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Column: What is this meat hoodie and why is it following me around the internet?

Los Angeles Times writer David Pierson wears a hoodie that has a raw meat print and has been popping up in ads all over the internet. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The biggest complaint about advertising today is that it is creepily precise. Ads seem to know where we shop, what we like, and the exact color and size. Many live in a state of paranoia that our mobile devices are listening to us, surfacing ads for things we’ve merely discussed but never searched.

So why then is the internet convinced I want a meat hoodie?

Several times, I have been served ads for a hooded pullover sold by a low-priced Chinese clothing brand. Advertised as a Raw Meat Kangaroo Pocket Hoodie, the top is emblazoned from edge-to-edge with a print of marbled raw red meat. Think of it as the tuxedo T-shirt version of Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress.

It would be a bold look for anyone — let alone someone like me, whose sartorial choices have repeatedly led fellow J.Crew shoppers to mistake me for an employee.

And I’m not the only one who thinks the ad is targeting the wrong person.

Colleagues said they were also trailed by the garish top online — including in a recent ad on the Los Angeles Times website next to coverage of the Camp fire. The ad has also been spotted on Reddit, the New York Times’ opinion section and beside a story in the Federalist.

In the $80-billion digital advertising ecosystem, the meat hoodie is almost retrograde.

Rather than relying on the breadth of personal information made available by services like Facebook to marketers willing to pay for it, the makers of the meat hoodie are carpet-bombing the cheapest corners of the internet in hopes of hitting a target.

“An ad buyer can say, ‘I only want left-handed truck drivers in Oklahoma after midnight,’” said Oscar Garza, executive vice president of media activation for ad agency Essence.

This does not seem to be the case for the meat hoodie. Garza called the meat hoodie’s tactics “highly untargeted.”

Such approaches have long been a staple of the lower rungs of online advertising, where marketers try to win clicks with sensational headlines (“Bride Invites Groom’s Ex to Wedding”), shocking images (“Gruesome Civil War Photos”) and scintillating content (“51 Stars Who Died And No One Said Anything”).

But unlike the familiar grid of ads at the bottom of web pages that steer readers to other sites solely to serve them more ads — the very definition of clickbait — the meat hoodie is direct in its approach.

Click the link and you land on Gamiss.com, an e-commerce site selling the hoodie for about $15 (shipping, however, is no bargain: $6.99 for seven to 25 business days; $14.50 for three to seven business days).

Ordinarily, ads as cheap as the meat hoodie’s barely register. But in this case, the imprecision, coupled with the grotesquely captivating design, has won it surprisingly wide attention.

Search “meat hoodie” on Twitter and you’ll find streams of people scratching their heads and shaking a fist at the advertising algorithms of Google — a company that commands nearly 40% of the U.S. digital ad market.

The manufacturer seems to be banking on a few people buying a meat hoodie for Halloween or as a white elephant gift with enough saturation.

“It completely beats me why I got an ad for it,” said Zakiya Noel, a 23-year-old illustrator in New York, who saw the ad while browsing Reddit for computer sales. “I know most automated ads show up based on your recent searches, but I don’t recall looking at clothes or any apparel around that time.”

The maker of the meat hoodie isn’t necessarily choosing who sees its wares — or even which sites get to tout it. Those impressions (industry jargon for when someone sees the ad) are facilitated by an automated system. Programmatic ad-buying technology, which has been around for more than a decade, allows brands to spread their marketing across a slew of websites instead of having to negotiate deals with them one-by-one.

Ad exchanges serve as a sort of middleman in the buying process. Once a brand decides how much it will pay for an impression, its ad competes with others vying for the same eyeballs in an online auction decided in milliseconds, Garza said.

A premium ad, such as a video plug on Hulu, can cost up to $30 for every thousand impressions. The meat hoodie, Garza estimates, could cost as little as 10 cents for the same number of views. Sell a single hoodie and the makers of the sweatshirt could afford to showcase the design on 150,000 web pages.

Though cheap, the advertising spots aren’t necessarily on seldom-seen sites. Instead, they tend to be in places advertisers might deem risky.

Low-cost ads can be purchased on Reddit, a hub of message boards that dubs itself the front page of the internet but is also home to controversial and sometimes strange content (like photos of trees that look like they’re swallowing their surroundings).

And they can be found on established news sites, where ad rates on article pages often remain low despite attracting audiences that tend to be more educated and affluent.

That’s because most news isn’t good news.

“A lot of clients don’t want news,” Garza said. “California was on fire. Brands don’t want to be associated with that.”

(The Times’ digital ad rates are still decided by its former owner, Tribune Publishing. The paper hopes to raise rates once the companies are fully separated, putting the likes of the meat hoodie ad in jeopardy).

So what says the company that actually makes the meat hoodie and other sartorial oddities like the hairy chest hoodie?

Shenzhen Globalegrow, it turns out, is no stranger to controversy. In 2016, the Chinese e-commerce company was the subject of a BuzzFeed investigation about the deluge of women in the U.S. who were scammed into buying clothes from the company’s lineup of online brands such as Rosegal, Zaful and SammyDress.

BuzzFeed found Globalegrow was using stolen images to market its threads and duping buyers by claiming to hold security certificates from reputable firms such as PayPal and Norton Security. The clothes they shipped often looked nothing like the ones advertised, the investigation found.

Oversized cotton T-shirts arrived looking like they were made from shower curtains. Sweaters for adults inexplicably turned up in children’s sizes. Complaints to the company often went unanswered.

Globalegrow’s emergence underscores the shrinking gap between Chinese factories and American consumers in the e-commerce era. Manufacturers in Shenzhen no longer need middlemen — fashion brands, bricks-and-mortar stores or even Western e-commerce operations — when they can market their wares directly to U.S. audiences.

It’s unclear if the mounting complaints by customers were ever addressed by the Chinese company, which claims on its website it reached $1.4 billion in revenue last year — less than one-tenth of Gap Inc.’s sales the same year, but no small number for a fast fashion brand. Ads for the meat hoodie were linked to two of Globalegrow’s brands, Rosegal and Gamiss.

Seeking an interview, I emailed the company and explained how the meat hoodie ads were attracting attention. I wanted to know what was behind the outrageous design.

Two days later, I received a reply from Vanessa Liu, public relations manager for Globalegrow.

“We would love to have the interview with you, but we feel that you have some prejudice against our products according to your email,” she wrote. “We decided to decline the interview unless you would consider to have a relatively objective tone about it.”

Puzzled, I asked her if she was bothered by the word “outrageous.” I assured her I would be objective. I never heard back.

I was hoping to tell her the hoodie fits perfectly.

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