Breakthrough or Intrusive? An Analysis of the Donald Glover AirDrop

Elizabeth Hallbeck
May 3, 2019 · 6 min read

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Donald Glover’s first ad for his Adidas sneakers was as cool as literally everything else Donald Glover has done.

But it was surprising, really freaking cool, and intrusive.

Catch up: 2019 Coachella-concert goers were pinged with an AirDrop photo request from the popular musician/actor/producer Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, during the festival. Users who accepted the request then received a coupon for a free pair of Glover’s take on Adidas’ Nizza line of sneakers.

Image for post
Image for post
Image via Adidas

For those who don’t know what AirDrop is, here’s why this ad was so intriguing. AirDrop is Apple’s wireless device-to-device file sharing tool, with which you can share photos, files, website links and pretty much everything else you’d normally send in an email or text. It’s become a way for friends and family to quickly share a batch of selfies and occasionally memes to strangers at concerts.

But when the few lucky people at Coachella were pinged not with a meme, but with an offer for free shoes, it begged the question — is this casual form of advertising a breakthrough or too intrusive?

I’d personally like to know whether it was Glover, Adidas’ agency, or a tech-savvy Gen-Z intern at Adidas who came up with this idea. Regardless, I find it ironic and fantastic that this passed the green light from multiple execs given that…

  • A recent study by eMarketer found that consumers believe digital ads have become more prevalent and more intrusive.
  • Just one year ago, GDPR went into effect in Europe, causing massive changes to the way companies are required to collect, use, and store data
  • Facebook, one of the largest advertising platforms, is legally and very publicly tripping over themselves on multiple continents because people are concerned about how intrusive and Orwellian the social network has become regarding users’ privacy.

There is a pot of drama simmering on the stove and its swirling with questions on user privacy, intrusiveness, and data. In context of the AirDrop stunt, it had me asking what exactly is intrusive advertising, and is the AirDrop stunt too intrusive? Before defining intrusiveness, understand that audiences already have their own particular definitions and degrees of intrusiveness they are willing to put up with.

Some people view targeted ads based on browsing history as intruding on privacy. The New York Times ran a story in 2018 where they coined the term stalker ads, to signify ads that followed users around unrelentingly. Also in 2018, the House Subcommittee discussed core issues of targeted digital advertising. Junk ads target communities of color. Russia-sponsored ads relied on psychological profiles to understand which users could be most effectively influenced by their messaging. Intrusive is largely tied to privacy: how the data is used can determine the degree of intrusiveness.

At the same time, some users say that they prefer personalized ads — 71 percent of them, according to an Adlucent study. Consumers surveyed said that personalized ads help to prevent irrelevant advertising. Personalized ads that rely on private data provide a way to discover new products and make online searching and shopping faster and easier.

When you further examine the ad landscape beyond digital, you quickly realize the obvious: an ad by nature is intrusive. A billboard on the highway blocks the horizon. We interrupt your podcast experience to talk about Blue Apron. Even the prospect of not having ads, while it may not intrude on me personally, sure as heck intrudes on my bank account for $9.99 per month.

This word intrusive currently sits in a negative connotative space. It is this negative connotation that does not adequately capture the breadth of what an ad can be. It is necessary that intrusive be further defined as good-intrusive and bad-intrusive, along a sliding scale.

The bad kind: When does a breakthrough ad become too intrusive?

While the definition of intrusive is pretty subjective, we can try to quantify it by looking at three things: privacy, interruption and time.

  • Privacy: While some aforementioned consumers may view personalized ads as an invasion of privacy, the practice has become commonplace. Users can turn off personalized ad experiences but others have said they actually prefer the personalization. But what if Alexa started using our conversation data to suggest we buy that sweater we were talking about… would that be bad-intrusive or good-intrusive?
  • Interruption: Pop-up ads are usually the bad-intrusive, as they interrupt content and can annoy and slow down shoppers. Another take on interruption is that some things should be pure, sacred, and safe from ads. Pepsi said it wants to project ads into the night sky in Russia. “Pepsi Wants to Ruin the Night Sky…” read one article. “Even Space Isn’t Safe from Ads” read another. Even if you aren’t the one being interrupted by an ad, it seems an ad can be bad-intrusive upon the principle of the format and how it might affect advertising in the future for the worse.
  • Time: If it takes a lot of time to “deal with” your ad, the ad could be annoying and erring on the side of bad-intrusive. Think a glitchy pop up that won’t close out. A multi-page email unsubscribing process with prompts to buy along the way. Another is video or TV commercials that are way too long.

The good kind: When an intrusive ad works

Being intrusive isn’t inherently a bad thing. Just because an ad enters a personal space doesn’t mean it’s bad, either. Take text message promotions from a fast casual restaurant. You opt-in, have the option to opt-out and receive a quick blurb about a promotion that may save you a couple of bucks. While text messaging could be considered a “pure” personal space, text message promotions show advertising in that space can be effective and beneficial to the consumer.

Influencer marketing has also provided relevant, integrated content to the Instagram and YouTube feeds of millions. 67 percent of consumers had no negative reaction to sponsored content compared to 49 percent who found brand-created advertisements to be “annoying or irrelevant” according to a survey by Collective Bias. Beyond that, 37 percent of consumers felt that high-quality influencer content negates the fact that it is sponsored.

Glover’s ad is breakthrough as it utilized a format that was typically reserved for friend-to-friend sharing. In the process Adidas and DG symbolically became that users’ friend, even for just a moment.

The Donald Glover Adidas AirDrop is intrusive however. Users who had initially signed up to AirDrops from anyone, were not previously aware that a brand could AirDrop them an ad. It was a sacred fun ad-free space. Anytime any ad enters a space, it is intrusive. No one is scrollin’ and thinking to themselves, wow I really hope I see an ad soon.

Although, the Donald Glover Airdrop could change that sentiment for future festivals. Who doesn’t love an ad that gives you free shoes? The AirDrop is a good kind of intrusive because it gave users something free in return for invading their space. One could make an argument in favor of the trade-off of personalized ads making your shopping experience easier in exchange for invading your scroll-space. Still — the trade-off here was a pair of unreleased sneaks. The bargain largely favored the user in this moment.

The AirDrop while an interruption, was time-wise easy to dismiss. Users who had AirDrop turned on could not choose whether or not to receive the ad, but dismissing the ad was as simple as declining the request for a photo share. The digital experience was likely at most 10 seconds. I say this knowing audiences get frustrated with 6 second pre-roll ads on YouTube. However, I think the illusion of control is important to the Interruption factor. The ability to manually click X to escape an ad. The choice to upgrade to premium to never have ads on Spotify. The ability to decline the Donald Glover request. Giving the user a choice to readily dismiss an ad is important to addressing the ad as good-intrusive or bad-intrusive.

However, if more brands begin doing the exact same thing, the Donald Glover AirDrop could be seen as the tipping point to an avalanche of brands using AirDrops in ways that are as annoying as pop up ads. On May 2, a person on an Australian commuter train had AirDrop turned on and was AirDropped a political advertisement. Sure, users can turn off AirDrops from everyone at festivals or while on trains — but then that signifies yet another previously safe-from-ads space that bad-intrusive ads have overrun to the detriment of the user.

We're a team of strategists, creative thinkers, digital…

Elizabeth Hallbeck

Written by

artist / digital strategist / fueled by curiosity


We're a team of strategists, creative thinkers, digital craftsmen, and doers for hire. This publication is just a sample of our thoughts and insights into the state of digital and what the future might bring.

Elizabeth Hallbeck

Written by

artist / digital strategist / fueled by curiosity


We're a team of strategists, creative thinkers, digital craftsmen, and doers for hire. This publication is just a sample of our thoughts and insights into the state of digital and what the future might bring.

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