ‘Rebecca’ or ‘Kellie’), they’d be served a personalised ad from Skinny. If a user’s name wasn’t on their list, then they’d receive the generic version of the ad, such as user Ollie Chick who reported seeing the ad but that “no one said [his] name”.

This isn’t the first time TVNZ has freaked people out with its personalised commercials. Last year, it ran a series of ads for BNZ that pulled users’ first names to appear in a graphic within the video. In fact, it freaked some people out so much that at least four people complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about it, with one complainant even suggesting it was a form of “subliminal advertising”.

At the time, TVNZ acknowledged that ad personalisation was a relatively new type of video advertising technology for many New Zealanders, adding that it would update its Privacy Policy “with additional information to explain to our viewers how ad personalisation works”. 

BNZ’s personalised ads on TVNZ (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube)

“We use a technology called ad personalisation which works to use information you have provided to us (such as name or gender during registration) or other information we collect about you (such as your IP address) in [adverts],” TVNZ’s Privacy Policy outlines. “For example, you might see an ad on the website addressing you by name, or offering goods or services near your general location.”

“We do not share your name, gender or personal information with any advertiser when we use this type of technology, or give an advertiser permission to use your personal details (except for aggregated anonymised information) unless you’ve given us permission to do that.”

TVNZ’s general manager of corporate communications, Rachel Howard, reiterated this point, adding that while online ad personalisation is relatively new, it’s much like personally addressed direct mail that many receive in their letterboxes. “The insertion happens in a similar way to how a mail merge system would work, and is done by TVNZ, and/or our third-party personalisation technology service providers on our behalf,” she says. 

TVNZ is far from the first commercial video platform to use this technology. Channel 4 ran an ad in 2017 for Alien: Covenant urging viewers to flee from the movie’s extraterrestrial menace by name. David Amodio, Channel 4’s digital and creative leader, told The Drum that the feature was inspired by scientific studies showing “higher attention and neurological activity” in people who have just heard their own names, pointing to the ‘cocktail party effect’ which is when people look around after hearing their name in a crowded space.

There’s certainly some truth to this statement. According to one TVNZ OnDemand user, Anna Sheridan, the ad also addresses her by her first name and notes that “it’s very effective, I look up involuntarily every time.”

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With that said, there’s no denying there’s an element of creepiness, with such advertising reminiscent of scenes in sci-fi films like Minority Report. In the 2002 film, the protagonist, played by Tom Cruise, is assaulted by a series of immersive, audio-visual billboards for brands like Guinness, Lexus and Gap. Those in advertising have often referred to the film as indicative of what technology is capable of, including industry expert Faris Yakob.

Yakob, in his much-read 2016 piece, wrote that “as the economy shifts from products to experiences, consumers want [more personalisation]”. However, he also noted that ads that rely on “invasive personalised targeting” have had the adverse effect of triggering a rise in adblocking, and while the ‘cocktail party effect’ is real, “that doesn’t mean it should appear in ads, because this turns a cultural stimulus into a personal exhortation.”

“Seeing [an ad] with my name all over it, for example, pulls me out of a social, cultural space and into a defensive mode of being sold to,” wrote Yakob.

Howard says that currently there’s no way for users to opt out of this feature with their TVNZ ads but says that “it’s continually evolving the service based on feedback from viewers.”


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