Captive Audience: The New Era of Unskippable Ads on Instagram

And marketers have been waiting for a few years for Instagram, a Meta subsidiary, to finally take this step: adding a bold new layer of experimentation to the way ads interact with human viewing eyes online. Instagram’s advertisements now hold mine hostage: they won’t let me scroll while they’re open Just over a week ago, Instagram began rolling out ads that will, in a new artefact of digital advertising, hold you hostage: you can’t scroll while the ad is open. reports that the ads appeared at the bottom of the page, and ‘once you click on any element of the ad, including the image, text, or the little arrow in the bottom-right corner, it stops your scrolling’. Instagram calls the method ‘carousel’; I would call it panopticonic overreach. Many people across the web are describing this kind of advertising for the first time, and mostly with a jangling combination of dismay and amusement. What happens next? Here’s a brief breakdown of what we might expect in the coming era of hostage-taking digital ads. Above all, the kinds of ads we encounter are rapidly evolving. The number of banner ads on the internet is dropping steadily, pushing advertisers to create dynamic new experiments to entice users’ attention. For consumers, that could mean receiving more tailored ads, seeing videos that move rather than the still images and rectangles of the past, and interacting with consumers on social media, where it will be easier to see advertisers intimately aligning themselves with online users’ lives.

The Unavoidable Shift: Meta's Bold Move Into Unskippable Ads

But the key to this new testing phase is Instagram’s video ads that users can’t skip, making them watch the timed ad before they get back to scrolling down their feeds. The ads, first reported by TechCrunch, provoked reactions of bewilderment and then annoyance in the digital world. ‘We’re interested in further exploring formats that can lead to increased value for advertisers,’ a Meta spokesperson told TechCrunch. This development reflects a larger trend across the industry, where designers are growing less and less willing to prioritise user experience to accommodate advertiser appeal.

The Advertiser vs. User Experience Conundrum

The pivot towards ad-revenue over user-happiness isn’t specific to Meta, either. The better-known tech giants are getting in on the act too. For a while, it seemed like streaming content on sites like Netflix, Max and Prime Video was a way to be spared ads; now, even they are integrating ads more into their platforms. And YouTube, once a seemingly intractable bastion of free content, is notorious for the sheer number of ads – many of which dodges even the strongest of ad blockers. It very well might be the end of what many of us call a golden age of friendly media. Or at least that’s what Instagram’s test of unskippable ads feels like.

"Ad Breaks": A New Norm on Instagram?

Instagrammers who get served these unskippable ads are greeted by a pop-up that tells them: ‘Ad break next’ This style of ad interrupts the scroll and signals a future where viewing ads will be nonnegotiable Sometimes, brands will pay to reach everyone who is watching – a direct response to the massive TV ad markets that TV shows have become. Other times, brands will pay to reach the most engaged viewers. The result is an ad format designed to completely interrupt the scroll, replacing minutes of free content with a moment that could last for a minute or more (more on that below). Most people see the intrusiveness of these pop-ups not as a sign of the evolution of digital advertising formats, but instead, as an assault on the user experience. The tests will be crucial: if users react strongly against such ad formats, those ad formats will never become the norm across social platforms. If they don’t, brands will be more emboldened to change the nature of digital advertising by interrupting free content with ads.

Beyond Insta: A Social Media Trend in the Making?

The drive to turn every conceivable piece of content into an ad – not just on Instagram, but also, as the social media giant TikTok has recently announced it wants to do, on videos inside the app itself, using AI to turn a stream of content into a shopping opportunity – speaks to activating the profit motive in any and all possible connections with another person. At the risk of sounding tiresome, despite the variety involved, a common emphasis runs across the spectrum of being social online: activating the profit motive in any and all possible connections with another person.

User Tolerance: The Ultimate Test

Meta’s experiment with unskippable ads on Instagram, therefore, is in a way a test of how tolerant users are. How much hassle are we willing to put up with in order to have access to these platforms for free? Meta is awaiting user reaction to see if the revenue from these ads is worth the risk of backlash.

Understanding "PRIME" in Digital Advertising

This notion of ‘prime’ is usually applied to discussions of digital advertising and media or content consumption patterns. For instance, if we covet the distribution of online advertising to be ‘prime’, it simply means that we want some ads to be delivered in the best possible slot and at the best possible time for the audience to view, engage with or remember the ad. This notion of ‘prime’ is not necessarily tied to unskippable ads – but how and when ads are delivered and seeking to deliver those ads at that ‘prime’ moment can certainly make ads more effective, in terms of the careful balance that advertisers seek for effectiveness, but with consideration for the user experience. This careful balancing act is where Instagram will need to tread.

The ultimate outcome of Meta’s tests might well precede a wider reckoning of the advertising ecosystem as this new terrain of unskittable ads and unskippable ad breaks fast approaches. How will the automatic tug-of-war between advertiser value and user experience end? Will tolerance for such interference build a new advertising normal, or will backlash drive a reset? We will have to watch this digital drama unfold.

Jun 06, 2024
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