by Kevin Lux

Popup ads are the worst, aren’t they? Despite the fact that it never takes more than a second to figure out how to click them away, they are just so damn infuriating. They always seem to spawn at the most undesired moments, interrupting you while you’re reading an article, or begging you to subscribe as you’re just about to leave the page. Their inappropriate appearances alone suffice to make popups one of the most despised web-marketing tools. But there is something even worse than merely being faced with a popup. Quite recently, a lot of websites have resorted to what is now referred to as ‘clickshaming’.

Clickshaming involves a popup that attempts to manipulate you or, indeed, downright shame you into subscribing to their newsletter or purchasing whatever it is that they may be selling. It’s a relatively recent but nevertheless widely spread phenomenon. Redditors may be familiar with the subreddit r/assholedesign, which regularly features examples of clickshaming (there is also a subreddit solely dedicated to clickshaming, called r/clickshaming, but the subreddit does not appear to be very active). In fact, the three ads I’ve included in this article are all from r/assholedesign. Initially I wanted to find my own popups just by browsing the web, but if there’s anything I’ve learnt over the past couple of days, it’s that popups only ever appear when you don’t want them to. It’s hard to believe how frustrating it is when, for once in your life, you want a popup to appear, but it just flipping won’t.

Without further ado, let us look at some ads:




Before I’ll comment on the individual popups, I’ll explain exactly what it is about these popups that I—and I’m sure many others—find so off-putting. The ads deliberately make use of a false dichotomy. They suggest—if not assert—that each of the two possible options has only one possible corresponding motivation.

On what I’ll call the ‘software’ level there is indeed a dichotomy; there are no more and no fewer than two options. Either you opt in or you opt out[1]. On the marketing level however, the situation is not the same. You can have a seemingly infinite number of different motivations for each of the two possible options on the software level. Perhaps you clicked the popup away because you were immersed in an article and wanted to finish it before dealing with anything else, or maybe you were in a rush to find some information you needed urgently. It could be that you already subscribe to whatever newsletter is being advertised to you, rendering the ad completely useless and all the more annoying.

These are all possibilities that the people behind the ads are most likely aware of, but since they are in the business of converting prospects into customers, they need to approach the matter differently. Their concern is to find those possible motivations that are most likely to get people to subscribe or make a purchase. In the second and third ad, for instance, the strategy is to get the prospective customer to believe that declining the respective offer is an economically irrational and therefore stupid and regrettable decision. The Sears ad in particular stands out: how could anyone possibly turn down free money? What kind of imbecile would you have to be to decline such an offer? Except the money is not free at all. If you have to spend $50 to get $10, that’s not free money; that’s spending $40. It’s not free if it comes with conditions.

For the sake of completeness, let me say a few words about the Grammarly ad. It is just unscrupulously condescending. They don’t just assert that you will commit errors unless you use their writing tool, but they furthermore suggest that you don’t even care about all those errors you make. Essentially, they’re telling you: “You are a careless, contemptible slob of a writer. If you had any respect for yourself and others, you would use Grammarly.”

I somehow doubt that such bold patronisation is an effective marketing strategy, but I’m perfectly open to statistics proving me wrong. The more I think about it, clickshaming must be a rather successful tool, disheartening as that may be. It is just too widespread not to be. And it’s hard to believe that this many websites would adopt the same marketing psychology without good reason. We will probably keep being clickshamed for quite a while, but here’s to hoping the habit will die out to be replaced with friendlier, more positive advertising.

[1] In the interest of accuracy, generally there is also an x somewhere on the popup that lets you click it away, but they are not always there. If you look at the Transferwise ad, for instance, you won’t find an x. The two other ads, however, do have an x, meaning they allow you to opt out without having to face being shamed. Ads that include an opt-out x are definitely less infuriating, but they do generally try to colour and/or locate the x in such a way that viewers will be drawn to the text first (you can see this on the Sears ad; unless you look for the x you will have a hard time seeing it). So it’s not like they’re forcing you into the dichotomy, but they are definitely pushing you.


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