Targeted ads are an industry dream – and a consumer’s nightmare. Good material for comedian Dave Gorman, hears Tim Hemming

Mike Florence of PhD set the scene for an enjoyable session that romped through the changing face of personalised advertising yesterday by saying: ‘I remember when personalisation was my mum sewing my name into my school uniform.’

And so over to Dave Gorman, comedian and broadcaster, who has made good mileage in lampooning the ways companies pursue individuals.

‘We stuck the ad for my TV show, Modern Life Is Goodish, on the back of a toilet door,’ he began. Then he flipped to the next slide, revealing how someone had then ripped away most of his bearded face.

He doesn’t take it personally; at least, not as personally as he does when baristas read out customers’ names from disposable coffee cups. ‘They’d ask my name and I’d say “Cappuccino2Sugars”, or my favourites: “free-coffee-on-thehouse”, “rum-and-coke”, or “Caramel Macchiato” – when the person in front has just ordered one and they don’t actually serve it.’

But Gorman grudgingly admits personalisation works.

It was a concept his own marketing had to embrace if people were to tune in.

Gorman and Rocket, a sister agency of PhD, decided to use sponsored ads on Facebook by sending-up sponsored ads on social media feeds. ‘We’d run things like: “Hello friend. Well, I say friend, I’ve paid to be in your new stream today. Odd how that sort of thing is normal now, isn’t it?” We sort of found a way round it without being hypocritical.’

He’s less gracious about some other examples. ‘In lots of ways in digi-land you can do what you bloody like,’ he said. ‘I ordered a pizza online.

It added warm cookie squares to the cart for 99p as part of my order. None of us would accept the staff lobbing a Toblerone into the trolley in a supermarket… It’s not OK.’

Gorman has particular vitriol for the QR code – the blobby black marks set in a square on proliferating numbers of documents. His TV show even set up the ruse of a giant QR code in a bus shelter, which a plant in the audience then snapped on the big screen on his live show.

Using her personal data and Google maps technology, it opened up a picture of her house and ‘weirded people the f*** out,’ he said. It might have been a set up, ‘but the audience still knew, somehow, it’s possible. My point was the idea that technology can show where you live so easily freaks people out. Leave us alone.’

5 key lessons

Rocket surveyed 2,000 people, embedding the survey with 400 personalised ads. The biggest increase in interaction was in retail and finance, areas of high sensitivity but low interest. This prompted a list of key lessons.

Here are our top five…

  • Make a confident direct approach. Avoid generalisations and ensure people recognise themselves in the message
  • Always be useful. Spell out what the ad is bringing to the party. If you cannot help, walk away.
  • Context matters. The audience is three times more likely to respond positively when they understand the medium.
  • Target under-35s. They are 45% more likely than over-35s to receive personalised ads in a positive light.
  • Always ensure a human gets involved at some point in the design process.