Soon, Gmail users who have enabled the recently introduced tabbed inbox format can expect to see ads in their inboxes, looking like other email messages rather than graphically distinct page elements. The ads, called Gmail Sponsored Promotions, show up in the Promotions tab of the tabbed Gmail inbox, along with other promotion-oriented messages.
The similarity of these ads to email messages is cosmetic rather than functional, however. Though they look like regular unopened email messages, apart from a small "Ad" label and subtle shading, they are not email messages from a technical perspective. Thus, they cannot be handled by writing a Gmail filter, do not pass through email servers or spam filters, and probably do not meet the regulatory definition of unsolicited commercial email or spam.
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The ads also are not subject to Gmail's settings for handling external content. Gmail provides users two options for handling email content in its Settings: 1) Always display external content (such as images) sent by trusted senders; and 2) Ask before displaying external content. If the user chooses not to display external content by default — an option favored by privacy and security advocates — Gmail Sponsored Promotions are nonetheless displayed. The ads are treated as trusted content.
Google considers Gmail Sponsored Promotions to be "a UI change," according to a company spokesperson, who declined to speculate about how regulators might view the ads.
A spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission said the agency was unable to comment specifically about Gmail's latest ad format, but noted that as a rule, advertisements should be identifiable as such no matter where they appear.
Yet, these ads are unlike traditional Google-supplied banner ads or text ads: They can be shared, via email. "It's a new type of ad which you can forward to a friend, or star to save it to your inbox," Google explains in a sidebar note that appears when you click on an ad in the new format. "Forward," however, is something of a misnomer since the forward button creates a new email message as a container for the ad rather than redirecting a previously stored email.
The ads do not count against Gmail message quotas and copies of the ads are not retained on Google's IMAP servers unless forwarded.
Google has been looking for ways to make more money from ads as mobile devices become more popular, a shift that has made advertising more of challenge. As its recent second-quarter earnings suggest, advertising that works on desktop computers doesn't work as well on mobile devices. So new strategies are necessary.
Avoiding these Gmail ads is easy enough for those so inclined. To do so, simply disable the Promotions tab. This will move messages presented in the tab to the Primary tab and prevent the display of Gmail Sponsored Promotion ads. Google users also can alter their advertising settings to opt out of targeted ads.
Gmail Sponsored Promotions remain in beta testing, but advertisers can request admission into the beta program by contacting their Google advertising representative.