The Dark Patterns of Pinterest Ads
December 25, 2020
Do you remember when Eric Goeres, Director of Innovation at Time, said this:
Don’t trick them; don’t piss them off.
It was four years ago in the New York Times and Goeres was speaking about sponsored content for an up-and-coming show, Orange is the New Black. In an era of exponential growth within content creation on sites like YouTube and Instagram, it seemed like the internet was entering another state of the digital Wild West. In 2014, an epidemic of native advertising and paid promotions appeared to be flat-out deceiving users. Goeres saw that something called Dark Patterns had emerged in the digital universe and knew it was anti-user.
The phenomenon of Dark Patterns is boiled down to when a user is intentionally outwitted into clicking or signing up for something that wasn't their intended outcome.
One dark pattern is controversially discussed when debating "native advertising" in social media posts. Maybe you've run into it; it's when the ads that seem to blend in with the rest of the article, page, or timeline. You know, the ones that hide in between scrolls of your friend's Tweets and leave you wondering if you're following the Burger King's Twitter account?
Have you ever wondered to yourself, "How do they get away with this?"
And disguised advertising is so commonplace that one of the largest social media websites remains notorious and shameless about this practice.
So let's talk about it.
Pinterest And Disguised Ads
Pinterest, girl, you need guidance.
There is a fine line between "promoted content" and a disguised ad, and ya'll at Pinterest are drunkenly zig-zagging that line.
It's hard to disguise an ad for sports cars on a bookstore site. But lately it's been seeming like Pinterest would do anything to blend advertising in with the content UI just to get those extra clicks. You're putting in effort designing a way to disguise ads from Hershey's on a site that lets you scroll through cookie recipes.
For instance, the page above that has two sponsored adverts and two regular posts. Can you quickly spot the difference? How about when you're scrolling swiftly to find a recipe for winter-themed cupcakes? Is there a chance you might mistake an advertisement for a friend's standard post?
When designing scrollable curated content websites, researched and seasoned designers like you have on your team know that folx are browsing casually and may not take time to read contextual clues.
Pinterest, you're taking advantage of the user by lacking a visual hierarchy and contextual clues that inform users that they are about to click on an advertisement.
And can we talk about how the pages don't even open in a new tab?
Seriously. You're transported straight to a form fill for Hershey's or Lowe's or some random apparel site run by the dudes from Invisible Children.
And perhaps, this is what your user wants. But perhaps the right thing to do is to inform your users of all their choices, transparently and honestly.
And yeah, also:
Just because it's cute and well done, doesn't mean it's not dark. Disguising anything inherently means you're not being truthful.
Since 2014, more regulatory agencies have spoken out against the controversy of "native advertising." But, honestly, not enough pushback is transpiring. And ultimately, it's the designer's job to step in and stand in that doorway of ethical transparency.
Websites and apps can continue to abuse users by selling out for pay-per-click ads, but we're not being fooled these days. We're just going through the motions, trying to outrun these minor hurdles, but the death of a thousand cuts still means your ship will sink if you're not careful.
Four years ago, we may have been tricked to click, but today, we're just getting pissed off.