Ads in Android's Notifications Pane: Why It's Happening and What to Do

By Ryan Whitwam

What you can do to stop ads being pushed to your phone's notification window.

We speak often, and with great enthusiasm about the benefits of Android’s open nature. It has brought us a quite a few interesting and innovative applications and services. But there is an insidious shadow on the horizon that is also born of Android’s openness. Your notification bar could soon be home to more ads than Internet Explorer 5, circa 1999.

Companies like AirPush and SlingLabs are offering cash-strapped developers high payouts to put intrusive ads in their apps. These ads pop up in the notification area like any other notification. They can even appear when you aren’t using the originating app. Let’s talk about how this works, why it’s happening, and what you can do.

Prepare the Rage

An AirPush ad

There you are just using your phone, minding your own business. Maybe the device is even in your pocket. You get a notification, which shows up in Android’s awesome pull-down notification tray. You take a peek, only to find something unfamiliar. Without thinking, you tap on it, and it turns out to be an ad. Ouch.

This is the strategy of some new ad firms, and it relies on a reflex most long-time Android users have. When a notification pops up, you want to tap on it to see what sort of information it holds. These ads are not immediately recognizable as an ad, and you may even think an app is legitimately trying to tell you something. This is probably why SlingLabs is touting a “40% click-through rate”. It’s because people are confused.

What’s more, you can’t necessarily tell what app is spawning the ad. All you will see is the ad itself. If you update a batch of apps, and one has added AirPush, you might have trouble finding the offending app; a point which AirPush reps don’t like to concede.

Most of these ads will call out to a referral URL that routes you back to the ad page, or Market app being advertised. If you look closely at that URL, you may see the developer or package name, which is a clue to the app spawning the ad.

Developers have the option of setting how often ads are pushed, and to which devices. Most developers that have used these services only have them set to ping ad servers once every few days. More than that and users will almost universally investigate and uninstall.

Why are devs using notification ads?

Ad-supported developers can use the traditional in-app Google ads, or they can get higher payments for using the push ads from AirPush and SlingLabs. AirPush claims an average CPM (cost per thousand impressions) of $3.18, which can be a real chunk of change with thousands of users seeing ads over and over. Traditional banner ads only reach a small proportion of so-called “active users”, and command a CPM of less than $0.50 most times.

In some ways, this is just a consequence of Android’s nature. Even though Android is not entirely open, it is the most open of the mobile platforms. It has attracted a certain type of user and developer. Many people involved in Android are drawn by the open aspects of it. That means a lot of free, open source apps. Also, a lot of users that don’t particularly want to pay for apps because of all those free apps.

We ask you, what would you do as a developer desperate to monetize an app? Maybe you wouldn’t resort to this kind of advertising, but you might think about it. We absolutely believe developers should be able to make money. The should be payed by the community in return for their hard work. But these notification ads feel sneaky and supremely annoying to us.

What you can do

If you find yourself receiving notification ads, your first order of business is to track down the apps serving you the ads. If you can’t figure it out from the URL, turn to the community. In the case of AirPush, there is a free app called AirPush Detector that finds apps on your phone that have Airpush enabled. SlingLabs is still new, so users have yet to tackle this ad platform, but rest assured you will be able to sort out who is sending you ads when the time comes.

So let’s say you have tracked down the app that has given into the dark side. We suggest you contact the developer first. Many apps that make use of this system are from small development houses, or it might just be one guy in his basement. Explain that you find notification ads intrusive and are considering removing the app because of it (you won’t be alone).

Register your displeasure, but be polite. Remember that developers make our phones better, and they’re just people trying to make a living. When the developer of APNdroid added AirPush ads, the community complained. Some users might have overreacted a bit, but the dev got the idea. He quickly ditched AirPush.

If this is an app you use frequently, check for a paid version. This is the best way to support a developer and you’ll get away from the ads. We much prefer to have a better experience while also paying the dev directly. It is still acceptable to let the developer know you are not okay with the notification ads, though.

If you don’t want ads in your notification area, AirPush offers an opt-out procedure which they claim is easy to use. You can get a special AirPush app that blocks the ads, or blacklist your IMEI number on the AirPush site. They say this opt out link is in every ad, but we don’t know how that can be. The ad links to the content being advertised; that’s how it works. Still, there is a way to ditch the AirPush ads, which is more than we can say for SlingLabs.

AirPush Opt-out

The notification pane is for notifications, not ads. It’s a system for bringing important content to your attention. This space should not be treated as prime real estate to be exploited as advertisers see fit.

No one is going to convince us that this mode of making money is a good one for developers. With the Android Market exploding, there are alternatives to most apps. Annoyed users will remove an app and search for greener pastures. A short term gain won’t be worth the ire a developer earns from the community.

Don’t let anyone get away with this. Make sure you call out intolerable ads that take up your notification space. Only by maintaining this position will we ensure that the likes of Airpush and SlingLabs don’t become commonplace. If you think notification ads are acceptable, we’d really like to hear your reasoning.