Never Click on Clickbait

Azriena Azman /flickr

Azriena Azman /flickr

Matt Wood

Staff Writer

How many websites do you visit on an average day? How many individual web pages do you click on?

“South Park” fans will recall the episode “Over Logging,” in which an Internet outage drives South Park’s residents to California, “Grapes of Wrath” style, in search of a solid Internet connection. Well, that episode came out way back in 2008 when smartphones were still a nascent phenomenon.

Since then, the consumption of online content has become an even more ubiquitous part of everyday life. Who doesn’t fill in the slow spots of the day with a perfunctory check-up on Twitter or Instagram?

Online news and entertainment are all the more remarkable because they’re more or less free; in fact, outside of a few well-established news and niche sites, content providers have no paywalls in front of the consumer. This situation has forced a growing advertising industry to find innovative, and sometimes bizarre, methods to draw the consumer’s eye.

The most visibly effective advertising, in my opinion, is on Facebook. Facebook is a free service, yet the company posted a year-end 2014 net income of almost $3 billion. This windfall is up from a paltry 2012 sum of $32 million and is due to a massive increase in advertising revenue.

Facebook users provide the company with a smorgasbord of personal information, with which the company lines up appropriate advertisers. They’ve even created a quick and easy feedback form for users to tell Facebook to stop serving particular ads, making impressions more efficient and cost-effective.

Another logical ad tactic is behavioral re-targeting, which has been around for years. Online companies, usually retailers, place cookies on their shoppers’ browsers when they fail to make a transaction. Later on, that retailer’s ads will appear all over the internet’s vast networks in an effort to entice that visitor back to the transaction process.

And then there’s every form of mobile advertising, which gladly interprets a bad swipe of a fat finger as interest in whatever they’re pushing. If you ask me, this is not exactly an upright business model.

But what I find troubling are the ads that offer the user useless celebrity-centric clickbait or odd photoshopped imagery. The former often appear in a series of four or five thumbnails at the bottom of news and entertainment stories. They typically feature an actor or actress looking glamorous, frazzled or intoxicated, and the pictures are accompanied by a caption to pique our curiosity.

The huckster caption isn’t rocket science, but fitting a sufficiently alluring message into five to ten words is no simple task either. The trick is to pick a sordid topic and to make ridiculously confident claims about how this story will move the reader.

The following are my own creations, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pop up before my eyes tomorrow: “Ten ‘80s Idols Who Turned to Prostitution,” or perhaps, “Who Wins Best Butt in Hollywood? Result Will SHOCK YOU.” Click on these, which I have (for research purposes only, I promise), and they’ll take you to where you’d expect: paparazzi oriented gossip forums.

I spent a slice of time at one of these idiocy bastions, StarPulse, and nowhere is there a subscription or T-shirt for sale. But after clicking around a bit, I do see ads for both Amazon as well as a trailer for the new “Star Wars” movie. So they generate some revenue from advertising, but can it really be enough to run a content machine this big? I can only conclude, with a sigh, that the celebrity gossip world is healthier than I can imagine.

The more bewildering ad genre is the realm of the photoshopped. If you look at a less reputable news or humor site, you might see an ad featuring something out of an old-timey sideshow or a David Kronenberg body horror flick. These take you to…look, just don’t click on these sites.

On sports forums, I’ve seen bodybuilders with grotesque yet laughably rippling muscles advertising the newest muscle growth supplement.

Then there are the miracle foods. You’ve never seen the foods featured in these ads before because they don’t exist; they’re designed by third-rate creative departments to look odd and attract the eye, and just maybe, a few clicks. As expected, these sites take you to one kind of snake oil or another.

I recall seeing this school of advertising for the first time and thinking that the industry must be throwing some Hail Mary’s while they work out the kinks, because surely nobody pays this garbage any mind. Since then, these ads have become ever-more commonplace.

Which brings us to the question: who on God’s green earth is clicking on this stuff? And even more baffling: who is actually buying the snake oil?

Categories: Columns, featured, Opinions

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