The prevalence of pop-up ads around the world is linked to Chinese marketing companies and China's porn ban. Allow me to explain.
I use a second hand computer everyday for my work and a lot of my writing. It was supplied to me by the well-meaning Chinese company that employs me. I had originally presumed that the computer given to me was brand new because my role didn’t exist before I arrived, but I was wrong.
The Beast and its Pop-up ads
It’s a second-hand beast that was clearly used by a lot of people during the years before me, made obvious by the exterior wear and tear.
Each morning I arrive at the office and press the power button before immediately leaving my desk and going to make some coffee.
It takes the computer no less than 5 minutes to turn on, so by the time I get back I’m welcomed by my first series of pop-up ads.
These ads change daily and are always loud, colourful and shocking. They are also everywhere.
I’ve been living and working in China for several years at this point, and no matter where I am, every computer I’m forced to use is always covered in pop ups. The reason for the problem is the amount of freeware that is readily available in China.
The Chinese Consumer
A Chinese consumer (lets call him Mr. Consumer) buys a computer for his home office, installs it and is ready to work.
It didn’t come with any word processing software.
Never fear Mr Consumer, there are literally thousands of completely free word processing programs available on the Chinese web that are ready for immediate download.
The Chinese internet bubble is fascinating because it exists in a completely seperate space from the rest of the world.
There is an entire ecosystem of powerful online companies and mega-apps like WeChat that are demolishing their American competition.
By keeping the internet closed, China is able to give local companies an enormous advantage.
Within this ecosystem are companies making the programs Mr. Consumer needs to do his work.
Word processors, spreadsheet programs, video players, absolutely everything he could ever need, and all for free.
One of these companies has made and is supplying Mr Consumer with a reliable word processor at absolutely no cost.
So what’s the catch?
The catch is that the company isn’t a software developer at all, it’s a marketing firm.
The completely free word processor Mr Consumer just installed onto his computer came with a bucketload of pop-up ad programs and viruses.
These viruses plague every computer I’ve ever used here, including computers that are linked up to enormous screens I use while teaching in lecture halls.
These freeware programs aren't exclusive to China however. If you've ever downloaded a program that filled your computer with viruses, chances are, it was produced by a Chinese marketing company.
I can be halfway through a presentation to 50 twelfth graders and see an enormous popup fill the screen over top of my slide. I’ll then spend the next two minutes fumbling with the trackpad, moving the pointer across the screen, and exiting the popup.
As annoying as these pop-ups are, it’s not their frequency that gets to me. The content of the ads is the really shocking part.
As I mentioned before, China has a unique bubble-internet that’s all its own. However there’s no space in this bubble for porn. Porn is banned in China and any attempt to access it without a VPN won’t work.
Advertisers in China know that sex sells, so they use sex; but as strategically as possible to remain within the law.
Here below is a description of one of the legally not “pornographic” ads on my computer.
A description of porn as it's allowed to exist in China
We see a large breasted woman within the popup window who is feeling very cold. She’s holding her stomach trying to warm herself (leaving cleavage exposed, of course).
After a few seconds of watching her suffer you, the viewer, are offered a cape that you can click and drag over to drape on her. The video even shows you a scenario of what were to happen if you did.
She becomes extremely happy and wraps (almost) everything up and becomes warm. Suddenly the ad fills with other cold women who need your help. They need you to buy them capes that will also cover their bodies, will you be good enough to save them? Will you be their rescuer?
Each ad is more creative than the other. Each features (either real or anime) large-breasted women that are always in trouble.
(Usually they’re either large breasted, or barely legal). The younger they look, the more likely they are to be anime.
They’re not allowed to be naked, but they’re as close to naked as they can be. There are never any men in these scenario’s because you’re the man.
It’s just you and your credit card that have been tasked with the mission of helping them in whatever situation has befallen them.
Another style of ad that I see are shocking “news” stories that attempt to be clicked through pure shock value alone.
For example, if it’s a company trying to sell home security, the pop-up might be a video of a flimsy door being kicked in. The perpetrator then strolls right over to the bed and with one swing of his axe, decapitates the woman sleeping in the bed.
It’s shot in such a way that its disturbing and looks plausibly real. Often they’re painted as real-life news stories from an area near you and you’re encouraged to click to learn more.
During everyday life I’ve grown completely accustomed to just closing popups every hour or so while at work.
But if I’m giving a presentation to twelfth graders, or even worse, showing a video to kindergarteners; a woman’s head being cut off is a rude way to unintentionally traumatise the room.
What can we learn?
I guess the moral of the story is that you should pay for your software and download it from a reputable source. You never know what kind of upsetting imagery you’re inadvertently about to sit through.
Another point would be for China to legalise porn so that marketers lose their power when crafting these ads. I see so much of what I call pseudo-porn everywhere.
This is porn where you know exactly what the intention was, but the law was standing in their way.
If porn were legalised, the advertisers peddling pseudo-porn wouldn’t get any clicks from thousands of porn-starved consumers. I’d argue that pseudo-porn is a lot worse than real porn.
Real porn needs to be hidden behind Google’s incognito mode. (Or Weibo’s “Government’s Gotcha!” Mode).
However, pseudo-porn can be 8 feet high and on the window of a book shop. I say legalise porn and take away its power. Plus it would make Mr Consumer’s life a lot better.
We don’t have any public drunkenness problems in Shanghai, partially because there isn’t an enforced legal drinking age. Drinking isn’t considered cool by teenagers here, because its not illegal for them to drink. Because of this, I see a lot less teenagers actually drinking than I see back home in Australia.
So let’s legalise porn and spend money cracking down on pop-up viruses. Cold, large breasted women should be searched for, not stumbled across.
And remember, pay for your computer programs and download them from a reputable source. These programs started in China but have migrated all across the world.