Frustrated husbands can ‘use micro-targeted native ads to influence their wives to initiate sex’ – surely a PR stunt? Please, a PR stunt?
By Rich Leigh on Tuesday, July 10, 2018
I happened upon a tweet highlighting a pitch this morning by Maya Kosoff, a New York-based tech journalist. Maya writes for Vanity Fair.
Journalists bashing PR pitches on social media is a sport at this stage, scored by the number of ‘IKRs?’ other journalists respond with. It happens daily, and most revolve around one or more of a) ‘this pitch is laughably irrelevant’, b) ‘what a dumb idea LOL’ and c) ‘I can’t believe this person is paid actual money and can’t get my name [and/or basic spelling] right’.
Here’s what she said. Read the image to learn about ‘The Spinner’.
this is by far the creepiest and worst pitch i've ever gotten. what about the stories i write or who i am as a human being would make u think i wanna write about this??? pic.twitter.com/PKuMctXw5M
— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) July 9, 2018
She followed up with this reply:
it just keeps going! (i wrote back and told elliot i hope their company fails) pic.twitter.com/bK9xAxRVsY
— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) July 9, 2018
I was about to tweet to highlight what is an incredibly inflammatory pitch, and then took a second to think. I bet this is bullshit and almost certainly fake.
In fact, it appears almost troll-y, like somebody sat down and considered what would wind typically liberal tech journalists up the most.
So I’ve set out to find out what the hell it is.
THAT’S RIGHT. You’re getting another Detective Rich Leigh Investigates special (even casual fans might recall The Case of the Great Broken Down Octopus of ’14).
The YouTube link in Maya’s tweet takes us to this quite obvious spoof of a news item, talking about the ‘service’:
Which takes us to TheSpinner.net. It looks legit, but the more you poke around the site and, really, the second you scroll below the line, the shonkier it feels. The no frills font looks like it hasn’t been given a single thought, the low res explainer on the FAQ page is a flag, there are no social pages and the ratings page is quite clearly made up – with the ‘next’ button taking you instead to a registration page.
There’s no way to leave a rating or review, so although the creators have considered the fact that a page of glowing 5 star reviews would raise eyebrows, it feels like the negative ‘OHMYGODTHISISHORRIBLE’ comments have been left to give the impression of it being a divisive service.
So I decided to register.
There are a number of packages according to this page, suggesting that you help to manipulate a loved one to achieve all manner of outcomes, to combat issues like alcohol dependency, drugs among athletes, smoking cessation, the headline one of sex initiation, marriage proposal and a few others.
Ignoring the fact that the spelling gets decidedly lazier (see below image – massage, anybody?), it’s quite clear somebody’s sat down and thought ‘what hot-button issues might one want to influence through native ads, and is it press-worthy?’.
Once registered – no email confirmation necessary – you’re shown to this page. The headline ‘sex initiation’ package is the only one you can register for, the others all need you to contact an email address.
I apologise for letting you in on the sex life of me and my 80 year old wife. Such a short honeymoon period.
I went for the Kardashian option in this next stage asking you what link to trick my lovely wife with, obvs. (The YouTube video link you see is a ‘bit’ with James Corden and Kim Kardashian):
Here’s step three of the registration process. We’re getting to the crunch. I’m totally about to start manipulating my octogenarian wife into wanting me. I am so close I can practically smell the solution she puts her false teeth into when we make love.
The shown article is, by the way, a real one.
I anxiously click ‘proceed to payment’ – by this stage, I’m OK with spending $29 on something I’ve already given far too much time too – I’m sorry to say, there’s much more – AAAAANDDDDD…
A ‘page isn’t working’ response. Gutted. So I tried again.
I cleared my cookies, went through the process again and – same thing. Coital initiation from my surprisingly social media literate wife, a wife born before the start of World War 2, had never looked less likely.
It was at this stage I thought – right, I’m not having this. The Spinner, that obviously reputable new service, with all its Cambridge Analytica-like promises, guaranteed that I could trick my spouse into sex using technology and damn it that’s what I want. So, I set about contacting whoever’s in charge. I clicked the ‘contact us’ link.
I knew, I just knew that The Spinner wouldn’t be some barely-formed troll-y marketing thing, and I was desperate to give them my $29. I had to find a way.
On that page, I found three email addresses, and a physical address in Fleet Street, London:
So I emailed all three email addresses. And got a response almost immediately.
Of course, I sent Elliot my number.
While I waited for a call, I did some digging.
Maybe The Spinner is based in an office above the cafe?, I thought.
The who.is results showed nothing special, only that the person that registered the domain paid to have their details made private.
I thought I’d search on Twitter to see who’d first tweeted about https://www.thespinner.net (results here) – it’s usually somebody quite close to the idea, and found this guy – Robin Oliver:
The Spinner https://t.co/STw5PYCFqu
— Robin Oliver (@robinoliver22) July 4, 2018
A man from Cambridge with ‘a PhD in Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics’, according to his bio, and a penchant for retweeting nonsense – and for tweeting about The Spinner. Regularly.
Only, with a cursory TinEye (reverse image) search – results here – I found that Robin is actually a man called George Lakoff (and I should clarify – his image has likely been used without his permission). You can see the same image used in this 2004 interview with Mother Jones:
The Spinner, you got my hopes of romance I don’t have to initiate up, and now I’m beginning to think you’re really not what you said you were.
One of the tweets RTd by ‘Robin’ was this – a photo by a man called Mustafa Abdul Hamid that looks remarkably similar to the street view photo above. In fact, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which you can see in the sign, is based at 145 Fleet Street – next door to the Paul.
— Mustafa Abdul Hamid (@MuAbdulHamid) June 20, 2018
If you search the tweets of Mustafa, and a man called Fred Steelton, you begin to see an enormous amount of crossover in their posts – retweeting each other, and contacting media outlets like USA Today.
‘This is real’, Fred claims, after tweeting about The Spinner, with the YouTube ‘news’ piece from all the way up there ^^^.
(I’m so sorry, you’ve been with this so long that you’ve probably forgotten what up there looked like).
ON WE MUST CONTINUE:
— Fred Steelton (@FredSteelton) June 15, 2018
Because people that look to be involved with services claiming they can make your wife want to sex at you claiming it’s real will definitely make you believe that it’s real.
The video – let’s go back to the video, and specifically, the people in it.
TinEye isn’t great for facial recognition, but I found PimEyes – which apparently is. I screen-grabbed the female newsreader, ran her through PimEyes and – nothing. It kept coming back to Meghan Markle. I’m not so sure it’s the Duchess of Sussex.
I did the same for the male ‘on the scene’ reporter and – bingo. With 63.62% similarity, it came back with this result:
I went onto roomsxml.com, the site mentioned – on which is this YouTube video. The video itself is unimportant, but the fact that the same male reporter in the ‘news’ item is in the roomsxml.com video – same accent and even WEARING THE SAME TIE – confirmed it. Which means we can probably walk it back to who he is, how he got hired and get to the person behind thi-
-HOLY SHIT THE BED, Elliot just called. I honestly didn’t think he would, rendering the above steps absolutely *pointless*.
I recorded the calls, but I’m not certain about the legalities around sharing a conversation without somebody’s permission, so I’ll just precis.
I, by the way, told him I worked in PR and was interested, given the wholly negative reaction to the service as one that uses native ads to influence behaviour and in light of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, in how it works and why it exists. I mean, that’s not a lie. I am.
Here’s what I learned:
- Elliot – not his real name, incidentally, his real name is Halib, a Turkish name (he told me) – lives, or told me he lives, in Germany
- When I asked him directly, he assured me that it was ‘real’, and when I asked him why it didn’t work when I tried to pay them money, told me that it would be a technical issue that would take around half an hour to fix, likely as a result of ‘high traffic. I said I’d try again later. I did – keep reading
- It is emphatically ‘not’ PR or marketing for anything
- He told me that he has 5-6,000 paying users – that’s $145,000 – $174,000, if he’s telling the truth
- Halib said that Google Ads were so cheap as nobody was bidding on them for the terms he was going for, and they were picking up traffic for ‘one or two cents’
- He banked on people hate-tweeting it. “I don’t mind what they feel, as long as they think something”, Halib said – which is scarily like something I’ve said in talks I’ve given about coming up with PR ideas that bang
- The service ‘works’ by dropping a cookie, which enables it to track the person you’re trying to influence in order to serve specific content. I know we had that from the site, but it’s worth reiterating
I searched Halib’s number and found this, on Showcaller. Either he’s using some form of call router or HALIB ONLY BLOODY FIBBED TO ME. Neither would surprise me.
What happened next…
I gave it an hour or so – I had some actual paying work to do and all – and tried again.
The site appeared to be more borked than ever before, until – it wasn’t.
I registered another account, went through the stages and, up popped the previously unseen payment screen.
Now, reader, this is where you might think me daft, but I pulled out a credit card I never use – low limit, happy to cancel it if there’s any dodgy activity – and paid. I paid to see what would happen, hoping it would come up with a ‘ONLY JOKING YOU SOFT BASTARD, this is a PR stunt for X thing‘ message. It didn’t.
Instead, it showed this:
I wouldn’t suggest you search for that link in your browser, but I copied and pasted it, and it redirected through a blank screen that lasted a split-second to the Corden/Kardashian YouTube video I mentioned before. That initial screen was dropping the cookie.
I’m now, if this works, going to get served social ads trying to convince me that I should make the first move on my non-existent husband. I know I could delete cookies from the last hour and be done with it, but I’m actually intrigued, and will likely update on what I see as a result (on Twitter @RichLeighPR though, not another 2,000 word post).
Forget that there is:
- a small network of fake Twitter accounts trying to get a rise out of people (I could have looked at Status People to check on how real the followings of our friends Mustafa, Robin and Fred are, but frankly, I have other things I need to do – internet, fill your boots) and
- a likely randomly-picked London address
– holy shit, this is actually a service that preys upon sex-starved and likely incredibly unbalanced people to Derren Brown women into bed, isn’t it?
Oh GOD, I thought this would have a less depressing end, but there you go.
What I thought – in fact, prayed – was A PR Example, like the many on the very site you find yourself on, is not.
And as if to punctuate this, ‘Elliot’ just emailed me to ensure I’d seen a confirmation email with the link in.