Brace Yourself: Instagram Could Soon Make You Watch Ads

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There’s little doubt that advertising pervades most online services these days. To paraphrase the old saying, unless you’re paying for something, you’re more of a product than a customer.

While putting up with a certain amount of advertising is a small price to pay for enjoying free services, many of these companies are starting to push the boundaries of what we’d consider acceptable. Amazon has long subsidized its affordable Fire TV sticks with ads, but recent reports suggest Roku could take that to a whole new level with full-screen ads that won’t just appear on its streaming service but even when using other HDMI inputs on a Roku smart TV.

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There’s also evidence that YouTube has been toying with showing ad-based screensavers on its smart TV apps. While it walked back its annoying Apple TV screensaver, there’s no guarantee it’s gone for good, especially since Google’s Chief Business Officer has admitted the company is running a “Pause Ads pilot on connected TVs” to explore ways it can increase its advertising reach.

Now, it seems Meta is telling Roku and YouTube to “hold my beer” as it tries out unskippable ads that will stop users in their tracks as they scroll through their feeds.

On Monday, the social media network confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s “testing unskippable ads,” but only after users began encountering them and sharing concerned messages on social media.

These new ad breaks will display a countdown timer that stops users from being able to browse through more content on the app until they view the ad, according to informational text displayed in the Instagram app.Sarah Perez, TechCrunch

To be clear, we’re not talking about ads that run as part of a video clip, Story, or Reel. Streaming video services like YouTube have long included those kinds of forced ads, and they work as they feel like a more tolerable experience — a throwback to the days of broadcast and cable television before DVRs allowed easy skipping. Plus, at least with YouTube, folks who utterly despite ads (like me) have the option of shelling out a few bucks a month to remove them, thanks to YouTube Premium. There’s no indication that Meta plans to offer a similar choice.

If you’re unlikely enough to be part of the test, you’ll see Instagram’s ads come up while you’re scrolling through your feed, forcing you to sit through an “ad break” before you’re allowed to continue viewing more posts.

As one Redditor shared, the ads come up with an info icon that can be tapped for more details. Doing so tells the user they’re “seeing an ad break,” describing it as “a new way of seeing ads on Instagram.”

Ad breaks are a new way of seeing ads on Instagram. Sometimes you may need to view an ad before you can keep browsing.

A Meta spokesperson told TechCrunch that this is merely a test that doesn’t represent “any formal product changes” — at least not yet. The spokesperson promises that the company will provide updates if it plans to make this the new normal.

“We’re always testing formats that can drive value for advertisers,” a Meta company spokesperson told TechCrunch. “As we test and learn, we will provide updates should this test result in any formal product changes,” they noted.Sarah Perez, TechCrunch

Unsurprisingly, this move has generated tons of negative feedback from those who have already encountered it:

I hate this new “feature” so much – it is so in your face and to me, feels like a terrible business decision. The whole platform is already basically “soft ads” that generate revenue based on people being on there for ages, consuming content without thinking too much about it all and now they’re forcing users to stop scrolling and drawing attention to the fact they’re on an app designed to sell them things. So far I simply close the app as soon as an ad break pops up and if this continues, I’ll be unsubscribing. If enough users don’t like this and also limit their instagram usage, this move will just cannibalize some/most of the massive revenue they earn from the (previously) mindless scroll.Reddit

At the very least, ads that turn people off aren’t usually good at selling stuff, so this experiment likely won’t have the desired effect of helping Meta find a new “format that can drive value for advertisers.” Hopefully, the company’s attempts to “test and learn” include the ability to learn from its mistakes.

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