Clickbait advertisements are a curious thing. We’ve all seen them. Scroll down the webpage after reading your next news article and you’ll undoubtedly see the words “more from around the web”. What follows is a peculiar set of images chosen solely to grab the reader’s attention. Underneath each image is the same formulaic sentence; “x HATES him! see how he made $y in just z days”. You might think that this is boring copy-cat marketing, which it is, but it’s done because it works. What you might not know is how deep the clickbait rabbit hole goes, but I do.
I’ve always had a fascination with the more extreme type of ads on webpages that everyone else deemed the bane of their existence. Do you remember the “Win a FREE iPhone!” ads where you had to shoot the falling iPhones? That was the beginning of my obsession. Gradually, as time passed, marketers found faster and more effective ways to get people to click on their ads, and this pathed the way for the clickbait we know and hate today. Have you ever been coaxed by curiosity and clicked on one of them? Nothing too exciting happens. A man doesn’t burst through your screen, steal your credit card and make a mad dash for your front door. No, instead you are directed to a dodgy looking “get rich quick” scheme some unethical entrepreneur has set-up. But that’s not where my interests lie. You’ll notice as you are re-directed to that questionable site, that they too are hosting clickbait ads. This time more in tune to your interests and browser history. You will see them begin to tailor to your location, “This (your location) Mom found a way to make $x from home every day!” and on it goes.
I had some spare time on Sunday evening and decided to see how uncomfortable these ads could make me. I’m a man of few interests, so when I find myself with some free time, this is how I choose to spend it. I passed through the boring generic phase, clicking through until the location based ads, then, as expected, through to ads based on my interests. Nothing new here, we are all aware that websites and companies collect our browsing habits to produce more targeted ads. I clicked through more and more ads but it felt as though I had reached the upper limit. By this point all the ads were reciting the same nonsense over and over and I was due to give up my venture completely, feeling I had reached the end of the line, so to speak. I clicked through a few more times, for curiosities sake, only to be met with an advertisement based on information I had never searched on the internet at all, hell, I hadn’t even entered this information into my computer. The advertisement read:
“Find out what happened to (my name) when he met (girlfriend) on 1/10/2017!”.
I will admit, whilst justifiably feeling like my privacy had been utterly violated, A wave of excitement and impressiveness washed over me. These marketers were really pulling out all the stops, I thought to myself. The information that the ad contained had only been conveyed once, the morning of 1/10, on a phone call between me and my girlfriend. We had agreed to meet at her work place after she finished to spend some time together. We hadn’t seen much of each other recently due to our hectic workloads and felt a catch-up was due. So how did this advertisement get a hold of that information? well, that’s anyone’s guess. After the initial shock wore off, I checked all the syncing services my phone offered and made sure that nothing even remotely related to phone calls, messages, etc. were being synced to my computer, and nothing was. The only possible theory I could conjure was that my laptop microphone had picked up the conversation and converted this into data that could be used to generate new clickbait ads. Now, before you dismiss me as insane, it wasn’t long ago that Facebook made headlines by doing just this. Installing Facebook on your phone meant you gave it permission to activate your microphone 24/7 allowing it to eavesdrop not only your phone calls, but anything you said in the vicinity of your phone. Extremely disturbing, to say the least.
For the ads image, it used an image of me. Nothing too exciting here, it pulled my profile picture directly from twitter, so at least I knew my laptop hadn’t gone sentient and was spying on me through my webcam. The surrounding ads had cycled round to the generic phase again, leaving this as the only one targeted directly at me. I’d seen enough by this point. I placed tape over my webcam and microphone, checked my phone sync settings once more, then closed the laptop and went to bed. I made a mental agreement with myself to carry on my virtual expedition the next day.
Despite yesterday’s discovery, I slept surprisingly well. I commenced my morning routine then sat down at the dining table with my coffee, a smoke and my laptop. I took a deep breath – I’m not sure why, but it’s what people do in the movies, then opened the laptop up. The screen was exactly how I had left it. The advertisement detailing my phone call sitting centred on the page. The first thing that needed to be done was what I was too sceptical to accomplish the night before, click on the ad. As I did, my mind flashed through all the moments in my life I regretted and prepared myself to see a webpage sprawling with all my dark and deepest secrets. To call this an overreaction would be an understatement, as always, a suspicious website opened up trying to sell me another get rich quick scheme. Relief washed over me and I lit up my cigarette. I listened to the automatic advertisement play its jargon and laughed to myself, wondering who in their right mind would fall for such spiel.
After the salesman had finished his pitch, I scrolled down to the bottom of the page. A collection of ads featuring pictures from my life appeared on the screen.
“Employers HATE him! Find out how (my name) sued his workplace and won $10,000”
My breath caught in my throat, how did they now about this? For clarity, I used to work for a company that was exploiting their workers for free overtime. I sued them for breach of contract and won a large settlement, but there was no way anyone could have known about that.
“Women HATE him! Find out how (my name) escaped child support charges and you can too!”
A moment in my life I was not too proud of. I got myself out of paying for child support by tampering with a DNA test after getting someone pregnant on a night out as a teenager.
“Death HATES him! Find out how (my name) escaped death on 2/10”
“That’s today’s date” I said out loud to no one. By this point I was completely on edge. Such a ludicrous statement would be easily ignored had all the other advertisements not been 100% true. I dropped my cigarette on my lap which broke my state of shock. I cleaned up and sat back down at the laptop, ready to click the ad. As I hovered over it, I noticed the address appear in the bottom left corner of the screen. Another sales video, thank God. I clicked on the link and it opened up to a video I was already well accustomed with. Another salesman selling me crap I didn’t need. The images on the advertisements were again, nothing too shocking. All taken from my Facebook albums. I will admit though that it seemed someone was personally constructing these ads. I have never heard of a bot that scans through whole albums on Facebook before, but then again, marketing isn’t exactly my field and people get craftier by the day.
I checked the time in the corner of the screen, “Fuck”. I was late to meet my friend, Tom. I slammed the lid closed on the laptop and rushed out the door to catch the bus into town. Tom was already waiting with a stern look on his face.
“Fucking hell man, are you ever on time?”
“Weird morning Tom, sorry mate.” I replied.
We wandered around aimlessly as I listened to Tom spill his dribble about every topic under the sun. I could hear the noises he was making but the words were not registering as coherent. All I could focus on was that advertisement I had seen earlier. I cut him off mid-sentence and explained my findings to him. He looked at me like I had lost my mind. A fair reaction given the circumstances.
“Anyway, that leads us up ’til now” I finished
“Well, just keep your head on a swivel I guess, but I wouldn’t overthink… Fuck!”
Lost in the conversation, we had wandered onto a quiet road with a car blasting towards us going at least 60mph, well over the speed limit for roads here. Tom grabs me and snatches me out of the way of the car. We turn around to catch a glimpse of the driver, but the windows had been blacked out. Why, of all days, did this moron choose today to near enough run me over? I had never seen a single car driving on the road we had walked across, I thought it had been pedestrianised due to its scarcity of vehicles.
“Guess the prophecy came true after all” Tom joked.
I laughed along with him, but in my mind, it was just too convenient for this to coincide exactly as the advertisement had predicted. I told Tom I wasn’t feeling well and was going to head home. I could tell he knew it was due to this new-found fear, but like the good friend he is, he just nodded his head and told me to be careful. I found myself powerwalking as I got off the bus and slammed the door forcefully as I got inside my home. I rushed to the laptop and opened the lid, once again.
“Find out how (my name) dies on 3/10!”
This one didn’t even feel like a clickbait advertisement. It felt like a direct message to me. The image that accompanied the headline was definitely me, but my head had been caved in, my eyes were protruding from my skull and my face was drenched in blood. I immediately got a knot in my stomach. I tried every form of reasoning to calm myself down, it was, after all, an advertisement. But due to its accuracy so far, I wasn’t taking any chances. I hovered my mouse over the ad and checked the address that appeared in the bottom left of the screen. Another sales video. Great. I clicked on it and waited for the page to load, but this time something changed.
The video cut off after the salesman had introduced himself and showed my webcam. I actually thought it was livestreaming me, but as I waved my hands about, I quickly dispelled this thought and continued watching. A shadowy figure entered behind me into the kitchen and began walking towards me. I snapped my head around at this moment, even though I knew the video was not a live feed, I had to make sure I was alone. I continued watching and saw the man come into focus, he raised a large metal pipe above his head and brought it down against the side of my face with a swift crack. I watched as I fell off my chair and the figure mounted me. We were now both out of view of the camera, but I could see the metal pipe raise up and down rhythmically, followed by a meaty and wet slap noise, with the occasional crunching. I almost lost the contents of my stomach listening to it, but I felt compelled to watch. After two minutes of solid thumping, the figure stood back up and closed the screen of the laptop, and the video ended.
I sat there for what felt like hours. I was fully convinced I had just watched my own death take place in front of my eyes, yet I was still sitting here, alive. That leads me up until now. I haven’t opened my laptop since seeing that video, nor have I used any gadget in my house that has an internet connection. Even my DAB radio has been turned off as a precaution. I’m nursing the fear with a few glasses of vodka, praying that tomorrow never comes. I know how I must sound to you all, and I would react the same way had this happened to someone else. But believe me, I’m just as confused as you are. So, I’m posting this as a warning to everyone. For your own safety, please, please do not go down the clickbait rabbit hole. No matter how enticing the advertisements are, you might just end up regretting it.
Credit: Fear & Fiction