Fox is promoting The Mindy Project on Tinder, the dating app for people in a hurry, with a series of fake profiles for some of its characters (including Mindy Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri). It was a polarizing move: On the one hand, it was clever and surprising, but on the other, it was simply “noxious native advertising” (Valleywag) or indicative of “desperation” (BuzzFeed) to save a struggling show.
Some of the responses seemed to indicate that the native ads had crossed into uncanny valley territory. A commenter at Valleywag wrote, “Am I the only person who is REALLY, REALLY UPSET about the purposeful obfuscation of digital advertising content? Why is it ‘cool’ and ‘creative’ to make a paid advertisement look and talk like a real person?” Lahiri’s profile lists her as Mindy, 34, a “tiny doctor in a big city looking for love, friendship or a donut so good that it’s spiritual” with “a Reese Witherspoon personality, a Nicki Minaj body, and Frank Sinatra eyes (they turn blue in the summer, I swear).” A little more human chitchat and then it’s all ad speak: “To see more about me, tune-in to THE MINDY PROJECT this Tuesday at 9:30/8:30c on FOX.”
If a user swipes right to indicate interest, Mindy-bot sends a message that says “Hey there! Glad we’ve matched. If you’re not Melvin, check this out. Admit it, you like me! See more of me this Tuesday at 9:30 PM on The Mindy Project on #FOX.” Tinder-browsing only escalates to messaging if both parties right-swipe, so you kind of baited your own hook there. Still, it’s easy to be caught off guard when you’re deep in a hormone-driven swipe-fest for love.
Tinder alleviates some of the neurotic self-examination of most dating sites by using your existing Facebook profile, and despite the porn site spammers that haunt it, that also lends its users “social accountability,” as Ann Friedman wrote in an essay praising the app this past October. It offers protection against unreciprocated messages and unsolicited nude shots, and most of all “Tinder is fun […] Several people they [sic] told me they call it ‘playing Tinder,’ and a few had even invented drinking games: Take one tequila shot for each bathroom-mirror selfie you come across, and two for each person you know IRL.” What is not fun, apparently, is Fox crashing the party.
In November, Tinder’s director of marketing posted an Instagram photo of the cast of the show with a caption that read “Mindy project cast rehearsing their lines for January’s tinder episode,” then deleted it after Valleywag called to ask for more information. (A Fox rep confirmed yesterday that The Mindy Project will indeed air an episode featuring Tinder.) The benefit of creative advertising techniques is that, even if you were outraged by a sneaky robot, you now have a connection — though perhaps a negative one — to an episode that might have otherwise escaped you.
I happened to enjoy Mr. Burgundy’s wild ride of a press tour for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, but for some of you, it was just too much. Its aggression bordered on obnoxious; in comment threads, you expressed “worry” for the movie and compared Will Ferrell unfavorably to Phil Hartman. Still, Anchorman 2 has grossed more than $95 million at the box office. You swiped right.
There is a delicate balance between advertising that knows you almost like a person does and advertising that is created by committee or technology. It’s not a difference of information or presentation, necessarily, but one of understanding. When The Atlantic published a native ad for the Church of Scientology, it was reamed for “giving a platform to a controversial institution that didn’t jibe with its intellectual tradition.” There was the sense that nobody had considered the context of the situation like a human would, a reader of The Atlantic or an editorial overseer who understood the relationship its audience had to it. Seeing Mindy-bot in your familiar dating-app dive bar was too much like that awesome Twilight Zone episode where diner patrons try to figure out who the Martian is, smart though it may be. While Anchorman 2‘s press circuit was relentless, what remained impressive about it throughout its duration was how much human work had gone into it. There was no Burgundy-bot, and though it had the capacity to bother you, it never went so far as to unnerve you. You knew just what to make of it, because it was human.