Malicious Design in the Age of Ads

A generation growing up in an addictive and attention-hungry world can thank a tech-enabled advertising industry, but believe it or not, the internet was once advertisement free. Both the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) and the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), early iterations of the modern internet, had policies that banned commercial use by companies on their networks.

However, with the advent of email, marketers found a way around the acceptable use policies and began sending what would later become known as “spam.” Not long after, in the 1990s, website owners began using display ads to generate the revenue that would support their content. In fact, the mainstream banner ad commonly believed to be the first was placed on Wired magazine’s former online off-shoot HotWired in 1994. It was an AT&T ad that displayed the words “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will” in rainbow font. This ad proved to be wildly successful, enjoying a clickthrough rate (CTR), the ratio of users who click on the ad to the number of total users who view a page, of 44%. For comparison, the average CTR in the Facebook newsfeed as of 2020 is 1.11%.

Brown Tech Review, Malicious Design in the Age of Ads, Griffin Kao

At the turn of the millennium, Google introduced AdWords, its search advertising program that would later be renamed “Google Ads.” AdWords would serve as the foundation of a wildly successful business engine that today brings in over $100 billion in annual revenue for Google. The same advertising model also nets Facebook over $60 billion and Twitter around $3 billion each year, and has given birth to a virtual world where attention and money are synonymous.

Given a reality where for-profit companies, of course, value profit above all else, the introduction of the ad economy has drastically shifted the focus of every aspect of a company — hiring, branding, sales, and perhaps most significantly, product design. A radical change in product design principles can be witnessed far beyond the walls of companies like Google and Facebook since it’s become abundantly clear that all one needs to sell an ad is consumer attention. Tools like Google Ads and Unity Ads make it easy to monetize attention on web pages and apps, while platforms like help influencers find sponsors to monetize the followers that give them attention.

For every product, from newsletters and podcasts to video games and mobile apps, there is an employee or founder, beholden to the income statement, designing the product to capture more and more of the user’s time. We can observe this concretely in the most common metrics that product designers use to define the success of their product. Daily active users (DAU) and monthly active users (MAU) are the number of users who engage in some way with the product on a daily or monthly basis, respectively. These numbers rule the product world and have aligned the development process with business objectives. Other key performance indicators (KPIs) measuring attention include pageviews, time spent on a page, session duration, bounce rate (number of users who visited one page and left), paid and organic traffic, number of user actions per session, and the list goes on and on.

Product designers aren’t optimizing for these metrics to monopolize attention (or so they say), but rather to boost “user engagement.” Somehow these sound very different but practically speaking are indistinguishable. A designer will add a feature to an app — the ability to infinitely swipe through a friends’ photos, the chance to win more virtual currency, the opportunity to collect more followers and likes — because it gets the user to stay longer and demonstrate a higher level of “engagement” with the app. And thus, we end up with addictive social media platforms and near-hypnotic video games with myriad ill effects (see

Discussion around solving addictive technology often centers around the consumer, with solutions like screen time awareness, feed blockers, and child usage limits, or around the product designer, with calls for regulating the product development process or tools to help product designers make more ethical decisions. However, such solutions focused on these individuals merely address symptoms of the deeply rooted system created by the ad economy. What if there’s a better way?

One solution is regulating the advertising industry. In the same way that ARPANET and NSFNET once policed their spaces, imagine if the entire internet could have an acceptable use policy that detailed where, if anywhere, ads could be displayed. We could limit ad content and online sponsorships to 18+ spaces, removing the economic incentive for companies to design their products to be attention-grabbing for children and teenagers. Alternatively, we could limit ads to be shown within a certain timespan during a user session or only at a certain time of day, which might be more stomachable for companies with young audiences. However we slice it though, regulation would be fraught with loopholes and would likely be difficult to enforce at scale — given the difficulty in verifying the identity of people using the internet or to track user sessions. Indeed, many jurisdictions require viewers to be a certain age to watch porn and that alone has proven near impossible to enforce.

Moreover, the internet functions almost entirely without a governing body. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages IP addresses and the corresponding domain name system (DNS) so that servers, users, and other resources can connect to the internet. However, it certainly does not regulate the type of content that is uploaded. Before we can regulate ad content we need a central authority with the power to gatekeep or monitor massive amounts of content. Although this is technically challenging and potentially dangerous from a political standpoint, it’s possible we’re already heading in this direction. In fact, Brown’s own Professor John Savage has begun exploring what this might look like with other experts in the field (read more on Brown’s website).

Another solution could be designing an even more effective business model. On the one hand, this seems preposterous as ads are growing more lucrative each year; the cost per click (CPC) for Google Ads is inflating. On the other hand, people really hate ads. While the popularity of the traditional pay-per-product model has fallen off with the rise of the internet (and as users increasingly expect free products), perhaps the market has reached a tipping point. Perhaps, we’ve already discovered a more profitable business model. Companies like Netflix and Salesforce have shown that a subscription model can be very fruitful (Salesforce sells customer relationship management software on a subscription, generating more than $3 billion in annual revenue). Further yet, a number of startups have seized on the freemium model as a way to gobble up market share and open up the funnel to convert potential users to paid customers. Companies like Slack and Airtable have artfully crafted tiered pricing strategies that include free tiers, enabling them to quickly reach unicorn status (a status held by startups that have a valuation greater than $1 billion). It’s hard to tell whether a successful non-ads model could truly displace a company like Google, but there is the possibility that a combination of consumer/government scrutiny and an appealing alternative could shift their corporate strategy.

Imagine then, a world in which we design our products not to be an optimal space to display advertisements but rather to be valuable enough to consumers that they actually pay for them. Or maybe we’ve found another way to divert costs from the user to still deliver free products. Which success metrics might then dominate the product development landscape? Maybe user satisfaction scores, maybe user engagement numbers still, or maybe even just pure profit. In any case, the internet is extraordinarily young and still rapidly evolving. Market and policy adjustments can happen (and have happened) astonishingly quickly. Not to mention, the ad industry is the root of a lot of other hot-button issues like anticompetitive behavior and lack of data privacy. So hopefully, in just a few years, this could be our much improved reality.

Conflict of interest: Griffin is currently an employee at Google.

Published exclusively in Brown Tech Review. Image source.



Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

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Griffin Kao

Brown ’20 — editor at BTR, author of Turning Silicon Into Gold, previously at The College Hill Independent, passionate about AI/ML, product, and economics