In the beginning, it was humorous.
On sale was a wearable tent, life-size cat cushions, and a lighter with an empty base in which to store small things like your keys.
A tad ridiculous but at least they were entertaining, offering Facebook scrollers the opportunity to guess the product’s actual purpose.
But as time went by, the products strayed more on the bizarre side – sinister even. What looked like a cut-off tongue appeared on Facebook timelines, and that’s when people began taking notice.
Sharing screenshots to social media, a Twitter account was even set up:
According to The Daily Beast, Wish is an $8 billion (R108 billion) e-commerce company “similar to Amazon or Alibaba that hopes to become the next Walmart”:
Its competitive advantage is it offers much lower prices than its competitors by shipping direct from Chinese manufacturers. The only downside is that most items take around 14 days to arrive.
Forbes describes it as the “Internet equivalent of a flea market”.
Here’s a selection of other weird shit that was advertised:
No thanks, because if we’re buying adult toys we’re going with the tried, tested and best in the business.
So why would a seemingly straightforward e-commerce company promote such strange products?
Well, like most things on the internet, it all boils down to the Facebook algorithm:
In February 2015 Facebook launched a new type of ad product. Unlike previous “static” ads, where the advertiser would have to hand select images that would be shown to users, the social network’s new “dynamic” ads allowed companies to simply upload their entire product catalog to the platform. From there, Facebook’s algorithm would choose which product to show which consumer.
The theory goes that Facebook, with its massive mine of user data, could far more effectively target products to consumers in real time and save companies time by not forcing them to upload each image separately as a new ad. Since its launch, Facebook has used this ad format to help businesses showcase products like hotel rooms, flight options, real estate listings, cars, and more.
And Wish, a large and dedicated advertiser on Facebook, quickly embraced the new format:
“Facebook’s ad team has been blown away by how much more sophisticated Wish is as an advertiser than literally any other company, according to multiple sources,” Jason Del Rey wrote in ReCode.
Here are the numbers:
In 2015 alone, Wish spent around $100 million on Facebook ads and was the No. 1 advertiser on both Facebook and Instagram during the 2015 holiday season, according to app data startup Sensor Tower.
So when Wish decided to adopt Facebook’s new dynamic ads this year, the company, unsurprisingly, went all in.
While Wish’s competitors like Amazon or Alibaba might balk at handing massive amounts of data—let alone its full product catalog—to Facebook, that’s exactly what Wish did.
The problem, however, is that Wish currently has 170 million unique products and uploads over 9 million every week. So, when it decided to adopt the new Facebook ad algorithm, it gave Facebook access to every single product.
In theory, Facebook’s algorithm should have been able to select shoes for those who love shoes and perfume for those who love perfume, but it failed, bringing some of the stranger products to the surface.
Which is where we are today.
It kind of worked out as a sort of unplanned marketing gimmick, though, that ensured everyone from everywhere now knows just what Wish is all about:
Unlike the shoe or perfume ads, curious users actually clicked Wish’s ads for things like plastic nostril holders or profane cuff links. According to Wish, Facebook registered this click as a positive metric and, in turn, showed the bizarre ads to more users, who were shocked, clicked and, in rare cases, actually bought them.
It was only a matter of months before things spiralled out of control. By late November, Wish had become the leading purveyor of advertising clickbait.
Clickbait or curiosity-driven? Either way, Peter Szulczewski, CEO and founder of Wish, is super stoked:
“If you’re optimizing [sic] for clicks, people will click on these items, but it’s a curiosity-driven click,” he said. “People are just clicking on things because they’re crazy. No consumers are actually purchasing these products.”
And he believes that the weirdness will soon be forgotten:
“We’re going to start showing things people are actually buying and people will see,” he said.
“We’ve been around 5 years, we sell 3 million items a day, and very few of those are weird severed tongue devices or cat blinders.”
And for the rest of us? A few counselling sessions might be in order.
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