Instagram Discovers New, Annoying Place to Put Ads

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Instagram

There are currently six types of ads companies can buy on Instagram, according to Meta. They can buy ads that look like photo posts, ads that look like video posts, ads that look like slideshows, ads that look like Stories, and ads that look like Reels. Companies give Meta money, and Meta gives them the chance to slot their content in its users’ feeds. What happens then is up to you, the user. Sometimes you’ll tap through, or at least remember the product’s name; most of the time, you’ll tap or scroll them away.

Now, Instagram is testing a solution to this problem: Unskippable ads.

You’re probably most familiar with unskippable ads from the world of video. YouTube, Hulu, and countless other streaming sites ask users to sit through ads before or in the middle of content. It’s a familiar bargain, a business practice carried forward from television and stretched to extremes online: Who among us hasn’t occasionally sat through a 30-second video ad to watch a 17-second clip on a news website? What Instagram is doing here, though, is different in a way that the few users who have encountered it seem to find extremely disruptive. The ads are not interrupting or delaying a video. They’re interrupting users’ scrolling, putting up an invisible barrier through which no thumb can pass, at least for a few seconds. Instagram users are accustomed to seeing a lot of ads, being aware of a lot of ads, and passively consuming or actively dismissing a lot of ads. Depending on how you use it, Instagram can feel like a platform entirely composed of ads, in which organic posts from brands hoping you’ll buy something are occasionally interrupted by paid posts from brands hoping you’ll buy something. What Instagram users are less accustomed to is taking orders from ads. It’s one thing to get held up for a few seconds before watching a 14-minute YouTube video. It’s quite another to be held up for a few seconds before scrolling down to see, basically, more ads. 

This is the sort of obnoxious behavior you’d expect from an AI spam farm, a newspaper website in the process of being squeezed to death by a private equity firm, or a porn site. The ads are perhaps most reminiscent of free-to-play mobile games, which routinely stop their users at monetization checkpoints as frequently as they’ll tolerate. “This’ll be the last straw for me when it comes to Instagram,” wrote Reddit user notthatogwiththename, who posted screenshots of the feature in testing. “I could stand the plethora of ads sprinkled throughout the entire app already, but unskippable? Gtfo.”

A scroll-stopping ad is jarring, as Meta certainly knows. But at this point, they may not care much. They have long deprioritized Instagram’s feed in favor of video-heavy Stories and Reels, both of which created a lot of valuable ad space of their own. As users have started posting less on their main feeds, the original core of Instagram has begun to hollow out. The arrival of hostile ad units would be a pretty clear sign that the company sees its feed less as a product with a future than as a declining resource that needs to be harvested to the fullest extent possible. Users are already abandoning it. Why not toll them on the way out?

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