According to Hubspot research, 85% of people have a negative opinion towards websites with obnoxious or intrusive ads. What’s wrong with the remaining 15%?

They are probably creating these ads. I deliberately point out ad creators and not website creators. Even though websites have a certain degree of control over which ads they host, it seems to me that with each passing year they are becoming victims – just as much as their audience.

This is what Disqus was showing to our blog readers for who knows how long before we noticed:

disqus did nothing wrong

Back in the old days villains had the decency to piss at your door. Now they shamelessly fart in your blog.

Dark marketing has many forms. At the core, there is some kind of manipulation. While the traditional shady marketer’s goal is to sell you a magic pill that doesn’t work, digital marketers can prosper even without selling you anything. With cost-per-click models and the rise of affiliate marketing, sometimes all they need is your click.

In order to make you click, slide or touch something you otherwise wouldn’t, shady marketers apply proven dark UX patterns. Some of their techniques are creative and hilarious. But it’s like being hit by a Ferrari – from a distance it looks great, but in the end you feel awful. Also, the car was stolen. And the driver was drunk. And a fugitive. I’m just trying to make this metaphor as evil as possible.

Now let’s talk about a few tricks that the bad guys are using.

There’s Something On My Screen

Both examples I’m about to show you made a lot of noise on the internet a few months ago. Almost every article on the topic used these as an example of a dark UX pattern. I am no better:

The speck of dust on the left (from r/mildlyinfuriating):


Online chat users are dirty people, inside and out.

The hair on the shoe (from r/mildlyinfuriating):


Seems like the target audience for these shoes is predominantly black-haired.

Though these ads were only discovered recently, this trick is probably as old as touchscreens are. The question is: Why are we only seeing them now? There are a few reasons.

Affiliate marketing. It’s unlikely that either of these ads were created by the product owners (if they were, I suggest they burn down their marketing departments). Nowadays more and more product owners are paying third-party affiliates to promote their goods.

Affiliate marketing is booming – it has a projected 60% growth since 2015, and the CPC (cost-per-click) model is widely adopted as one of performance metrics. It’s really useful in Google Ads, when people click on something they searched for. Yet sometimes when you pay your affiliates per click, you get dirty banners designed specifically for baiting clicks, or, in our case, touches.

Even though people will immediately leave the company’s website after ‘clicking’ on the ad, and the product owner’s reputation will be permanently damaged, the affiliate may still make their money before the whole scheme is unveiled.

Mobile environment. Both these ads only “work” in touch-screen environments. In other words – mobile phones. The mobile market is growing exponentially. In 2018, Android outran Windows and became the most used OS in the world.

There are many who want a piece of that pie. If you google “affiliate marketing trends 2018”, I’m sure “go mobile” will be advised in at least half of the articles. More and more affiliates are going mobile, and some of them don’t have the best intentions.

The “hair-on-your-screen” shoe commercial ran for some time before it was banned by Instagram. It’s only a matter of speculation how many clicks were made while the ad was live.

Shady ads are one of the major drawbacks of an otherwise healthy concept of affiliate marketing. My hope is that as the industry matures cost-per-click models will eventually be replaced with earn-per-click or similar models.

Can I Close It? Ads You Can’t Run From

Are you familiar with one of the greatest illusions in digital marketing? This:


And its little brother, X:


Escape buttons make ads a bearable experience for us. This is an illusion, given the fact that you’ve already seen the commercial. You decided to close something after understanding what it is you’re closing. The marketing message is already in your head.

Yes, most of us close any pop-ups and ads even without reading what’s inside, just because we learned to do so based on previous experience. After all, 93.45% (or 99,5%, I’m not good with made up numbers) of commercials are dull and unoriginal. Yet, sometimes, something unusual catches our eye and we can’t help but read it before we close it. This is why marketers are so obsessed with originality. All they need is one second of your attention.

But some marketers want to free us from this terrible illusion. That’s why they provide us with no escape mechanism at all:

The first ever commercial designed specifically to protect you from book spoilers. Credit: u/lifeofleaf

Or the one that doesn’t work:

You can’t help but be protected. Also, look at the checkbox message – quite a Night Watch’s oath. Credit: u/Lecho

Or the one that’s hard to find:

Did you know? McAfee marketers are so obnoxious, even their superiors hate them. Credit: u/ImpartialDerivatives

Better than stripping us of escape mechanism is exploiting it. I consider it even worse, because people who clicked the ad might think they missed the button, not realizing they were duped (the skip button is a part of the image):

Fake background. Fake button. So Heinz. Credit: u/Trogdort

Due to ads like these, somewhere in the world one hundred new AdBlock users are being born every minute. Shady marketers are basically pissing in the common well of advertisement.

In a few years, there’ll be a sudden surge of pianists performing one particular song. Credit: u/feraluno

Where Is That Noise Coming From?

When no one notices sound in your application, you’re doing it right. Or your app has no sound. We even launched our own UX Sounds and Music packs quite successfully, not too long ago.

When it comes to marketing through, sound becomes a weapon. Registering sudden loud noises is wired into our survival. Why not exploit this? For example, with autoplay videos:

Auto-playing video in the article about turning off auto-playing videos. Credit: u/PrettyTarable

Why shouldn’t we make ads that ring, shout or even moan for your attention?

Some dude said the ad started moaning when he was in a public bathroom. Credit: u/SugioSnoipar

By the way, according to Nielsen & Norman’s research, autoplaying videos is the second most hated advertising technique over the past ten years. Surely, companies should use this data to make better decisions.

Messenger’s Strefanos Loukakos: “Top priority for us is user experience.” Augmented reality ads are on the way, for the record.


So for marketing sound is a weapon.

Speaking of weapons, have you ever heard of the loudness war?

“The loudness war (or loudness race) refers to the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music, which many critics believe reduces sound quality and listener enjoyment.”


Fighting “the loudness war”, YouTube normalized sounds for its videos, meaning that all videos are to have the same level of sound. Except… You guessed it: Video ads. They are louder than the average video.

On TV it’s actually illegal to make ads louder than the programs they accompany. The restrictive law was approved in 2012, 77 years after the first ever TV commercial aired aired on July 1, 1941.

YouTube was created in 2005, so by 2082 your grandchildren should be good.

Where Am I?

The “bait and switch”, as in “offer something but give something else in the end” pattern is a widely known one. After all, it’s mostly due to this technique that words like “free” and “save now” are becoming the Comic Sans of marketing.

The concept of falsifying expectations is not something that marketers invented. That would be politicians. Or dating agencies. Unfortunately, we can’t re-elect marketers every few years because of false promises. But surely we can write whiny articles about them.

Making your product look better or more desirable for clients is tricky. There is a thin line between brilliant marketing and filthy scams, the line that’s so easy to cross.

This is a commercial for a mobile game (Shout out for the example to Jess Joho’s article from Motherboard):

This is the actual gameplay:

There’s no way to understand what kind of game we’ll be playing based on the trailer. There is a bunch of false expectations that have been created though.

As Jess explains in the original article, it’s hard to sue misleading ads due to the vague language of the FTC Truth in Advertising Law. Strict guidelines in relatively new fields, such as mobile games, are yet to come.

Should the law obligate these types of promotional videos to have disclaimers? For example:

I wonder how that would go.

But let’s take a bit more contradictory example – movie trailers. Their main goal is to make us want to watch the film, and they mostly use actual movie footage. But what if the trailer is misleading? What if it completely distorts our expectations?

One of my favorite movies, Drive (2011), has one of the worst trailers ever.

It’s not the worst because it’s terribly made, it’s terribly misleading. I’m not the only one who thinks so:

Trailer-makers essentially took all the action scenes from the movie and packed them into a 2-minute showreel, making “Drive” look like a Fast & Furious knockoff. That’s a big flop if you take into account that the movie is a slow-paced art house drama.

Is it illegal? Not at all. Well, at least not for now. In 2011 a Michigan woman filed a lawsuit against “Drive” for its misleading trailer, but the court rejected her demand.

“Any affirmative representations the trailer made about being a racing movie were not inaccurate; the movie does contain driving scenes… “

– Michigan appeals court, Oct. 15, 2013

False promises are bad. However, how many people had watched the Drive trailer and gone to the cinemas, making a great movie commercially successful at the same time? Is it that bad then? Does end justify means? I don’t know.


Google is banning 100 “bad” ads every second, and Facebook now has 20 000 human moderators, which is 20 times more than they had in 2015. However, when you have 6 million active advertisers, that may not be enough.

These two big companies decide which ads we’ll see and which we won’t. They are shaping the future of advertising. The two big private companies whose profit is based on advertising.

As long as something is bringing money, it might be considered good, or at least tolerable. To detect and ban shady ads, both companies use programmed algorithms. Can those detect dishonesty?

Will they?

About the author: Andrew started at Icons8 as a usability specialist, conducting interviews and usability surveys. He desperately wanted to share his findings with our professional community and started writing insightful and funny (sometimes both) stories for our blog.

Title image: Oleg Shcherba for Icons8 illustration project

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