Ads on phones: A big issue or a non-issue?

I mentioned the other day how I was fascinated by the trend changes in the mobile industry, such as needing to create the smallest phone possible to the largest phone possible over a decade. Although only somewhat relevant, I’ve recently started thinking about another change that occurred over the past decade, albeit not by the smartphone industry: the state of advertisements.

Ads were unavoidable for past generations, especially on television. You were lucky if you had cable, but even those who had cable television couldn’t avoid commercial breaks three, four, sometimes more times in a 30 to 60-minute span. Your monthly bill granted you access to more content, not advertisement free viewing. Today, things are different. Now a lot of content is “free”, but you pay to get rid of the often ill-timed advertisements, demonstrated through services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or YouTube Red.

Although this is the case for many services, it isn’t the case for all. Advertisements are still everywhere, subliminal or otherwise, and it would appear that marketing firms have found a new interest in the past couple of years in a mostly uncharted territory: smartphones.

A few notable examples stick out in my mind. The first is Amazon’s Prime exclusive smartphones, where you can opt to pay less in exchange for ads on your phone or pay more to have them removed. From my perspective, that isn’t such a bad deal. At least you know what you’re getting from the get go, and you have the option of paying the difference and removing the ads at a later time.

Another example is the weird Burger King ad, designed to set off Android or Google Home devices. The ad features a Burger King worker who loudly asks, “Ok Google, what is the Whopper burger?” If you happened to have a Google Home or Android device with Google Assistant within listening range, your gadget would respond in kind. While the ad may have succeeded in making some people hungry for a Whopper, it mostly just made people mad. Google quickly disabled the phrase from working.

However, Google wasn’t completely off the hook. Not too long before, Google Home started to spout off “timely content” for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Google claimed that the timely content feature wasn’t meant to be an ad, just a fun way to include unique content.

And then there’s Facebook, who recently made the decision to implement ads in its Messenger service because having Favorites, Suggested People, and Active Now modules clog your screen wasn’t enough. Fortunately, those modules can all be hidden; unfortunately, ads cannot. Truthfully, Messenger ads shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering how saturated Facebook has become with ads in general, but it’s still annoying, nonetheless.

HTC also made headlines recently when it was reported that some HTC devices that used the TouchPal keyboard by default started showing banner ads on the keyboard. Although HTC turned out to be just as surprised as users were and the issue was quickly addressed, the company once again finds itself targeted in a reddit post for pushing advertisements to a phone – a feature that users can turn off when setting up their device. And HTC isn’t the only OEM doing this – Samsung, Sony, and OnePlus are also known for pushing ads for their respective services or devices in their notifications.

The question is, should users have to turn off ads?

In Amazon’s case, it’s more palatable because users choose to save money on a device in exchange for advertisements. That information is freely given up front, and it’s up to the user to decide which path to take. On the other hand, you have people shelling out a lot more money on flagship devices from these bigger OEMs that are much quieter about their use of advertisements in the notification space, and that’s just a little too sneaky for my taste.

I get that it’s small potatoes at the end of the day. One swipe and it’s gone, and that’s what most people end up doing, but I still think that it shouldn’t be happening due to its intrusive nature. It’s one thing for it to happen in a downloaded app, like Facebook Messenger. I like Facebook Messenger but there are other options out there, and while one doesn’t have to use a phone that pushes ads through in one way or another, it’s a lot more expensive to switch phones than it is to switch apps. At the end of the day, while advertisements will never completely be eradicated, pushing them through the phone itself without any context seems a little too meddlesome and inappropriate.


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