Bad ads: when the tragedy of the commons meets mobile advertising

By John Koetsier February 21, 2023

Bad ads are killing the mobile advertising industry.

Actually, let me clarify. It’s not the ads. Often a video ad is fun, even interesting. Many times a playable ad has some elements of enjoyment. The mobile ads don’t suck, per se. But what really does suck is the mobile ad units: the infrastructure around the ads that creates a bad advertising user experience.

Last night.

In my favorite mobile game.

“Watch this ad to get a free reward.”

OK … fine.


Ugggghhh … that was a mistake. 

First there’s the video. 20 seconds if you’re lucky. 30 seconds most commonly, sometimes 45 second videos now. Then there’s the mini playable ad that follows the video. On your first tap to play the playable, however, it doesn’t play. Rather, the mobile ad unit “misinterprets” my tap to play the playable ad as an intention to download the app and throws up an SKOverlay screen with a button to download the app. Tap away from the button to dismiss it and get back to the playable. Play it for a few moments, waiting for the X to get out of the ad. Occasionally it shows up quickly. Sometimes it shows up, but with a progress circle that needs to complete a circuit of the X before it’s clickable. Sometimes it takes a while to show up, while my optimistic but foolishly early taps merely summon additional SKOverlay screens. Sometimes SKOverlay just shows up absent any human taps. Sometimes the ad crashes the game — happened to me last week — and you don’t get the reward you’ve suffered for. Sometimes there’s a continue button that you hope continues the fun little game you’re playing, but actually halts it and dumps you into an app store experience. Usually, after a long time, the X is clickable, if you can fit your thumb in that tiny space at the extreme top right corner of your screen. Miss, and SKOverlay comes right back up like that “buddy” at the bar who’s trying to borrow money from you. Better not have a big phone case with thick or high edges, or you’ll need a stylus or a pinky or a small-handed friend to get the X. Finally you get the X, get your reward, and get back to your game.

“Fix your effing X button,” Adam Jaffe, founder and CEO of Mega Studio recently wrote. “This is why people hate ads in games. Sure it can make a bit of extra money, but the UX is so unbelievably horrible that it’s often not worth it for the game dev in terms of retention.”

If the people in the industry who benefit from ad monetization are fed up with the mobile ad experience, how must the users, players, and customers feel? 

How long can the mobile advertising industry keep enraging the people it depends on for its very existence?

It’s the tragedy of the mobile advertising commons

The tragedy of the traditional commons is overgrazing on public land: each farmer benefits individually by adding more of his or her cows to the shared grasslands, but each additional resource-consuming animal added to the aggregated herd also decreases the overall value to the community by exhausting a shared resource.

In mobile advertising, each individual ad network benefits by being increasingly more aggressive at capturing attention and racking up stats (like click-through rate by spawning a SKOverlay). But the industry as a whole suffers from the mobile ads arms race we’re currently seeing. 

And since the primary victim is users — the people advertisers want to reach — the mobile advertising ecosystem is engaging in a fool’s game of mutual assured destruction.

“The click through arms race is not slowing down at all,” Tomas Yacachury, senior partnerships lead at Kayzen, said recently on LinkedIn. “When do you think we will reach a détente? 50% CTR? Unskippable ads? And how much will the user experience suffer in the process?”

Yacachury noted that he recently received ads from an ad network saying they’ve “reduced the exit X sizing to keep users more engaged with your ad content.”

The result: click-through rates jumped through the roof.

What used to be 2-5% CTR is now hitting 10%, 15%, or even 24%. I’ve personally endured rewarded ad units that spawned 3 to 5 individual SKOverlay takeovers.

Clickthrough rates on the rise
Clickthrough rates on the rise, via Tomas Yacachury

Let’s be honest here. Reducing the X sizing or repeatedly opening up a download interface is not actually keeping users more engaged with ad content. It’s locking them in a mobile ad jail cell against their will, where the only escape is force-quitting their game and losing both current progress and promised reward. 

This should not be a shock to anyone reading this post. Since everyone in the industry is a user as well as a brand, or advertiser, or measurement provider, we all personally know exactly what that feels like (not good) and we know exactly what that translates to (anger).

Plus, CTR is starting to be a completely meaningless metric, as INCRMTAL founder and CEO Maor Sadra recently said in response to Jaffe’s post:

“‘This user really loved this ad. Look at how many times they clicked it? Let’s target them with a lot more ads now,’ said every optimization algorithm of every ad network that uses SKAD overlay …”

Exactly …

Bad ads: the mobile ad industry is playing with fire

The problem is not only that we’re destroying a once-useful metric in CTR and ruining a once-mutually-beneficial ad unit, the rewarded ad.

The problem is also this user anger that we’re creating.

That anger will never be directed at the ad network, which is largely though not completely invisible in the mobile ad experience. Instead, that anger is most likely either going to be directed to the app in which the ad unit was shown, or the app that is being advertised.

The first is bad for publishers; the second is bad for advertisers.

And since most in the mobile industry are both, it’s doubly bad for all.

Plus, it’s much more significant than specific user anger at a specific ad, which is bad for specific publishers and specific advertisers. It’s becoming a generalized anger and general annoyance with ads, which is bad for the entire ecosystem. The great thing about the commons is that it’s a general resource available to all for the good of all. 

Destroy it, and that value disappears.

Which then becomes a major industry-wide problem.

“As someone who leads a gaming ad network, the sentiment expressed here by creators makes me sad,” Steve Webb, VP of Revenue – Advertising for Unity said in response to Jaffe’s post. “It isn’t sustainable for the industry and reminds me of when web advertising had to fix pop-ups/browser takeovers. I’m not going to single any network out, we’ve all rendered experiences that have undermined game play.”

The industry is already adapting, of course. 

Public anger at advertising is already so bad that some app publishers are weaponizing it. Ads for Dream Games’ app Royal Match, for example, promise “no ads.” More power to them, but it makes for a fairly meta experience: 

  • an advertiser
  • running an ad
  • in an app
  • that promises another app
  • with no ads …

And of course, that’s not a viable solution for every app.

And on the metrics side, advertisers have been pushing metrics that they care about deeper down the funnel for years, looking to in-app first-party-measurable actions such as engagement and revenue. That’s going to accelerate, and that’s exactly what Singular helps measure with next-generation mobile attribution and SKAN Advanced Analytics

But there’s still huge value in upper funnel metrics such as clickthrough rates and watch time and actions taken during playable ads. Knowing what resonates with people even if it’s prior to any in-app behavior can provide relevant and helpful insight to mobile advertisers trying to hit the right note to go viral.

It’s time for publishers and advertisers to demand better

Most ad networks are going to do whatever they can to look better to their customers: advertisers. 

And let’s be honest: ad networks are essentially forced to do this. If they don’t adopt tactics that maximize available metrics of engagement and action, their metrics will look worse in comparison to competing ad networks. And that means less-savvy ad buyers will walk away for the bright lights and shiny metrics of perhaps less scrupulous ad partners. It’s literally an arms race on all sides.

This is why advertisers who are buying ads and publishers who are running ads need to demand better.

Because it’s in both of your best interest.

If you’re a publisher, you might think you’re getting more revenue when aggressive ads theoretically capture more user intent, or theoretically drive more user behavior. But what’s the cost in your own app, your own reputation, your own retention? And what’s the cost when users no longer agree to watch rewarded ads, knowing that they offer a horrible experience?

Since that cost is hard to measure or attribute to a specific ad, or a specific number of bad ads, it’s easy to gloss over the problem.

That would be a mistake.

Panel of one: bad ads have caused me to play certain games less. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

If you’re an advertiser, you’re not doing your app any favors with ads running in aggressive ways that make potential users or customers angry. When I have a bad mobile ad experience for your app, I’m less likely to want it, like it, download it, use it. Bad ads are bad for apps that serve them, and apps that buy them.

Demand better ad experiences. You’re paying for them, after all.

Maybe part of the answer is more metrics, not fewer.

“If only SKOverlay had its own click telemetry and close button,” says Alasdair Presney, former director of product strategy for AdColony and now part of the Blockchain Game Alliance. “Then all ads would have everything they needed to function, courtesy of the Apple operating system.”

In other words, instead of just firing a click every time they appear, if marketers — and publishers — had access to metrics about how many times SKOverlayers were called and how many times they were dismissed, they’d know exactly how many times an ad network unnecessarily hijacked a user’s entire mobile screen. 

Link that number to actual, verifiable installs driven, and you’ve got a pretty complete picture.

Fixing mobile ads

The problem is obvious to all, but there’s no silver bullet.

Smart advertisers need to demand ad units that treat potential customers and users and players with respect. Smart publishers need to demand ads that treat existing customers and users and players with respect.

Both need to ignore the tempting prospect of big numbers and fancy metrics that are ultimately both empty and destructive.
And ad networks need to educate their customers about the ways CTR and last-click attribution can be manipulated.

Stay up to date on the latest happenings in digital marketing

Simply send us your email and you’re in! We promise not to spam you.