I’ve long been interested in the legend of unhinged Twitter ads. It’s a simple yet inspirational tale. An everyday user, not too different from you or I, tailors their advertising experience on Twitter dot com by blocking every company that places one until they see only nonsense posts that should not have made it past quality control.
It’s also an aspirational tale that promises you the same reward if you only put in a little bit of work.
Daily Dot covered the phenomenon in 2016. The article includes embedded tweets with screenshots of ads block-happy users were seeing, and it is exactly the kind of content I’m looking to see.
But that article is over five years old. That’s an eternity as far as the internet is concerned. It’s possible the wacky advertisers have stopped posting, or perhaps Twitter has gotten wise to the tactic. I’ve never known anyone who has undertaken this path, and so I have no idea if it’s still possible to block your way to truly unhinged Twitter ads.
I do, however, have too much time on my hands, and a blog on which to report the results. So, I got to blocking my way to premium content. Here is how I fared.
I set sail for unhinged Twitter ads
The first stop on my journey was at my adblocker, to disable it on Twitter dot com. I, like so many others, had opted to go nuclear on advertising rather than try more subtle methods. I’m sure I’ll do that again once I get tired of seeing weirdo content, or once brands who weren’t running ad campaigns during my journey start running them.
A peculiar downside of Twitter ads is that there doesn’t seem to be that many of them. I often find myself opening the app, looking at a couple of posts, seeing one I remember from before, then closing the app. Generally, the post I remember is actually an ad, and it takes me three or four looks to realize it. The ads are leading me to use the app less than I otherwise would. Nice one, Twitter!
I have no clue how this is possible since Twitter recently reported its ad sales are doing well, up 41% in the third quarter from the previous year. For some reason, Twitter wants me to know about Kraft peanut butter and nothing more. Buddy, I already have an unopened tub in the cupboard. I ain’t buying any more for a few months.
That campaign had ended by the start of my journey, so American Express Business Canada was the first company to get blocked, followed by York University and McDonald’s Canada. I’m sure the general American Express and McDonald’s accounts will eventually follow.
Blocking each company whose ads you see does give you a better sense of the breadth of companies advertising on the site. My eyes tend to glaze over after I use Twitter for more than 10 minutes at a time, so very little leaves an impression on me. I was shocked to find several grocery chains have ads, for example. I see their YouTube ads all the time, but never the Twitter ones. Well, I suppose I’ll never see them again on Twitter either.
My journey’s first rough patch
I had blocked some 22 companies (including Service Ontario, which I should probably unblock someday) when I hit my first snag. It turns out that after a while, Twitter gets frustrated and stops showing you any ads at all. That sounds like a good thing, but it’s contrary to my mission. I want to see unhinged Twitter ads, not no ads at all.
This quirk of Twitter’s algorithm threatened to slow my progress, and I wasn’t going to allow it. My plan was to open the app on as many devices as possible and see if that brought the ads back.
It was a partial success. Twitter provided me with four more, increasingly niche, companies to block. But then the ads stopped again. So did I. There wasn’t enough user-generated content being generated by users to justify using the app at all, let alone in multiple simultaneous sessions.
It was time to drop my anchor and do something else for a while.
Everything so far happened in the span of about half an hour on a Sunday evening, so after closing Twitter, I probably watched some YouTube videos and went to bed.
It was a healing night’s sleep because I had totally forgotten about this mission. Several days later I noticed I still had the first draft of this article open as a Word document. “No, I don’t think I will pursue this matter further at the moment,” I thought to myself as I minimized the window, and probably went off to watch some YouTube videos before heading to bed.
Groundhog Day in December
This process repeated itself multiple times. Weeks went by, and still nothing. This was across my devices too. I conducted the preliminary test on my personal laptop, but I still wasn’t seeing ads on my phone or work computer (though I obviously only checked on breaks, so that might have skewed the data). I even busted out my old laptop, the one I installed Linux on. Still nothing.
If only it were this simple to annihilate ads on other sites. These days, I only log in to Facebook to post articles on Media Are Plural’s page. I still somehow find myself sucked in, looking at dozens of posts made by people who I thought were sort of cool in high school, and who I haven’t spoken to since. And, of course, 3 million ads.
Facebook does not run out of ads when you express your disinterest in one. Of course, it also watches everything you do, so it presents better ads in the first place. “I wish I could treat myself to that new camera. Maybe one day,” I think to myself as I scroll past a Henry’s ad en route to more misinformation memes. The ads are, shockingly, the best part of Facebook.
YouTube provides you with the option to “thumbs down” an ad you dislike. In my experience that doesn’t stop the site from showing you the ad again, but it does stop it from presenting the option to hit the thumbs down button on that ad for a while. This is a shame because the button gives me something to do while I wait for the irrelevant content to go away.
TikTok ads are my favourite. They’re generally made just like legit TikToks, except something is always slightly off in a surreal way. “This video is fucked up, I wonder if … ah, ‘sponsored,’ that explains it,” I think as I swipe up to the next video.
Another rough patch en route to unhinged Twitter ads
In short, Twitter made me think about and want to use other social media apps. When I realized what was happening, I took steps to fix it. Which is a long-winded way of saying I opened Twitter again.
When I got there, to my shocked amazement, an advertisement was displayed to me!
I scrolled down, but it seemed to be an outlier. The rest of the content comprised memes, depression posts, retweeted threads that should be articles, and the odd news article that I can’t read because it’s behind a paywall.
After a few days though, it turned out that the first ad was a sign of things to come. Soon I had blocked Warner Canada, a local radio station, and Chevrolet Canada, among others.
Next was a test of my mettle. A promoted post by a non-profit called Sanitation and Water for All. It took me roughly five seconds to realize that the rules of this game I’m playing are completely fake, so I can simply ignore them when it suits me. I did not block the important non-profit.
I did however block IGN and ASUS USA, which had the effect of putting me back in ad-free purgatory.
When you are being served ads on Twitter, it feels like you get one every four or five posts. It’s such a stark contrast when they stop. It’s like turning off a faucet, but you do it so fast that it leads to water hammer and blows a pipe. Now you have to wait for a plumber to come and fix it.
In which I yadda-yadda over the boring parts
This cycle has so far continued over and over several times. I will spare you the details. Twitter, staying true to its brand, has found an all-new and unexpected way to disappoint.
I’m up to about 50 blocked accounts, far fewer than I’d like. One of the posters quoted by Daily Dot noted they had axed about 300 brands. At the rate I’m going, it’ll take me a year to reach that mark.
Admittedly though, the ads I’m seeing are becoming more niche. I’ve gone from the likes of Kraft Canada and Chevrolet to a news company for investment executives and a digital whiteboard tool for businesses. None of it was unhinged though, just weirdly specific.
My best course of action is to hit play on the song “Roundabout” by Yes. I’m going to keep at this, but I don’t expect I’ll have much to say until around this time next year. Keep an eye out for that update.
Until then, the mystery of whether you can block your way into unhinged Twitter ads will remain unsolved.