People’s Insights Volume 1, Issue 52: Vicks Mobile Ad Campaign

Innovative ad targeting campaign

In early 2012, Vicks combined several layers of data to reach moms in high flu zones with mobile ads for their premium Behind Ear Thermometer. Moms only received ads if they were within three miles of a retailer selling the thermometer.

Elyse Dupré, a reporter Direct Marketing News, summarized the campaign: 

“The mobile aspect of the integrated campaign used three components to target its audience and sent relevant messages. The first was demographic criteria (e.g., experienced or expecting moms). Second, the mobile system was set up to use the Google Flu Trends index to alert moms when their local flu levels were high. Third, the mobile system used geo-targeting to provide customers with a list of retailers selling the thermometer—such as Walmart, Target, and Walgreens—and directions within a 3-mile radius.”

The mobile experience

Moms received in-app ads which warned them that they were in high flu zones and directed them to the closest retailer. On clicking the ads, moms were shown a video on the benefits of the thermometer.


Matthew Arnold, who covers medical marketing news online, wrote:

“They see an in-app banner ad reading “FLU LEVELS IN YOUR AREA ARE HIGH. Be prepared with Vicks’ revolutionary Behind Ear Thermometer,” and “buy at Target .2 miles away.” Clicking on the banner takes them to a landing page with a store finder, video and mobile site.”

Layer 1: Google flu data

Vicks used Google Flu trends to find out which areas were experiencing high incidences of flu. Google uses search trends and IP addresses to determine the locations, and provides this data for free online.

Google explained the logic behind their analysis:

“We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together”

Dr. Robert Brecht, a specialist in healthcare marketing, explained how the raw data was validated and made accessible:

Google’s [Flu] Trends is based on a formula to estimated flue activity based solely on searches. Google was able to do that by correlating flu-related Web searches with actual data from the Center for Disease Control (DCD). By combining the search keywords with the IP address of searchers which provides searchers’ locations, Google is able to estimate regional flu activity within a day of outbreaks compared to a week or two lag with CDC reports.”

Google provides this data for states and countries in North America, South America, Europe and also Russia, Australia and South Africa. In addition to flu trends, Google also monitors dengue trends in Mexico and some parts of Asia and South America.

Layer 2: Demographic data

Vicks was able to reach moms and expecting moms through mobile apps such as Pandora which collect user data including age, gender, marital status and whether they are parents.

Andrew Adam Newman, a journalist at New York Times, noted:

“A mobile campaign by Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, which is based in Chicago, places the ads for the thermometer within popular apps like Pandora that collect basic details about users, including their sex and whether they are parents, and can pinpoint specific demographics to receive ads.”

Layer 3: Location data

Vicks used real-time data from location based mobile advertising network Where to target moms when they were within 3 miles of a closest retail store that stocks the Behind Ear Thermometers.


Melissa Hoffmann noted:

“[Where] has the geolocation technology necessary and the ability to tap into Google’s flu trends to properly target the ads.”

 Highly relevant proposition

Thinkers point out that the ad campaign is highly relevant as it reaches only moms that meet all the targeting criteria and at a time when they are most likely to make the purchase.

As Andrew Adam Newman pointed out, “ not all mothers will see the ad on their smartphones. “

Dr. Robert Brecht highlighted the “real time” factor, and noted that mobile ads are a great way to reach moms:

“Mobile marketing is an important tactic to reach moms because of their reliance on smartphones to help them multi-task to balance the many demands of their hectic lifestyle.”

Michael Johnsen, who covers medical marketing news, wrote:

The ad targets users who arguably have a higher need for the product — a factor that would presumably increase the purchase intent with that branded call to action.”

The targeting options did indeed have an effect on the ad performance. Sarah Van Heirseele, VP of digital at Blue Chip which ran the campaign, shared:

“Click-through rates during the soft launch period are more than double what was originally anticipated.”

Privacy is a rising concern

Marketers and healthcare specialists predict that the increasing power and possibilities of targeting options will lead to a widespread debate on protection of privacy and call for newer and more relevant laws.

View the full Privacy Infographic – June 2011 (Survey respondents from UK, Spain, and Singapore) at

Patricia Kosseim, General Counsel, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, addressed this issue in her keynote speech at an ethics conference earlier this year:

“[The Vicks] example gives rise to yet another range of ethical issues having to do with the privacy of app users in this case — whether they were aware that their personal information would be used for targeted ads by third parties and whether they were given meaningful opportunity to opt out of it…

“Many of the online practices we see rely on the assurance that the information aggregated, used and/or disclosed to third parties is non-identifiable. However, given the scope and scale of the information collected, the powerful means now available to combine and analyze disparate pieces of data and the increasingly personalized nature of targeting strategies, there will often be a serious possibility that information could be linked to an individual.”

Targeted ads are “creepy”

Thinkers point out that targeted ads and location-based ads can creep out consumers, and that campaigns should be designed to appear less targeted to avoid ‘spooking out’ consumers.

In a blog post on Redefining Privacy: Mobile’s Privacy Challenges, Brian Morrissey, editor at Digiday, wrote:

“People carry their phones everywhere, storing pretty much their most sensitive information on them, making the prospect of location-tracking scoring very high on the “creepy” scale that seems to govern whether issues become privacy controversies.”

New York Times report Charles Duhigg came across the same issue when covering retailer Target’s use of data to identify expecting mothers and send them tailored product recommendations. He quoted a Target employee, who said:

“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly… Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random…And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”

Big Data 

Big Data has been receiving an increasing amount of attention in recent months, as the amount of data captured increases and brands become more data savvy.

In May 2011, the McKinsey Global Institute released the report “Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity,” in which they noted:

The use of big data will become a key basis of competition and growth for individual firms. From the standpoint of competitiveness and the potential capture of value, all companies need to take big data seriously… Indeed, we found early examples of such use of data in every sector we examined.”

Several of our previous case studies show how media companies and brands are using big data and social data to cover politics (CNN I’m Voting app), to engage and educate youth (MTV Fantasy Elections) and to cater to self-trackers – people who like to measure and visualize their activities (Nike FuelBand).

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