Forcing users, customers to adapt a certain behaviour is akin to putting a gun to their head. You might get what you want, but they’ll never forget you threatened them.

This morning, I stumbled on a link leading to a Forbes article, which I will
myself not link to, for reasons that will become apparent shortly. I was
genuinely interested in the promised content, so I clicked. Instead of
prose and opinions from an oft-thought prestigious institution, I was treated
to this.

Splash screen of shame


Notice that word, in the middle of the appropriately color-coded sentence.
I’m seeing it because I ignored this once before, thinking it was still the
kind of ad-block-block of days gone by, where a heartfelt message about
the editors not being able to feed their kids and whatnot was enough to
tip the scales of guilt-tripping their way.

I clicked “Continue to site”, and was promptly looped back to this message,
with the word still added, to underscore the frustration of whomever I
managed to offend by trying to protect myself from the blight that is online
advertising and tracking.

This splash screen could pass for an edgy, indie attempt to humanize the
website, might even feel heartfelt.

It is actually a well-crafted manipulation device.

Anatomy of a manipulation device

Human language

The screen starts with a greeting, and speaks directly to you. It uses
a simple and cordial tone, with upbeat if slightly annoyed undertones.

Again & Still

As previously stated, these words are added to the greeting, making you feel
like you are bothering someone several times in a row with the same issue.
It gives you that dreadful “paperwork clusterfuck at the DMV” feeling,
while offering an easy way out.

Color codes

You’ll notice “ad blocker” is painted in red, the color associated with error,
failure, forbidden, bad. Conversely, “ad-light” is highlighted in green,
in order to elicit the opposite meaning : correctness, success, acceptance,


Isn’t this a fantastic euphemism? “Yes, there are ads, but it’s light. There
are not many, so it’s ok. We’re not the bad guys here.” You’ll see below how
much of a euphemism “ad-light” is. It nearly automatically brings you past
the acceptance point of the website having ads, emphasizing the fact they have
so few of them.

A matter of intention

All in all, we have a heavy dose of mental nudging in such a tiny sentence,
applying methods regularly used in application UX, with a very different intent.

While I’d advocate for color-coding and careful wording any day in order to
make a product understandable, and form effective user habits, the intent here,
and the insane amount of effort put into this splash screen,
were to make the viewer vulnerable by exposing themselves to
targeted advertising and tracking.

Forbes manipulates you into letting your guard down, in order to profit
their bottom line, sacrificing your privacy in the process.

But wait, there’s more. Should all that cold war era mindfuckery not work
on your resilient mind, here comes the actual strong-arming.

You just can’t get to the article with an ad-blocker activated.

That’s right. Dropping all pretenses right there. Whatever you do1, you
won’t move past their border crossing until that ad-blocker is turned off.
This is where subtle manipulation turns into actual strong-arming.

The prize for vulnerability

Thanks to another frustrated privacy-savvy reader where I first was linked to
the infamous article, I got my hands on an archived copy. I can then show
you what you would receive for your sacrifice of disabling privacy and
security measures. Brace yourself.

Banners and crap

Yup. Gaze upon the formidable “ad-light” experience, of 63 actual readable
words above the fold, versus around half the page plastered in advertisement
for the company the article is bashing. That’s actually the worst part. I
probably could excuse all this bullshit if the advertisement was actually
clever. If instead of relying on keyword analysis and automated systems,
they took the opportunity to advertise for viable alternatives to the
criticized subject.

Wrapping up

Shameful as it is, the quality of advertising itself not the point of this article.
The point is this :

A renowned website uses manipulation and strong-arming techniques akin to
extortion in order to sell ads.

And while it is far from being the only one to do so, Forbes is the most damning example
I’ve seen. This reeks of struggle, of desperation and of fear. In a landscape where
even Apple is providing OS-wide solutions to curb web advertisement, websites bullying
users into seeing ads SHOULD be afraid.

They will hit an unbreakable wall of pissed-off users, tired of being bombarded
with what amounts to visual clutter barely hiding behavioral tracking, and they
will break every bone in their brittle excuse for a business model.

Developers, designers, product owners: don’t be them!

You have the skills and tools to provide real added value, to create something
people will want to pay for. Never manipulate of coerce your users into doing
something you want. Don’t be the sleazy website with the 15 fake download buttons,
don’t be the one with mandatory ad or pay-wall before content, don’t be the
guy with the confusing pricing.

Internet users are getting increasingly technically capable and well-informed with each passing
year, and wil only be fooled less and less by cons like Forbes’. Ignore this, and you
will end up alienating your users, losing credibility and revenue.

This pissed me off to the point where I’ll make a point not to give Forbes
another single pageview, ever. I know I’m not the only one taking such resolutions
against shady business practices on the Internet, far from it. And I’d be livid,
were I put in a similar situation in which people would justifiably shun my
products on the basis of the shenanigans described above.

I might have ignored this incident entirely if the manipulation hadn’t turned
into outright strong-arming, into coercion. That’s crossing the line.

You are better than this. Never cross that line.

  1. Unless you come to the article from Forbes homepage, because this clever system just checks for external referers. But don’t tell anyone. 

Leave a Reply