As unwanted distractions go, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything as annoying as video ads which automatically start playing when you arrive on a website. They're even worse than the Go Compare bloke turning up in the middle of your relaxing shiatsu massage. My automatic response is to dive for the mute button, or, if I'm feeling particularly irritable, set about my laptop with a samurai sword, which I keep handy.
A recent survey by an Australian media agency established that 96 per cent of people hate these ads; they regularly come at the top of "most common mistakes advertisers can make", and shatter the maxim "don't annoy the viewer" into tiny shards. And yet they still appear.
Last week it was reported that Facebook may start adding auto-play ads to its news feeds this summer, and I'm duty-bound to admit that The Independent's website carries them on some pages – although hopefully not the one on which this article appears, otherwise I'm going to get savaged in the comments section.
If they inspire such vociferous hate, why are they served up so regularly? The answer, unsurprisingly, is cash. The more invasive the advertisement, the more revenue the advertisement generates.
Businesses demand that our attention be grabbed, and there's nothing ignorable about an advert that unexpectedly shrieks at you from the corner of the page. But while that advert may well be aggravating, and you may mutter about the greed of the website that's taken the cash and forced you to watch it, the fact is that serving up free content costs money.
Websites have an incredibly tricky juggling act to perform – keeping advertisers happy, not alienating its audience and trying to make money to keep the whole shebang on the road. Are auto-play adverts annoying? Undoubtedly. But are they necessary? Possibly.
David Fischer, vice-president of advertising and global operations at Facebook, reckons that it's possible to "balance user experience with advertising experience" when it rolls out its auto-play videos; the plan, apparently, is to play them without sound and offer the opportunity to activate the sound, at which point the advert plays from the beginning. In other words, if it catches our eye, we opt in.
Of course, Facebook, whose every move is scrutinised, will be awash with groups called things like "Petition Facebook to remove these annoying ads!". But while online services are criticised for annoying their customers with ads, would there even be a service without them?
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