Special Hell 5: Ad-diction

Remembering the time Google enabled me to steal from little old ladies

Adrian Hanft
5 min readMar 5, 2016


Today I am going to tell you the story of how I used my web design skills to steal from little old ladies and feed my ad-diction. This is part five of my Special Hell for Designers Like Me series. Check out part 1, 2, 3, and 4 if you missed them. Today let’s start with a video clip where, unlike my story, a little old lady gets the last word.

Funny stuff. Now for my tale of deception…

It never would have happened if it wasn’t for advertising. Ad revenue is a horrible addiction. George Orwell described advertising as “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” He was right. I heard the rattle and came running.

I got hooked on the sauce in the early days of blogging. The drug seemed harmless enough. Inject a little code in your sidebar and feel the surge of income. Cha-ching.

One taste is never enough. You crave more clicks. What starts as tiny banner ads grows to massive skyscrapers. Desperate for another hit you look for any way to boost your page views. Eventually you are willing to let the advertisers hijack your site completely, pumping sponsored zombie copy directly into the pages of your website.

I didn’t know I was going to rob little old ladies when I woke up that morning. It just happened.

I was working for a small full-service advertising agency. The term “full-service” is code for “make a sale first, then figure out how to do the work after the ink dries.”

Having sold a website, my boss started looking for someone to build the thing. I had a blog, so I was the most qualified for the job. Obviously.

Our new client was a small company located deep in rural Nebraska. I managed to launch the website remotely, but the final step involved training the client to use the content management system. At this point in my career I had very little interaction with clients. They kept me in a back room cranking out designs while account managers with people skills did the talking. But again, because I had a blog, I was the only one qualified to do the training.

Completely unequipped for client contact, I got in my car and drove half a day to sit with a team of well-intentioned, yet slightly intimidated older ladies who had been tasked with website maintenance.

To their credit, the women were quick learners. Somewhere between showing them how to edit pages and upload images an innocent question was asked.

“How do we add one of those search things?”

This is where I made my mistake. I knew that a Google-powered search box could be connected to an affiliate account. As an affiliate for Google Ads, you automatically earn revenue when users click on ads within the search results. Within minutes I had added a search box to their website that was connected to my affiliate ID. Those ladies, so innocent, were delighted to have their “very own search engine.”

I may have been an ad-dict, but I wasn’t a monster. I promise you I told the ladies how it worked. I even showed them where to go to create their own Google account and how to swap out the code for the search box. I expected them to make this change quickly so they could capture the revenue.

With the training completed, I drove home. The next week I checked in to see how the website maintenance was going. I reminded them about the search box and they assured me that they were going to swap it out.

Months passed with only trivial ad revenue. Ten cents here, two cents there. Then one day I saw a spike in ad revenue coming from the old ladies’ website. They must have started encouraging their customers to set the website as their home screen or something. What had started as nickels grew into dollars.

Now I was stuck in a moral dilemma. My options were:

a. Keep quiet and hope nobody finds out (hide my ad-diction)

b. Contact the ladies, force them to remove the search box, and offer to give them the money I had earned (quit cold turkey)

c. Tell my boss, hope he isn’t upset, and let him sort it out (check in to rehab)

I didn’t have the will to quit or the courage to admit my dependency. Eventually the old ladies’ search box came down and nobody ever questioned me about it. I didn’t get rich off the scam, but at that time in my life even an extra $25 a month was a nice bonus. Or maybe I am still making excuses for my actions, I am not sure.

This is how the downward spiral begins. First you add a small, tasteful ad to your art. The consumers of your art adapt to the tiny intrusion by ignoring it. You respond by increasing the invasiveness of your ad. Your customers respond with increased resistance. Meanwhile, the ad providers like Google decrease the payout you earn with each ever-rarer click. You are caught in ever-escalating arms race of corruption.

Eventually you sit in a pile of filth, surrounded by ad paraphernalia wondering why passersby avoid making eye contact. Your once-vibrant art has become a ghetto that, aside from occasional wrong turns from search engine tourists, nobody intentionally visits. Out of desperation you justify your transgressions, even the abuse of innocent old ladies. Welcome to hell.

It is tempting to believe that the only way to fund your art is by succumbing to ads. Don’t believe it. You don’t need that addiction in your life.

“Funding a civilization through advertising is like trying to get nutrition by connecting a tube from one’s anus to one’s mouth.” — Jaron Lanier

I disconnected the tube and I have been clean for a while now. It feels good. No, my art doesn’t make me rich. Today I take comfort in a belief that each ad-free creation I make is an attempt to honor the attention that I am hoping to retain. The reward isn’t financial support from a zombie corporation, it is the hard-earned loyalty of fans who might come back for more of my art.

Thanks for reading. If this is your first encounter with my crazy thoughts, there are at least 25 more strange ideas that might get you hooked on my writing. Big thanks for recommending and sharing my posts. I do my best to reciprocate your follows (@ade3) and tweets. Stay creative.



Adrian Hanft

Author of User Zero: Inside the Tool that is Reshaping Dystopia