Over the past few days, a bewildering TikTok ad featuring clips from Roblox has torn through the internet. Some believe it’s an instance of performatively offbeat marketing. Some think it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill scam. Others say it was an accident, a technical mishap on the app’s backend. But everyone agrees on one thing: It’s weird AF.
I’d try to describe it, really, I would, but you should really just see it for yourself.
this was an amazon ad I got on tik tok???— Eddy Burback (@eddyburback) August 4, 2021
this is 100% real I just recorded it pic.twitter.com/cST0JoKb33
At first glance, the clip looks like an ad for Amazon — after all, that’s the username that appears on the video. But a representative for the everything store told The Verge yesterday that the ad was fraudulent, and that it was teaming up with TikTok to figure out just what the flying fuck was going on.
Later Wednesday, a TikTok representative told The Verge the “situation was the result of a technical issue, which temporarily swapped the Amazon ad creative with a different video“ and that “the issue has now been fixed.”
But, hmm…there’s the head-spinning oddity that clicking on the link didn’t send you to a specific product listing. Rather, it took you to a search page for an Amazon code (“reavealhome1”) with four listings. Three of those four have circulated via screenshot on social media, the results of which only spin the web further: All three visible listings show products sold by different sellers.
The first is a home décor company, Sivya US, that sells a wide swath of mixed-bag decorative furnishings, from folding laptop tables to burrito blankets to, as seen in the viral screenshots, a farmhouse garland. Off of Amazon’s network, there’s a similarly styled and nearly identically named décor brand, Sivya By Home. But cross-referencing every item Sivya US sells on Amazon brings up zero results on Sivya By Home’s website. Huh. Kotaku reached out to Sivya By Home about any potential affiliation — and to see if it purchased the ad in question — but understandably did not hear back at press time. (They’re based in India.)
The most notable is Creative Co-Op, a design and decorations wholesaler. The exact marble cutting board shown on Amazon is not listed on Creative Co-Op’s site. But it still appears to be the very same retailer; plenty of the items listed on Creative Co-Op’s Amazon page also show up on its site. Kotaku reached out to Creative Co-Op to see if it’s affiliated with the viral ad but did not hear back in time for publication.
Screenshot: Creative Co-Op / Kotaku, Fair Use
You need an account to see the a large image of this grey-toned cutting board on Creative Co-Op’s website.
Screenshot: Creative Co-Op / Kotaku, Fair Use
But you can see it on the brochure page.
Screenshot: Amazon / Kotaku, Fair Use
And here on Amazon.
And then there’s Mii-Home, a home goods company that, as far as I can tell, sells just two items on Amazon: a ceramic ramen bowl and a three-piece set of glass jars. Mii-Home does not appear to have a website. A Google search turned up an Instagram account for a Europe-based woman who paints and just seems to enjoy her life, but appears to have no obvious affiliation with Mii-Home. I did not bother her for this inane internet blog.
Last summer, TikTok expanded access to its ad network to pretty much any entity, provided they’re willing to pay. Surprising absolutely no one, the marketplace hasn’t exactly been well-regulated since. It’s still unclear who or what is behind these ads. It’s also unclear why the ad plays out the way it does, at once kind of gibberish yet also extremely funny. There are theories that perhaps it was randomly generated somehow, taking into account popular TikTok trends and formats. Then again, some believe there’s a genius out there who crafted the clip that, while confusing, clearly has everyone talking. Mission accomplished.
And, short of any solid answers, one question dangles precariously over the whole thing like a piano in an olde-timey cartoon: Who in their right mind would buy ad space for someone else? And why? That shit’s expensive!
As intrepid Gizmodo data reporter and friend of Kotaku Shoshana Wodinksy told me, the wacky Roblox-TikTok-Amazon ad has all the hallmarks of a common but barely discussed search-engine-gaming tactic called “search arbitrage.”
What’s search arbitrage, you ask? Funny, I had the same question!
Basically, you hoodwink someone into clicking on a link that takes you to a search results page, rather than a specific listing. By driving traffic to the page, you help juice up the page’s authority in the eyes of whatever algorithm is at play — in this case, Amazon — therefore making it more likely for that page to show up in future search queries. (Yes, that “revealhome1” leads to a page with multiple sellers is a head-scratcher. For the sake of your sanity, don’t even try squaring that circle.)
For an idea of just how keyword-driven this entire endeavour is, let’s circle back to The Verge. If you look at the slug — or the back section of the URL — for its article, you’ll see a dizzying string of keywords: amazon-tiktok-fake-ad-flo-rida-low-roblox-apple-bottom-jeans. (Sidenote: C’mon, The Verge, you couldn’t get “t-pain” in there? He co-wrote the song in the clip!) Not that this offers any clarity about what’s going on, per se, but it should contextualize the situation.
So, yeah, to lift a line from the inimitable ur-prophets of 2002, Queens of the Stone Age, no one knows!
Still, this entire charade has made one thing crystal clear: The internet isn’t made for you or I. Once upon a time, maybe, but not anymore. Pretty much everything on the web — articles meant to game Google’s front page, audio files designed to blitz from TikTok clip to TikTok clip, videos that exist for the sole purpose of juicing social media ad networks — is crafted for the “eyes” of algorithms and bots, a joyless paint-by-numbers machine that’s working exactly as intended. The internet’s hosting a big, endless, money-making party. We’re not invited.