Something Went Terribly Wrong With Online Ads

These days, turning on my Amazon Fire smart TV is like a reflex test. Hesitate for even a second, and the home screen starts blasting an ad for the latest show or movie from Amazon Prime. Even if I do manage to navigate away in time, I still have to scroll past an ad for, say, toothpaste. Only then can I access the entertainment I actually want to watch, typically on a once-ad-free streaming service that is now … showing ads.

This advertising assault—one that’s particularly acute when my cat attacks the remote at 4 a.m. and interrupts my sleep with a trailer for an explosive thriller—wasn’t as invasive when I purchased the TV three years ago. Online advertising is similarly exhausting whether you’re using a smart TV, phone, laptop, or really any other kind of screen. My fitness and nutrition app advertises Eggo waffles as I input my smoothie, my friends are enduring ads in exchange for swipes on dating apps, and when I do go searching for something to buy, it comes with a layer of distrust: Is the vacuum cleaner I’m looking at an organic result or another sneakily sponsored ad?

The internet has long been clogged with advertising, but something different is happening today. Gone are the days of simple banner ads; even the sponsored Instagram posts invading my feed have started to feel quaint. Now nothing is safe from brands trying to sell us stuff. Open the Uber app mid-ride to check your ETA, and you might first have to wait out a 90-second video. Search for healthy snack in the grocery-delivery app Instacart, and perhaps you’ll see a screen-clogging ad for That’s It bars made of 100 percent fruit. Hotel chains, airlines, pharmacies, and basically every other kind of business are also cashing in on online ads. The end result is an internet adpocalypse that has become impossible to escape.

Sooner or later, every type of advertising gets stale. The quippy TV commercials become white noise; the flashing web banners get ignored; the YouTube pre-roll becomes an excuse to grab a snack from the kitchen. The internet’s first banner ad is widely considered to have been a little rectangle placed on in 1994 that was clicked on by about 44 percent of people who saw it. These days, banner ads are lucky to reach a click-through rate in the single digits.

The nature of ad creep is that marketers will eventually find your eyeballs. Mostly that means making ads more intrusive. Perhaps you’ve noticed that Google, Meta, and Amazon—the three companies that dominate online advertising in the U.S.—have been doing just that. Last spring, Instagram, in addition to the sponsored posts already crowding the feed, launched ads that appear in search results; a few months later, YouTube announced that 30-second unskippable ads would accompany certain videos played on TVs, and that the platform would also begin testing out ads that appear when a user pauses a video. Then, last month, Amazon introduced ads to its previously ad-free streaming service.

These companies collectively make enough from ads each year to rival the GDP of Portugal, because they are unnervingly good at targeting us with ads that brands think we want to see. The more data a platform collects from your online browsing habits, the more powerful it is, and Meta knows who we are, Google knows what we’re searching for, and Amazon knows what we’re already buying. That information is what lets advertisers pay to follow you around the internet with ads for the sweater you once looked at or, as some conspiracy-minded people believe, simply described out loud to a friend.

A big part of why the internet has become an adpocalypse is that this kind of targeted advertising is no longer reserved for the tech giants. In recent years, diet apps, fitness apps, period-tracking apps, transportation apps, dating apps, food-delivery apps, and basically every other kind of app realized they have valuable personal information that we, by agreeing to their terms and conditions, have allowed them to access. Now they’re monetizing it. “You might be noticing more ads because the ads are more aware of who you are,” Christian Juhl, the CEO of the media-and-advertising-strategy company GroupM, told me.

Uber, for instance, knows that you’re on your way to the airport, and might be using that to the advantage of advertisers looking to sell you a credit card with lounge access. MyFitnessPal likely knows that I’m in the market for workout gear—and am particularly susceptible to an advertisement for a sugary treat. And dating apps have your age, location, and desperate attention, which means they can get away with presenting ads for smartphones alongside your potential matches.

In some ways, this was inevitable. When ads were confined to banners in the corners of websites, most of us booted up our computers to surf the web for a few hours at a time. Now many people are always online, glaring into smartphones first thing in the morning and unwinding at night by streaming Netflix. That has made every little pixel on our screens valuable to advertisers, giving them limitless opportunities to grab our extremely fractured attention. No one thinks of Uber as an advertising company, yet it expects to make $1 billion from ads in 2024. Almost 30 percent of Instacart’s revenue last year came from ads.

In the adpocalypse, every company is an ad company. Walmart, perhaps looking to compete with Amazon, just bought the TV maker Vizio in order to similarly reach customers on their home screens (and, if they have a cat, jolt them out of their slumber). You don’t even have to really be online in the traditional sense to be inundated with ads. Buying groceries? Here comes a “smart” shopping cart that will suggest items based on what you’re already shopping for. Going on vacation? The ads on your Marriott hotel-room TV will soon be tailored to the personal data you shared in your booking—and United is looking to do the same on planes.

It’s easy to direct your ire at advertisers after you’ve seen the same toothpaste ad 1,000 times. Companies are “spraying [ads] wherever they can to be able to cut through the noise,” Jessica Elefante, the author of Raising Hell, Living Well: Freedom From Influence in a World Where Everyone Wants Something From You (Including Me), told me. “But in essence, they’re making the noise”—adding to the distracting chaos of the internet, and worsening our experience of it.

The tech giants are at fault too. In 2021, Apple released a software update preventing companies from tracking data and activity across other apps without a user’s explicit consent. That dramatically undercut brands’ ability to reach us with their targeted ads; Facebook ran a full-page ad in The New York Times protesting the change in the lead-up to its rollout. In response, advertisers are turning to companies such as Uber, Walmart, and Marriott. “After all, they had proprietary data from troves of customers buying their products, which is the exact type of audience an advertiser wants to spend money to reach,” Shoshana Wodinsky, the former investigative director at webXray, a privacy and litigation consulting firm, told me.

Big Tech companies have warped the environment in less obvious ways as well. Some ads are not really ads at all. Third-party sellers pay Amazon’s advertising fees to appear higher in the platform’s search results and earn labels such as “highly rated.” If they neglect to pay, they’ll get buried; given Amazon’s control of online commerce, some reportedly can’t afford to leave the platform either. In suing Amazon for anti-competitive behavior last year, the Federal Trade Commission suggested that advertised products are 46 times more likely to get clicks than unadvertised ones. (“Sellers have choices,” David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, wrote in response to the FTC’s charges, “and many succeed in our store using other logistics services or choosing not to advertise with us.”)

Apple offers similar paid placements in its App Store, earning billions from the endeavor each year. Google Search now often returns a list topped by sponsored links, which is partly why using it feels like “rifling through junk mail, dodging scams and generic mailers,” as The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel wrote last year. On many big sites, users no longer see results based on relevancy or reputation, but instead have to parse a cluttered mass of only the websites and retailers that can afford to be there.

Despite all of these frustrations, the adpocalypse shows no signs of abating. Google is poised to follow Apple’s lead and prevent websites from tracking users’ activity across the internet, a change that is “among the biggest in the history of the $600 billion-a-year online-ad industry,” according to The Wall Street Journal’s Miles Kruppa and Patience Haggin. To be online is to  dodge pop-ups and pre-rolls while getting swindled into purchasing falsely recommended products, even as users hand over additional personal information that allows advertisers to find them—faster, better, and all the more invasively the next time. As with most things in modern life, this is Big Tech’s world, and we are just living in it.