If you’re reading this, you might have read the juicy piece that Elle dropped this weekend chronicling how a former Bloomberg reporter torched her entire career after falling for the longtime subject of her reporting — professional-tool-turned-convicted-securities-fraudster Martin Shkreli. And if you know about that article, you probably know about The Ad.
As Elle’s story went viral, it became clear that a ton of the readers were all being targeted en masse across the story with a specific ad for… well, different people had different names for it, assless pajamas and buttflapped onesies among them. In fact, the actual name is “Plain Functional Buttoned Flap Adults Pajamas,” and they’re sold by an e-commerce retailer named IVRose for the low, low price of $US26.99 ($36)
After seeing the onesie ad no less than six(!) times while I read the Shkreli love screed, my phone started buzzing ceaselessly for quite literally hours on end by other readers who were bombarded with butt.
As someone who covers the worst parts of the wacky world of ad targeting, I was getting tagged multiple times per minute by Twitter users trying to get to the bottom of the Onesie Ad Mystery. Then came the handful of DM’s and text messages. As it turns out, the ad didn’t only swallow the Shkreli story, but people’s hometown papers, recipe blogs, and just about any internet corner with available real estate ready for the errant advertiser.
After I spent more time scrutinizing how, exactly, this ad turned up everywhere, the more sinister these weird advertisements started to look. In fact, by the end of things, I became convinced that these onesie ads were less about a onesie retailer no one had heard of before, and more about how hopelessly broken the adtech ecosystem is.
How did that ad end up on Elle in the first place?
The fact that this ad even ended up on Elle at all, let alone over and over again in a single article, is evidence of this busted adtech ecosystem. One popular theory for the onesie ad’s seeming omnipresence, pointed out brand consultant Nandini Jammi, was the possibility the third-party “brand safety” tech that big advertisers often use to keep their brands away from icky content erroneously marked the Elle article as too “risqué” or “unsafe” for top-end advertisers. The absence of those brands left a vacuum that lower-tier advertisers (such as onesie-hawking e-commerce brands) that likely didn’t care as much about being seen next to a smidge of unsafe content, could fill.
For sure, the Shkreli story deals with some pretty adult topics: divorce, gaslighting, and, well, the American justice system, just to name a few. But generally, when advertisers talk about “adult” content, they’re talking about hardcore nudity, not a series of paragraphs describing a husband slowly losing his grip on the woman he married.
To get to the bottom of this, I corralled Dr. Krzysztof Franaszek, founder of the ad analytics platform Adalytics, who had written out his own theories on the Mysterious Onesie situation on Monday. Specifically, I wanted his help analysing the sorts of signals that the Shkreli story was passing off to potential advertisers through its so-called “header bids.”
You might remember the phrase “header bids” from the recently dropped Texas–Google antitrust case, but just as a refresher: The tags that get passed from any site as part of these bids are generally meant to convey something about the ad space that site might hold. If that content veers toward brand-unsafe territory, sometimes the bid discloses those details as well.
Per Franaszek’s analysis, the bids coming from the Shkreli piece told us two things: This story was coming from Elle’s “life-love” vertical, and it was a long-form story about relationships. A third-party brand safety vendor that Elle partners with, Oracle, marked the piece as discussing a lot about “law,” but also noted that this story didn’t discuss “unsafe” topics like the coronavirus or — strangely enough — “animal cruelty.”
The bid data also let us look at the brands that, for one reason or another, marked the Shkreli story as unsuitable for their ad bucks. Some of these players included luxury retailers like Montblanc and Chanel’s jewellery branch. While it’s unclear which keywords in the piece tripped these two up, it’s worth assuming that companies that tailor-make expensive wedding bands might feel out of place advertising alongside Elle’s story.
Without any big-name competition holding it back, IVRose apparently poured a ton of money into getting its onesies seen by as many people as possible on Elle’s story. Franaszek mentioned to CNBC that when he ran a small test on the Shkreli story, it looked like IVRose was spending between $US10 ($13) to $US12 ($16) dollars per thousand ad impressions, the common benchmark that most advertisers use. While that’s only a few dollars more than the brand would be paying on, say, a platform like Facebook, those dollars quickly add up when you’re targeting as many people — and as frequently — as IVRose seems to be doing here.
In other words, the fact that we were seeing wall-to-wall onesies in the Elle story was indicative of a company pretty much buying out all of the ad spaces on a bargain-bin news feature. But that strategy comes with its own questions.
Namely, why would you spend tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of dollars to advertise an (admittedly kinda cosy-looking) set of medium-grade buttflap pajamas?
Things Get Weird(er)
The only ones with any definitive answer to that puzzle work somewhere on IVRose’s team — and the company didn’t respond to our (or really, any outlet’s) request for comment.
Without their input, the best we can do is read the tracking-and-targeting tea leaves that IVRose has scattered across its site. Thankfully, we have someone that did that dirty work for us already. Friend of the blog Zach Edwards, who runs the analytics consulting firm Victory Medium, posted a Twitter thread explaining that every possible sign screams the onesie ads were never about onesies to begin with.
When you look at the web of ad partners branching out of the IVRose site — and when you remember that “ad networks ~share~ data for $$,” as he tweeted — it’s not hard to believe that the buckets of cash IVRose was spending on ad space was actually being spent on the buckets of super-valuable data generated by Elle readers. Add in the fact that, right now, these buckets of readers are likely more valuable than they’d typically be, since, well, the U.S. has historically spent its own buckets of cash during the holiday season.
As Edwards pointed out in his Twitter thread, it’s not impossible to figure out what IVRose plans to do with what is almost assuredly boatloads of data from potential onesie customers. In fact, there’s a technical phrase for it: “cookie synching.” The easiest way to describe the process is something of a handshake between a set of partnering adtech platforms that lets folks on both sides of the arrangement swap specific sets of user data back and forth. But this is adtech we’re talking about — which means the process is needlessly complicated and probably the last thing any of us would want to talk about at a party.
At the same time, it’s also a deeply shitty tactic that promises our clicks on those assless pajamas will — no joke — likely keep on haunting us for the rest of our digital lives.
According to Edwards, it all starts with the landing page for the onesie in question. As that page loads, it triggers a specific piece of tracking tech from a company called Clientgear — itself a subsidiary of the YeahMobi, a popular adtech player based out of China. Clientgear’s role here is twofold: First, if you’ve never visited a site that happened to be one of its partners, it needs to create a unique, Clientgear-specific ID for your particular device. After tucking a copy of that ID on its network (just in case you return to the onesie page and need to be re-identified), that identifier gets broadcast to the miscellaneous adtech middlemen that YeahMobi happens to have some sort of a business relationship with. In this case, it seems like there are no fewer than 15 companies in the U.S. and China that fit this bill.
In exchange for the shiny new user ID that they just got from the onesie page, each of these partners pass back their own identifier in exchange. Sometimes, if it’s a third party that happened to cross paths with you sometime in the past, it already has troves of data describing who you are. In any case, once Clientgear and the partnering player on the other end officially “sync” their user ID’s for you together, the usual plan is to continue swapping any cookie-derived data either one can siphon off of you until you tell them to quit it.
In some cases, even if you do tell them to quit it — by, say, clearing out your browser’s cookie cache — researchers as far back as 2014 have noted that some of the slimier partners can use their own data stores combined with other basic data to literally “respawn” the cookie that once existed on the other end. The official lingo for that, in case you were curious, is an “evercookie,” which is, I promise, not as tasty as it sounds.
This ad follows me on every article https://t.co/4TDjevS8AM
— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) December 21, 2020
Also, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if you’re creeped out at the idea of these flannel pajamas stalking you in some shape or form in perpetuity, there really isn’t much you can do. Sure, you can do a deep scrub on your browser’s cookie cache, but any measurable effect can be undone pretty quickly. As the research team above noted, clearing out the cookies or any associated user IDs from your browser cache doesn’t mean that any of these dozen-plus partners have any reason to do the same. The minute that you stumble onto a website that tries to sync with one of their pre-existing tags, everything that you tried to scrub — including that cursed onesie — will be linked back to whatever new ID you’ve created, putting you pretty much back where you started.
So that’s how an ad for an assless onesie could be the lynchpin that results in your data being eternally shuffled between more than a dozen shadowy tech players across multiple continents. Sure, it might be hard to believe that an ad for something so infinitely meme-able would ever turn around and bite us in the arse at all. But at least we have a ready-made outfit for when that happens.