Google’s New Insidious Android Ads System

Alphabet/Google has just taken one of the most insidious advertisement systems, repackaged it, and made it widespread on the Android platform. So what is this insidious advertisement system?

Let’s go back to the internet of the late 90’s. I know what you’re thinking, it was a very different place then. I agree. At the time, the major discussion about the internet wasn’t, “Hey, how can we make these networks more resilient?” Shocked? Ah, well, perhaps you thought this was the major discussion: “Hey, how can we put an unbreakable encryption layer over the internet?” Nope, wrong again. I wish those were the major discussions. The major discussion at the time was, “Hey, how do we suck the bank accounts dry of people that visit our scammy sites?” Interesting…I think that’s still the major discussion around the internet, sadly. But I digress. Really, the companies that could afford to make and maintain really interactive sites at the time were companies that were near-literal dinosaurs. For example, Hollywood studios.

A common thing for websites built around movies by the movie studios themselves was to build some kind of website-based Flash game. A couple of more popular examples would be the Flash game based on 1997’s Men In Black film, and 1997’s Starship Troopers film. Both games were hosted on their respective websites, and both games were decently popular. The Starship Troopers website game was particularly popular as there were real life prizes involved for playing, and there was a complex ranking structure to simulate boot camp, and other military matters. These games were incredibly simple, and at the time there weren’t very well done online payment solutions, so these games weren’t loaded with some kind of in-app purchases (IAP) system like modern movie-based games/apps are. These browser games based on–at the time–upcoming films were totally free.

Now, as I hope you have long realized, (almost) no business does this kind of stuff out of the kindness of their hearts. These kinds of games are either what is known as a loss leader, or they are designed to be clever advertisements for you to eventually–in the case of the movies Men In Black and Starship Troopers–GO LAY DOWN SOME MONEY TO SEE THE MOVIES IN THEATERS. Movie studios don’t give a rats shit what you think about their game, and they don’t give a shit that you’re a gamer. They just wanted you to go see their cinema blockbusters. There’s no love for any art here by the studios, be it the game or the movie. And I’m sure this “advertisement-as-game” worked on a lot of people. It’s simple. It’s clever. And hey, it’s free! But it’s also insidious. Because I don’t think most people realized that they were getting duped and hooked into laying down money that they may not have originally. And whatever marketing was happening for those films, it was working. Both were massive box office successes.

SIDE NOTE: There are ominous parallels to this and the nature of reality and interactive TV shows (text in your vote, tweet during the show, etc.), but in the case of TV it’s to get you to see the advertisements, the show is…well…the “side show”, but that’s another story for another time.

Perhaps a more serious example of how this kind of “advertisement-as-game” can be so insidious is a game from 2002 called America’s Army, that was built by the US Army itself. This game was totally free, and it was all about getting “young people to see what it’s like to be in the Army”, or, in more direct marketing terms, “how to trick people into thinking military service is cool and fun so that they’ll join” (and as a US Army veteran myself, I can tell you that it is neither of those things, in fact there’s not a single positive thing to say about any military). And without getting into a conversation about “militainment”, let’s just say that America’s Army was a wild success, and had multiple sequels. Now what, you think the Army would push a game totally for free using the latest graphics engines and hiring top programmers to build them…and not expect a return on investment? Of course they expect some ROI. They expect some kids to go join the military and do things that those same kids a year before would have rightfully thought horrendous.

My poin in laying out these examples is to illustrate to you that “advertisements-as-games” or “fully interactive ads” work on people. And Google just unleashed these beasts on Android.

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You know those games and apps that are “free” because they’re ad-supported (which really means they’re not actually free)? Well, now those ads are about to get a whole lot more annoying, or a whole lot more gripping, depending on which way you see it, I suppose. Google is now creating an underlying platform within Android that allows developers and corporations to create advertisements that make a “try before you buy/download” experience for the app or game that you’re either interested in, or is being thrusted upon you due to the ad-supported nature of another app or game that you already have installed. You will be able to begin playing a game before ever downloading it, or you’ll be able to experience an app before you actually install it. Touchscreen controls and all (and for the more technical reader, this will be done with HTML5).

Now if this was just some kind of advanced app/game trial system, I don’t really see any harm in that. In fact, it’s rather clever considering the bandwidth that could be saved (especially if you have a limited data plan) by not having to download a local copy of the app/game. Really, if it were just to get you to purchase some game or app by allowing you to try it out without leaving the present app that you’re in (be it the Play Store or whatever), that would be fine. But I don’t think that’s A.) what this is really for, and B.) even if it is for now, what is going to stay being used for.

I think these kinds of interactive ads are going to be the return of the “pop-up ad”, which eventually people realized was a terrible idea (due to security concerns, annoyance, and system slowdown), but this time it’s “pop-up ads” on steroids. Now you really can interact with the ad. It won’t just be funny GIF’s that trick you into thinking you’re playing a game that really just takes you to some spam site no matter what you do this time around. This time the ads will be literal, playable games that you’ll start playing. Then the “tap here to continue” button will pop up, and you’ll download the game (after feverishly clicking accept on the permissions screen that most people don’t bother to pay attention to anyway, especially children), and then the first in-app purchase will show up, and you’ll lay down a few bucks with that oh-so-simple-to-use fingerprint reader payment system, and before you know it either you or your child that you just loaned your phone to so that they could check out a YouTube video just racked up a $100 credit card bill or worse. That’s fucking insidious.

Think I’m crazy? This whole IAP/freemium model for games must be making companies some serious money, and that means people are paying for these Skinner boxes! Get rid of the barrier to entry of not being able to the play the game right away by putting these interactive ads into place and people are going to be clearing out their paychecks on this nonsense. And Alphabet/Google, which is largely funded by advertisement placements (and by government tax breaks and likely other government money at least via Google’s acquiring of Boston Dynamics), will have a whole new ad system to sell to advertisers. It’s a win-win for Google, but a lose-lose for all the dum-dums out there (and if you don’t see the ridiculousness of endless runners that you have to keep paying for…yeah, I’m insulting you, buddy). And it would only “make sense” for movies, books, audio productions, and TV shows to get in on these kinds of ads, too. Hah, you thought ads were bad before? Oh boy, just wait till companies figure out what to do with this shiny new option from the “Do be evil” juggernaut known as Alphabet/Google.

SIDE NOTE: I wouldn’t be surprised if this new ad initiative that Google is testing is the real driving force behind their recent developments in mobile versions of Chrome (which will probably be the backend for the HTML5 being used for these ads) to use less data, as well as the new AMP initiative to have pages load faster and also use less data. I really don’t believe Google gives that much of a shit about how fast web pages load, they’d be just as happy to have you only surf their services which they could completely control. No, no, I think this is about hooking people into new ad models like the one we’re talking about here.

Now, if you are running a full (or perhaps even partial) Dark Android device, you don’t have much to worry about here. You’re not using the Play Store most likely, and I don’t think apps or games that would do this sort of thing would last very long in the F-Droid app store. And it’s a good thing, too. Can you imagine playing an ad-supported game and then suddenly an ad pops up for another game telling you to start playing that game instead? How the fuck is anyone going to accomplish anything with this attention-deficient ad nonsense (maybe we can start a new acronym: Instead of “ADD”, it’ll be “ADA”…Attention Deficient Advertising)? And to say nothing about the potential security concerns (imagine a Stagefright-like scenario that comes from this new ad system).

And I know what some of you reading this are thinking. No really, I do. I’ve heard it all before. Hey, Doc Sovryn, if it’s private and voluntary, this is just business. It’s productive achievement. There’s nothing wrong or unethical about it!

Bullshit.

Feeding off of people’s ignorance and stupidity isn’t productive achievement, and it sure as Hell isn’t good business. You’re full of fucking crap if you think this kind of hook-line-sinker salesmanship is somehow okay. Just come out and say that you love the fact that the average person is a moron and you plan to take advantage of them. There’s the rub, isn’t it? You plan to take advantage of them. So much for your goddamn ethics.

Look, I’m not saying that advertisements are inherently bad, there are acceptable and even fun ways to do advertising. I’m not even saying Google’s plans here are inherently bad, as I even laid out the genuinely great use cases for it. But that’s not how all of this is going to work. Really, in case you never realized it, the entirety of social media is mean to be one giant “fully interactive ad” (either selling something to you or even selling you) and what Google is releasing here is just taking all of it to the next level, and baking it right into the most popular operating system on the planet: Android. And that, in my opinion, is absolutely insidious.

Hopefully someone will develop an adblocker for this happy horseshit.

Carpe lucem!

 

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