Put Your Customer in the Ad!


In my direct mail days, we used personalization whenever possible. Starting a letter with “Dear Roger” instead of “Dear Friend” responds better every time (if the recipient’s name is Roger, that is!). A sweepstakes that uses a personalized address message like, “Imagine our Prize Patrol ringing the doorbell at 123 Shady Circle,” will garner more entries than one that uses a generic message. Today’s technology, though, permits new kinds of personalization that pack an even bigger punch than mere names and addresses.

Picture & Video Personalization

Just about everyone, it seems, has visited the wildly popular OfficeMax video generator, Elf Yourself. The site, powered by JibJab animation software, lets visitors upload a photo of one or more faces, which are then attached to dancing elves in a music video:

As crude as the animation is (it uses just one photo for the whole video), our brains are fooled by the video trickery and we find it hilarious to see ourselves and others engaged in wild dance moves. The viral success of the site is testament to how effective the personalized videos are. It’s also been a boon to OfficeMax, generating hundreds of millions of brand impressions and creating a strong, positive linkage between the brand and the lighthearted site. Reportedly, just under half of the users of Elf Yourself consciously associate the OfficeMax brand with the site.

While Elf Yourself may be a big success for OfficeMax, it’s a very soft sell. That has allowed it to spread much farther than, say, if the elves were juggling staplers and ink cartridges with an OfficeMax storefront in the background. There’s research that shows, however, that brand preferences can be swayed by techniques like showing the viewer using the product.

Direct Brand Impact

An article in The Psychologist, Doppelgängers – a new form of self? by Jeremy N. Bailenson, surveys a variety of research that demonstrates how inserting a person’s image into an ad can change their behavior:

To explore the consequences of viewing one’s virtual doppelgänger, we ran a simple experiment using digitally manipulated photographs (Ahn & Bailenson, 2011). We used imaging software to place participants’ heads on people depicted in billboards using fictitious brands, for example holding up a soft drink with a brand label on it. After the study, participants expressed better memory as well as a preference for the brand, even though it was obvious their faces had been placed in the advertisement. In other words, even though it was clearly a gimmick, using the digital self to promote a product is effective. Based on the findings from this study, the Silicon Valley company LinkedIn is featuring job advertisements that pull the photograph of the job applicant and place it in the job advertisement. In other words, the applicant gets to ‘see’ what he or she would look like inside of the corporate message. [Emphasis added.]

It’s particularly interesting that the “gimmicky” appearance didn’t prevent the inserted image from changing brand attititude.

Behavior Impact

More research confirms the potency of this effect. While that experiment used a simulated billboard, a Stanford dissertation by Sun Joo Ahn tested users in a virtual environment, i.e., a simulation which immersed the subject in an artificial reality. The experiment showed that subjects who saw themselves cutting down a tree in the virtual world exhibited a tendency to conserve paper afterwards. This simple simulation changed subsequent behavior.

The Image Tipping Point

Calvin Klein Ad
Are we ready to make the leap from the lab to marketing reality? Will future Calvin Klein ads substitute their customer’s face for that of the reclining model? Do you think a male viewer would pay slightly more attention to the ad if it was his face instead of the indifferent, bored-looking model’s? I think that ad viewer would indeed be attracted to the it, even when he is fully aware that the photo is a bad fake.

As the LinkedIn example shows, image-pesonalized ads are already happening. And, with a little extra effort to select and optimize one or more photos, the Elf Yourself site shows how even a still image can create a compelling video.

Another example of including an image of the viewer in the ad itself is the Person of Interest interactive billboard. In this case, the viewer’s image is captured in real time as he stands in front of the display, and then incorporated into the content on the screen.

The tipping point that makes greater use of image-based personalization practical, at least in some applications, is that so many people now have images easily obtained from social media profiles. Though not universial, our ability to assign a photo to a specific individual is now far greater than it was even a couple of years ago. While profile photos are far from universal, they are very common and, in some market segments, quite pervasive. In addition, the technology to capture faces in real time keeps improving. Within a couple of years, I expect to see much greater use of image personalization.

Who wouldn’t like to be the most interesting man in the world, for example?
Most Interesting Man in World

Although I haven’t spotted examples of image or video personalization tied to brand use, I’m sure they are out there. If you know of one, please post a comment!

  1. Tea Silvestre says

    Very interesting! What are the legal ramifications of grabbing someone’s social media photo and inserting it into an ad? Do you know?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s a good question, Tea. I would think there would be no problems if it was the same site where the image was posted, e.g., if Facebook used your profile image to advertise to you. But, what if it was a third-party advertiser? Or what if another site used your login info to get an image from another site? I suspect all this will need to be worked out. My guess is that most people would find it kind of cool, but a few might feel like their privacy had been invaded.


  2. Joe says

    Very interesting! I’m from Brazil and found this site with great info in Portuguese: http://forebrain.com.br/foreblog/


  3. Dan Greenberg says


    Advertising technology to insert… well… anything really into a video is now coming to market. With it, you will see pre-roll ads that are customized to you, Facebook ads that use your image, and more. And often, the integration of the brand… or you… into the video will not be “gimmicky.” Rather, it will look like the video was made that way. The response is generally very positive, with brand recall up and annoyance factors down. And there is quite a strong response! Here’s a case study about one of our clients (It’s Playboy Germany, but the case study is SFW): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isjPpbmnaYo

    Our technology is quite easy to use. Qualified researchers who want to do studies/experiments with it should contact me (dg at impossiblesoftware dot com) to discuss.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great stuff, Daniel. I embedded the video in your comment.

      I’ve been involved in some other personalized video projects that were cool and engaging, but they were text only. It’s surprising how much you can do with text, though clearly using a picture is even more impactful!


  4. Paul says

    That both amazing and terrifying. However I think people will be amazed by these new ads at the beginning, and after a while, it will become normal… So we’ll have to imagine or create some new ads.

    Kind of cool though, especially for Playboy :).

    Thanks for sharing Dan, and for the post Roger.

  5. Daniel Gonzalez says

    This advertisement not only uses your face, but it log’s into facebook, uses your name, your friends names, and your friends pictures too…

    It’s actually a lot of fun. You’ve got to connect yourfacebook, then it generates a customized video where a serial killer plans on coming and finding you.


    1. Roger Dooley says

      Very cool, Daniel, and exactly the kind of thing I was talking about! Thanks for posting!

  6. Ana Hoffman says

    Ahhhh…. the possibilities!

    Just spent quite a while at JibJab site trying to see how I can use it for my blog.

    Thanks for the ideas, Roger!

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