Typos in ads: Incompetence or Strategic?

Here’s what I used to think long, long ago, before I dipped my toes into the real-world:

When I see something stupid that means that someone, somewhere, made a stupid decision.

That feels like common sense, almost even tautological. If it is stupid, then someone did something stupid.

Oh, if only I lived in a world that simple!

To explain an alternative world view, let’s take an example very relevant to display ads:

When you see typos in an ad.

Like this ad, that I saw while online on my phone the other day:


What stood out to me about that ad is the obvious typo: find your quirks, talents and your “hidden weak.” Your hidden weak? What language is that? Not English!

Now, the younger version of me would have laughed. “Ha!” I would have thought, “The idiots [hired to write this ad copy] can’t even write a simple grammatical sentence!”

The older and possibly-wiser version of myself sees typos and wonders: is it on purpose? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps as the classic song goes.

Take spam, for example. Here’s a well-known fact: spammers put typos into their emails on purpose. What? Why? Because smarter people are more likely to use the typo as a marker of sketchiness and thus delete the email. But the less attentive people are the ones more likely to respond. Now that is targeting: the spammers want only the most gullible to respond, and typos help auto-select the less-gullible out of the target market.

The same goes for display ads. A few years ago, I ran an ad campaign for a travel startup and I made a typo in the ad, accidentally. I wish I could say it was a test on purpose, but alas, it wasn’t. But when I realized it, I ended up not fixing it but creating a new ad to A/B test against the original. And guess what? The typo version got more sales. Since then, I’ve recreated the results in some contexts, but not all. I would be hesitant to use a bank that had typos… maybe a typo causes a zero to disappear at the end of my account balance!

The conclusions here are two-fold. First, don’t take ads at their face value. Second, test, test, test. Maybe “mistakes” can help improve your conversion rate.

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