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  • Turning big data into big laughs
  • Turning big data into big laughs
    Spotify (2016) ©

Spotify – It's Been Weird: celebrating guilty pleasures

Spotify boasts over 100 million users, who generate masses of data each day. For the ‘It’s Been Weird’ campaign, the streaming service has used this information to weave narratives around people’s listening habits, exposing their guilty pleasures and secret, themed playlists on billboards.

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Remember that time you played ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush 14 times in a row? What if your colleague told you they’d done the same thing? Would you judge them? Or would you share the joke, laughing at your mutual bad taste? Spotify has launched an OOH campaign capitalising on guilty pleasures like these, using data to tell tales about people’s listening habits.

The ads have taken the emotional connections people have with their music and used them to build a bond with Spotify’s brand. In doing so, it has rewarded the creativity of its user base, while subtly drawing attention to the unique features of the service. It’s a prime example of how data can be used tactfully to engage – rather than alienate – audiences.


Spotify’s 100 million-plus monthly active users and 40 million paying subscribers generate a wealth of valuable data. [1] The service can see how many times someone has played a particular song, as well as what songs users have put together when creating playlists for themselves, for parties, or to share with friends. This campaign – which is the brand’s largest investment into OOH advertising to date – uses this information to expose some of the most curious and giggle-inducing stories about people’s listening habits. [2]

Boasting the tagline ‘Thanks, 2016, it’s been weird’, the ads were designed with humour in mind. “Dear person who made a playlist called: ‘One Night Stand With Jeb Bush Like He’s a Bond Girl in a European Casino’, we have so many questions,” reads one. “To the 1,235 guys who loved the ‘Girls’ Night’ playlist this year, we love you,” reads another.

Spotify had previously been content to rely on word-of-mouth advertising – a strategy that’s worked well. But now, it seems the brand wants to become something else, positioning itself as a trusted friend who will tolerate – and celebrate – your taste in music, for better or worse. To this end, regional variations of the campaign have been rolled out across the US, France, Germany, and the UK, where one ad reads, “Dear 3,749 people who streamed ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’ the day after the Brexit vote, hang in there.” [2]

Your guilty pleasures aren’t secret from Spotify Your guilty pleasures aren’t secret from Spotify
Spotify (2016) ©

The campaign’s humour relies on exposing people’s guilty pleasures – those things that people feel they shouldn’t like, but do anyway. According a UK-based survey conducted by music sharing app Muzeit, 18% of people have turned down the volume on their phones to stop people learning what they’re listening to, while 13% have hidden their screens to prevent others peeking at their supposedly shameful musical tastes. [3] This ‘guilt’ comes from a feeling that society frowns on them, or that they’re too lowbrow for the educated consumer many people aspire to be. Music throws up these hidden pleasures all the time, because listeners often form irrational, emotional connections to particular tracks or artists, and so a song means something to them despite it being uncool. [2]

Research shows that these feelings of guilt actually increase our experience of pleasure, and that there’s also a thrill involved in revealing them. [4] Spotify’s campaign allows users to see themselves in these publicised examples – to imagine the excitement of having their own secret loves exposed to the world. The effect is not to shame users for their bad taste, but to highlight the emotional connection they have with their music, and therefore have with Spotify.

This campaign is built on the foundations of what makes Spotify so unique – our amazing community of music fans, and the passion they have for discovering and sharing music

Karen Staughton, head of consumer marketing at Spotify UK

People use their products in surprising and creative ways, and brands have long realised that they can capitalise on this. For instance, Apple’s ‘Shot on iPhone’ campaign features enlarged smartphone snaps from customers as a way of highlighting the quality of the phone’s camera, as well as how talented its users are. [5]

Creative customers generally tend to invest emotionally in their tools. This can be used both as a way of directly connecting with people and as a source of user-generated content or data that can be tapped into accordingly. “We are in the enviable position of having a lot of interesting data to look at, which shapes the creative process with our agencies, and that creative process is really the major shift in how we work with them,” says Karen Staughton, Spotify’s head of consumer marketing in the UK. “We put data and community at the core of our creative and our media across all channels to tell the stories that connect us with our audience.” [6]

Would you admit to an adoration for ABBA? Would you admit to an adoration for ABBA?
Ander Lejczak, Creative Commons (2014) ©

Insights and opportunities
Ultimately, Spotify’s campaign puts users at the heart of its message. “This campaign is built on the foundations of what makes Spotify so unique – our amazing community of music fans, and the passion they have for discovering and sharing music,” says Staughton. “We are celebrating those users by showcasing the breadth of playlists that soundtrack so many moments in their lives – from the weird to the wonderful.” [7]

It’s a brave way to use data. Many companies harness information collected from users to recommend products or target advertising, but there’s a sense of unease around this practice; 89% of Americans say that they avoid companies who they feel don’t respect their privacy. [8] Consequently, a growing number of brands are seeking out ways to put this data to good use, without scaring off customers. Google has used its data to tell people if a café or museum they’d like to visit is busy in real time, while Uber has announced that it’ll share its vast resources to help cities plan their infrastructure. Such arrangements are intended to weave a narrative around data collection that’s a little less sinister, be it through good humour or social benefit.

In this specific context, Spotify has not only maintained users’ anonymity, it’s also recognised and rewarded their individuality. Instead of employing big consumer trends to target individual users, it’s turned to people’s unpredictable listening habits as a source of relatable narratives. “There’s been some debate about whether big data is muting creativity in marketing, but we've turned that on its head,” says Seth Farbman, CMO at Spotify. “For us, data inspires and gives an insight into the emotion that people are expressing.” [9]

Matt Webber is an anthropologist, writer and consultant specialising in visual culture and consumer behaviour.

1. 'Spotify now has 40 million paid subscribers', Engadget (September 2016)
2. 'Spotify crunches user data in fun ways for this new global outdoor ad campaign', Adweek (November 2016)
3. 'Revealed, the secret songs we love to sing: Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart tops chart of guilty pleasures we love to belt out when we are alone', The Daily Mail (May 2016)
4. 'The pleasure of guilt', The Huffington Post (March 2012)
5. 'Apple reboots ‘Shot on iPhone 6’ campaign with all-new photos from the iPhone 6s', 9to5Mac (February 2016)
6. 'Spotify on why it’s launching its first UK brand campaign now', The Drum (October 2016)
7. 'Spotify kicks off UK brand campaign in major cities', Music Business Worldwide (October 2016)
8. 'Survey: More Americans worried about data privacy than income', CBS News (January 2016)
9. 'Spotify is using billboards to call users out on their questionable listening habits', The Next Web (November 2016)