ESPN Freaked Out iPhone Users by Trolling Them With AirDrop During the NBA Finals

R/GA deviously builds on 'You Seeing This?' campaign


Lots of marketers will tell you that the key to modern advertising is to be less interruptive—inviting viewers into experiences that feel more like entertainment and less like bombardment.

But a new campaign from ESPN and agency R/GA decided to go hard the other way, finding and surprising people with individualized messages that seemed to appear on their phones as if they’d been spotted by the all-seeing eye of advertising.

The stunt, aimed at driving viewership of the NBA Finals, hinged on Apple’s often-forgotten AirDrop feature, which—if enabled, which it often is—lets two users transfer files directly between iPhones and other devices, if they are within roughly 30 feet of one another.

In a devious little trick, the marketing team sent personalized messages to innocent bystanders who were doing just about anything except watching the finals. Sitting on a bench? Boom, NBA finals. Looking at a fountain? Why not the NBA Finals?

The case study video helps you see how it worked:

Part of a broader campaign under the tag line “You Seeing This?” (also including TV commercials and various digital ads), the AirDrop stunt was done on a small scale in five downtown NYC locations, for “learning purposes,” according to ESPN.

Adds ESPN’s director of sports marketing Michael Kopech: “Our strategy was to create a sense of FOMO to get our digital-first audience to tune in to the Finals. Using a variety of touch points–including incorporating fan reactions into our spots, surprising them in the West Village via their phones, and creating live ads in Instagram stories–‘You Seeing This?’ was a great conceit to capture the can’t-miss nature of the NBA Finals.”

To be sure, the case study clip should be taken with a grain of salt—such reality-style stunts tend to include at least some measure of staging, and it’s not clear how ESPN and R/GA would have managed to target specific strangers with specific messages in crowded public spaces (and then chase down everybody involved for a video release form).

But skepticism aside, AirDrop trolling is definitely a thing. So now might be a good time to check your settings (hint: Settings > General > AirDrop > Contacts Only).

You can check out some of the short-form spots from the campaign below:


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@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.