To human pop-up ads: my brain is programmed to fear you

Ahh, summer in Toronto. Patio furniture. Summer concert festivals. Buskers. I do love it here this time of year.

If there’s one thing that I don’t love about summer in the city, however, it’s those cheerful volunteers, usually teens or 20-somethings, who stand at street corners and along major downtown routes wearing fleece sweater vests, carrying black, logoed binders and asking you if you “have a second to talk about (insert cause here) today?”

They’re human pop-up ads. And they drive me nuts.

I actually struggle with my dislike for these people. After all, they’re only doing their jobs. Plus, they are uniformly pleasant and friendly and they are always working on behalf of causes that, on some level, I have no trouble supporting, such as AIDS research or the Hospital for Sick Children or the World Wildlife Fund.

And yet, it takes great force of will to stay civil as I pass them (sometimes several times a day), smile through my teeth and politely decline their request for a few moments of my time. I feel like I’m being a jerk about it, but something about them just bugs the crap out of me.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out what it is.

This street-corner strategy is a kind of opt-out marketing – the type that presumes your participation and that you have to actively avoid. It’s like the old model of television advertising, where advertisers could assume that if they put a commercial on a screen that you were already watching, your inertia would keep you glued to that screen and you would likely consume the message. Sure, you could opt-out by getting up and making a sandwich, but chances are you probably wouldn’t. If nothing else, there are three commercial breaks every half-hour and how many sandwiches can you really eat?

But now that so much of the media we consume is on the internet or on-demand or on DVD (which makes it easier to pick and choose what you watch and when – advertising or otherwise), I’m starting to feel like I should really only have to pay attention to ads if I damn well feel like it. So when something forces its way into my field of view, the way commercials used to interrupt my television watching, it comes as something of a shock. I almost feel like the ad is being rude, like it’s invading my personal space.

And since consuming media has become so much more personal in a lot of ways, that invasion just feels that much more…well, invasive.

I’m starting to wonder if these changes in the way media is consumed have rewired my brain to switch into a kind of mild, xenophobic fight-or-flight response whenever anything tries to force its way in uninvited. That would certainly explain why my immediate reaction to pop-up ads – human or online – is to either flee or tell the ad in no uncertain terms to go do terrible things to itself. I don’t do it most of the time – but I want to.

So there you go, all you cheerful volunteers with binders and sweater vests – I apologize for my rudeness, but I assure you, it’s not your fault. You’re doing good work, but you are a human pop-up ad and my brain has been pre-programmed to fear you. There’s nothing I can do.


3 Comments so far
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Hey Ian — great post. I think a lot of forces have worked against advertising, forcing companies to turn to in-your-face methods like approaching you on the street. I think it’s only going to get worse as the public gets better at tuning it out.

One interesting thing I noticed is that here in Waterloo, many of those campaigners are paid staff working for a marketing company contracted by the non-profits. I had a talk with one of them as she tried to get donations from me. Nowadays some charities are outsourcing their donation drives, which sort of takes the charm out of it.

I mean, we have an elderly lady in our building who collects for the Cancer Society every month or two. That is what I always imagined these things being supported by. But it’s interesting to see non-profits taking up the route of in-your-face marketing. It’s only another example of how charities are businesses too, just with a mission.

Comment by Tim A

Are they paid? I had just assumed they were volunteers. Well that explains why they’re always dressed the same. And, you’re quite right, definitely takes away from the charm.

Comment by thenew20

My strategy with human pop ups has always been just to adjust my pace so that they are occupied with someone else and then walk by quickly. It works and I don’t have to fake civility.

Comment by Paige

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