I mostly didn’t mind when Tumblr started running “Sponsored Posts” in my dashboard. Tumblr has to make money. Most of the ads were boring, a few were interesting, but they weren’t a big deal.
Then the horror movie ads started.
I don’t care for horror movies. The 1963 version of The Haunting is awesome, and I loved The Shining, but that’s about as far as I go. When it comes to slasher movies I’m not interested. I actively avoid them. I don’t mind if other people watch them, but they’re not for me.
I don’t think Tumblr should make me watch ads for movies like that. I especially don’t think they should make me watch those ads in the form of creepy animated gifs that appear without warning in my dashboard. As of now, though, that’s Tumblr policy: I have to watch horror movie ads, integrated into my dashboard via the Sponsored Posts program, as a condition of using the service.
I think Tumblr should stop doing that.
What am I talking about?
I want you to be able to see what I’m talking about. BUT PLEASE DON’T CLICK ON THESE LINKS UNLESS YOU’RE OKAY WITH SEEING CREEPY HORROR IMAGES.
For those who didn’t click, the first post (advertising The Purge) shows a blood-spattered woman with a sword and a spooky mask skipping down a hallway toward the camera. The second (advertising The Conjuring) shows the feet of a hanged female corpse swaying in the air behind the face of actor Patrick Wilson. A number of other ads for both movies have appeared in my dash, but those are the two that bothered me the most.
Why you might not have noticed
If you haven’t noticed these ads, congratulations. That might be because you’re using Tumblr Savior or the XKit extension's Blacklist plugin (both of which I recommend) to avoid sponsored posts. Or it might be that you're not accessing Tumblr via a smartphone or tablet. Third-party ad blockers aren't available on the Tumblr mobile app, a fact that isn't lost on Tumblr. (“Use the Tumblr app! It's faster and a zillion times better,” they tell you. Well, yes, it's better. One of the things it's better at is showing you ads.)
Sponsored posts appeared first on the Tumblr app before they appeared on the website, and the ads continue to seem more intrusive - more frequent and more off-putting, at least to me - on the app than on the website. It may be that Tumblr avoids running too many ads on the website because they don’t want users to install ad-blockers. If true, that means mobile users in effect are subsidizing Tumblr, viewing ads so website users don’t have to.
Why it’s a problem
So what’s the big deal? If users can just avoid the horror ads with a little effort, what’s the harm?
For one thing, users have to experience the harm before they know to avoid it. That’s a lot of users being exposed to content they’d rather not see. As a practical matter, too, many users won’t bother bypassing the ads, or won’t know how. They’ll just keep flinching every time a horror gif appears in their dash. They shouldn’t have to.
Tumblr is new, but this is an old problem. Advertisers have always wanted to go too far, and publishers have always had to rein them in as part of protecting the interests of their readers/users.
Horror movie advertisers don’t care about people like me. I was never going to buy a ticket anyway. To effectively reach their target audience (people who would buy a ticket), the advertisers want the ads to be as shocking as possible. In that battle I’m just collateral damage. If Tumblr isn’t willing to stand up to advertisers in situations like that, then Tumblr as a platform is going to go downhill really quickly. And that will be sad for all Tumblr users, not just those who don’t like horror gifs in their dash.
There’s also this: A lot of Tumblr’s users are young. Tumblr discourages people younger than 13 from signing up, but I don’t think they police that. Even if they do, 13 is still pretty young to be seeing this stuff. Tumblr is aware of the problem, which is why they’ve been trying to clean up the porn lately. But images of violent horror, of a young woman spattered with blood as she lurches toward you with a sword, or of another woman’s hanged corpse, are potentially just as damaging to young minds as images of people having sex. Maybe more so.
The main difference for Tumblr seems to be that the porn vendors aren’t paying them, while the horror vendors are. Tumblr needs to understand that just because someone is willing to pay doesn’t make it okay to show users disturbing images against their will. And when the users in question are children, people (rightfully) are going to have a problem with it.
Tumblr’s Community Guidelines
The frustrating thing is that Tumblr should know better. Most of the time they do a good job of helping users avoid content they don’t want to see. The “Unfollow” and “Ignore” buttons are awesome. For certain kinds of content, Tumblr will go as far as actively censoring it. Near the top of Tumblr’s Community Guidelines, which every user is required to follow, it says:
Don’t post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-harm. This includes content that urges or encourages readers to cut or injure themselves… or commit suicide rather than… seeking counseling or treatment.
The Community Guidelines go on to say:
Don’t post gore just to be shocking. Don’t showcase the mutilation or torture of human beings, animals, or their remains.
The whole point of those policies is that it’s wrong to make people look at disturbing content they don’t want to see. Tumblr needs to recognize that the policy applies to them, too, and that the horror movie ads violate it.
What Tumblr can do
Speaking for myself, I’d give Tumblr a medal if they did any of the following:
Gold medal - Publicly announce that they will no longer run horror movie ads, or will give users the ability to opt out of seeing them, and then follow through on that. Also, apologize for making users view the ads, acknowledge that that was a mistake and a violation of Tumblr’s principles, and promise never to do it again.
Silver medal - Publicly announce that Tumblr will stop running horror movie ads, or that it will give users the ability to opt out of seeing them, and follow through.
Bronze medal - Quietly, without fanfare, stop running horror movie ads, or roll out a feature that allows users to opt out of seeing them.
1. allow users a choice of the types of products they are willing to see ads for.
2. allow users to opt out of ads by paying a modest fee.
3. don’t accept ads for scary movies.
4. hide ads for scary movies behind a “click here for info on [scary movie]” with “trigger warnings: death, gore,…”
5. tailor the ad to match the content on the person’s dash or their own posts.
The point is, Tumblr has options.
What you can do
Email firstname.lastname@example.org and let them know how you feel - You might eventually get a reply from someone on the “Tumblr Trust & Safety” team who will assure you that Tumblr takes users’ concerns seriously, and that they’re going to share your views with “the team.” At some point, if enough of us complain, those assurances might actually come to mean something.
Complain to Yahoo - Since Tumblr has now been bought, it may help to complain to the new owners. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a good way to do that. All the options at http://help.yahoo.com/ lead me to a form that wants me to first pick a product to complain about, and Tumblr isn’t one of the listed options. If you figure out how to complain to them, let me know and I’ll update the post.
Share your views - I’ve started tracking the Sponsored Posts tag. If you agree that this is a problem, please consider sharing your thoughts there. It will help others know they’re not alone.
Signal boost - Please consider reblogging this post, or the shorter post I made to try to draw attention to the issue: Reblog if you think Tumblr should stop making users watch horror movie ads against their will.
Previous posts I’ve written about this are here.