That time I got an ad for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in a meditation app

This isn’t a post about meditation – not really, it’s about online advertising – but it starts with meditation.

The part that is about meditation

I’ve been trying to learn to mediate/practice meditation/begin meditating. Whatever you call developing mindfulness. It hasn’t been going too well, which people tell me means that it’s going very well. OK, then.

One of the issues I have is that I thrive on reading things, rather than listening to them. True, I used to have a long commute and lived on podcasts, but other than that I’d always rather read something than, well basically, do anything else.

There are people who tell me I should sit with the discomfort of listening because that’s part of the package. And I trust them. But I don’t think many people understand my relationship with reading, so I also started looking for apps that have a daily written meditation I could read.

I stumbled on this set of apps from a company called dailypedia. It’s cool, they have a daily quote from people ranging from Gandhi to Steve Jobs. I chose four apps – one is quotes from Mother Teresa, one is quotes from Marianne Williamson, one called “Living Spiritual Masters” and one called “Life Wisdom.”

With me so far?

The part that’s not about meditation

I open the first app, and an ad pops up. It’s for Amazon. I don’t think about it. The next app I open shows an ad. It’s for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

The koan

Why, I mean WHY ON EARTH, would I sign into a meditation app and get a Call of Duty ad? Is there any reason that there would be a correlation between people who download meditation apps and people who play first-person-shooter video games?

How online advertising works for complete beginners because I’m not qualified to tell anyone else

Now I know a little about online advertising. That’s not sarcastic – I literally know only a little about it – enough to place Google Ads, manage a budget, and somewhat evaluate how it’s doing. I hope to get better at this in the coming year, but that’s where I am right now.

I thought about it. First off, most ad networks (companies like Google who place ads all over the web and mobile apps) use pay-per-click advertising. That is, you only pay for the ad if someone clicks on it. Just showing the ad doesn’t cost the advertiser (in this case Call of Duty) anything.

Next, I realized that usually when you create an ad, by default it’s shown all over the network you purchase it on – that is, all over the sites that have chosen to get revenue from that particular set of ads.

Now if you’re the app publisher, you want to maximize revenue. So you might start by accepting any kind of ad that the network wants to put in your app. Over time, you’ll whittle it down to the ones that people click on, not wasting real estate on un-clicked ads.

If you’re the publisher, you want as many people as possible to see your ad. So you might start by showing your ad everywhere. Over time, you’ll whittle it down to the places that you get clicks, avoiding places like meditation apps where the only clicks are accidental bleary-eyed mistakes by well-meaning consumers of the app just trying to get to their damn Mother Teresa quote because it’s only January 5th and they’ve already forgotten twice this year.

It’s even possible (and let me say that I think this is unlikely) that there is a large number of people downloading meditation apps because violent video games have made them feel unsettled, and it’s a major untapped market. Call of Duty doesn’t pay unless someone clicks, so they’ll advertise everywhere. The publisher wants to maximize revenue, so they’ll see what works.

And if you’re the ad network, you just want as many ads in as many places as possible to start, then you want the publishers and the advertisers to tweak as necessary for their needs.


Where this breaks down is that the app has just totally lost me as a customer. I’m new at meditating but I’m also self-actualized enough already (imagine that!) to know that if I am trying to be mindful by reading a quote by Mother Teresa every morning, seeing a video clip of Call of Duty feels Wrong.

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