That emoji you just tweeted could determine the next ad you see

Feb 16, 2018

What do egglplant, fire and the number 100 all have in common? They're all emojis that have twisted and evolved in meaning.

As those little digital images change how we communicate, they've also transformed how advertisers track our interests.

Since 2016, Twitter has sold data of people’s emoji use to advertisers, allowing companies to send people specific ads based on the emojis they tweet.

In early February, the Unicode Consortium, emojis' governing body, announced a list of 157 new emojis that will be added to our keyboards this year. They include a female superhero, a lobster and a small blue ballet flat.

How are emoji made?

For Florie Hutchinson, the creator of the new ballet flat emoji, it all began with a trip to the grocery store with her three daughters.

"This is not leisurely shopping. It is definitely mission-focused shopping," Hutchinson remembers with a laugh.

Her daughters were 6 months, 4 and 5 — a lot to juggle. At the store, the older two picked up a Disney book called “Polite as a Princess.” Hutchinson looked on the rack for a male equivalent.

"Of course there wasn’t a 'Polite as a Prince,'" Hutchinson said. "So, in that moment of sleep deprivation, I took a picture of the book, put it on Instagram, tagged Disney and said, 'Would love see 'Polite as a Prince.'"

If they’re telling girls how to act, she thought, they should tell boys, too. She then headed off to buy a new stroller.

"As I scanned them all, I realized that out of the 25-plus options of baby carriers, there was only one in which the packaging featured a dad," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson sighed. Again, more gender roles. Around 3 a.m. that night, Hutchinson woke up to nurse her 6-month-old daughter and she started a text message to her sister.

"The emoji that auto populated for the word shoe was a red high-heeled stiletto," Hutchinson said.

She looked through the emoji keyboard and the only other women’s shoes also had heels. Everything from the day flooded back.

"You can’t scream at 3 a.m. when there are two children who are actually sleeping as well as a husband, but I channeled my frustration into Google," Hutchinson said.

In a furious Google search, she stumbled into a whole new world of emoji. She learned emojis are crowdsourced, and anyone can submit an idea to the Unicode Consortium. She read an article about the woman who had created the dumpling emoji who was now a vice chair at Unicode.

And she sent her an email with an idea: a flat shoe alternative.

"She immediately answered within a matter of, I think, an hour — so she was obviously sleep deprived, too — and said, 'This is a good idea. Deadline is July 1,'" Hutchinson said.

It was late May. Over the next month, Hutchinson created and submitted a proposal  for a small blue ballet flat.

That August it was on a short list of possible new emojis.

“From one day to the next, it kind of went viral and suddenly became very much this feminist symbol," Hutchinson said. "A lot of people understood that I was fundamentally questioning the notion that women only wear heels.”

By February, Hutchinson’s little blue flat emoji was approved to be a part of Unicode 11.0, along with 156 other icons, each with a story of their own, including the mosquito emoji proposed by public health advocates to help doctors communicate about malaria and evil eye emoji submitted from Turkey to make emoji more culturally relevant.

Money, money, money

As emojis grow, how we communicate grows. And that's where advertising comes in.

"If somebody tweets using an emoji, that can be a factor in which you can target your ads," said Aaron Goldman, chief marketing officer at 4C Insights.

4C Insights is one of six companies that works with Twitter to offer emoji-targeted advertising — basically, sending you ads based on the emojis you tweet. 

"If someone puts a thumbs up or a smiley face, show them this ad. If they do a frowny face or a thumbs down, show them a different ad," Goldman said. "We’ve seen people targeting football and basketball emojis for athletic wear."

Tracking the data of Twitter users is nothing new for advertisers. But while someone's age or location is tied to their Twitter account, something like race isn't.

"There’s different shades, literally, of emojis," Goldman said. Advertiser's can target people based on the emoji skin tones they use.

4C has hundreds of clients that use emoji targeting. A 4C Twitter ad for a fast food company received almost three times as many likes, retweets and comments when it targeted people based on their emojis, the company said.

A window into the soul

The success of emoji-targeted ads may come down to the emotion part of emoji.

"Advertisers don’t want to sell you something if you don’t want it, right? It wastes our dollars and it wastes your time," said TeeJay Hughes, a strategic account manager at AdParlor, another company that offers emoji-targeted ads. "So if we can make advertising relevant, that’s the beauty of it."

Data like age and gender give advertisers information about you. Emojis can get in your head.

Last fall Toyota ran an ad campaign to match people’s moods based on their emoji use. They took 83 different emojis, created 83 different videos and sent ads out accordingly.

"That’s really inappropriate," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit consumer advocate. He thinks mining people's emotional state goes a step too far.

"When companies start to create a psychological profile of people based on their emotions and then advertise to them based on that profile, that’s intrusive," Court said. "People are not used to tweeting an emoji for a piece of pizza then getting an ad for a weight loss center or for Weight Watchers."

Not that that’s happened. Yet.

When the 157 new emojis hit keyboards later this year, there will be 157 more things to track, like Florie Hutchinson’s little blue ballet flat.

"That’s kind of creepy, but I think technology is going that way," Hutchins0n said.

She said if someone tweets her shoe, they might now at least get ads for realistic footwear.

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