Oh, how I hate Outbrain.
I was reading a Variety article, as I do several times during the course of an average day, and noticed at the bottom of the article was a thumbnail picture of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow character from "The Avengers," with her top partially unzipped to reveal clearly Photoshopped cleavage. What the hell? What was a sleazy cheesecake shot featuring Disney IP doing on a major entertainment industry trade paper's website?
I scrolled down further, and found the caption beneath the thumbnail picture: "16 Celebrities You Forgot Did Horrible Things." Well, that may not be the exact title because I scrolled past quickly and then closed the page. Later on, I couldn't find the same ad again, and I couldn't figure out which of the myriad, similarly titled clickbait articles I had actually seen the link for, and what site it had come from. You get the idea, though. The thumbnail and the caption were from a set of eight, each automatically generated by the Outbrain advertising service to push stories about everything from cake recipes to fall fashions from "Around the web" that might appeal to someone who had just finished reading a Variety article. The advertising module is placed immediately below the article, before the comments section, taking up more space on the page than the Variety article itself.
Now, I've grown somewhat accustomed to those sneaky advertising modules from Google Ads and Amazon following me around online, reminding me that I was recently shopping for socks and foreign language films. Those tend to stay in the sidebars, out of the way and as unobtrusive as web advertising can be. However, the "Around the web" ads from Outbrain, Taboola, Zergnet,Yavli, Hexagram, nRelate, and Gravity drive me up the wall. They're far more obnoxious, garish, and annoying. Worse, they frequently contain borderline vulgar content that is inappropriate for a workplace or school setting, which is exactly where I have to use computers that do not have Adblock installed, and thus can't block the scripts for the modules.
I'm certainly not the first to have noticed and ranted against these advertising companies. What galls me is that there is absolutely no editorial eye involved in the deployment of these ads. The cheesecake shot obviously came from the website that created the "Horrible" article, not Outbrain, who charged them to use their platform to promote the article all over the web. Outbrain doesn't even try to pretend that the recommended articles have anything to do with the content that they're piggybacking, and hardly even the audience that might be reading. If you're on the Variety site, you must be interested in celebrities, right? If you're interested in celebrities, you must respond to sexy pictures of them, right? Others have chronicled the horror of The Atlantic and Fortune readers being bombarded with "get rich quick" schemes and snake oil.
I doubt that Variety had any say in what kind of ads would be displayed under their articles. I wonder if the "Horrible" article's website knew Outbrain would be displaying their ad, and that ghastly Photoshopped Black Widow picture, on a site regularly read by Disney executives and their IP lawyers (or at least their assistants). Then again knowing some of these websites, they probably didn't create the cheesecake shot themselves, but just snagged someone's salacious fanart and slapped it together with some copy that was probably lifted from another site. I found at least a dozen versions of the "Horrible" article on several different sites and blogs, under different titles. The oldest one, where this all may have originated from, is a profanity-riddled 2009 Cracked article.
I have to stop and remind myself, however, that as frustrating as these kinds of ads are, it's easier than ever to get rid of them. Adblock can excise the advertising modules completely. However, for the more ad-tolerant, I've noticed that some of the services, like Taboola, provide user controls that allow you to banish particularly offending ads. Outbrain doesn't do this unfortunately - clicking on their icon only brought up a breathless little sales blurb trying to sell me on using their service to foist more linkbait upon other Variety readers.
You can shove it, Outbrain.