Sunday Debate: Are Push Notification Ads Ever Okay?

Sunday Debate: Are Push Notification Ads Ever Okay?

Join us in a fun Sunday Debate on the problems with push notification ads (and how you would fix them). Come with your opinions and feel free to read some of our thoughts, then pick your side or play devil’s advocate to get your voice heard and engage in friendly discussion. You can read our food-for-thought or jump straight into the fray below!

Samsung is the latest OEM to adopt push notification ads on their devices, and the consumer uproar is once again echoing across the net. However, the issue is larger than a simple conflict between consumers and phone makers. Businesses of all stripes – from OEMs to carriers to minor app developers and soon to web devs making standard mobile websites – are sneaking ads into previously pristine parts of our phones. But how are these latest versions even legal under Google’s developer policy? More importantly, what makes them so distasteful to the non-Googlers out there – the smartphone users and developers like us? These push notifications are just ordinary ads, after all, and we as a community go out of our way to find ad-supported “free” versions of apps whenever possible.

For this Sunday Debate, we’re going to tackle the tricky issue of advertising and determine once and for all where we draw the line of acceptability, and why. In many ways, Forums members and readers here have a greater stake than any other group when it comes to mobile ads. We’re the developers, tech enthusiasts, and Android evangelists of the world, and therefore have an obligation to help shape technology’s future. It’s high time we collectively built a set of best practices and rose to that challenge, starting with push notifications.

The story of advertising is as old as time, but the latest chapter in its development started two years ago this month when Google amended its Play Developer Program Policy to prohibit ads in the status bar. Here’s the relevant addition, emphasis ours.

Apps and their ads must not display advertisements through system level notifications on the user’s device, unless the notifications derive from an integral feature provided by the installed app (e.g., an airline app that notifies users of special deals, or a game that notifies users of in-game promotions).

The notion of messages that are integral to an app’s stated purpose is central to our discussion of Samsung, HTC, Sony, and the various third parties now filling up our “system level notifications” with spam, so let’s dive right in.


samsung push serviceTwo days ago, on the heels of Samsung’s S6 Edge+ launch, the company hatched the bright idea to peddle its new phone through push notifications. The ads arrived by way of the Samsung Push Service, a helper app tasked with adding unread counts to app icons and managing messages from Samsung’s various self-titled tools like Link, Wallet, and Pay. Is knowing that Samsung has a new phone on the market derived from an integral feature provided by Samsung Push Service? Maybe. Google’s own examples talk about notifications of special deals and promotions, and this app’s scope is roughly the size of Samsung itself. If you’re able to keep a straight face while pronouncing that a new $800 phone to replace your existing Note 4 is a “special deal,” then I suppose the ad holds up against the Play policies. This doesn’t mean we have to like it.

peel smart remoteSeparately, the Peel Smart Remote is a third-party app bundled with newer Galaxies, and it’s in hot water alongside Samsung for pushing unwanted ads. Are you interested in the Bravo series Million Dollar Listing? If you own a Samsung phone, then Peel, Land Rover, and your OEM think the answer is “yes.” Is TV series promotion related to Peel’s “live TV and content discovery” service? Absolutely. But again, we don’t have to like that our stock phones are promoting Bravo.


htc-sense-homeEarlier this month, HTC made good on its announcement of BlinkFeed ads by feeding the new Fantastic Four film poster to owners of the One M7, M8, and M9. The ad itself was disguised as a recommended theme, thus bypassing Google’s restrictions, but users quickly took to social media decrying HTC just the same. It didn’t help that the movie in question was even more poorly received than the M9.


Xperia LoungeThe Xperia Lounge app, a pre-installed media app on Xperia phones, drew ire from some users by sending out notifications about movie posters. Again, these posters were delivered as custom themes to install, but they were met with a tempered version of the HTC response above. Opt-outs helped, even if some complained about needing to accept the Lounge EULA in order to find the right setting.


The OEMs highlighted here are far from the only culprits; they’re simply the most visible from recent memory. The fact is that most apps use push notifications for a variety of purposes. They help increase engagement, boost sales, add a bit of ad revenue, and convey important alerts like messaging pings and tornado warnings. Most fall within the letter of the (Play Store) law, but a few are less than appreciated. Here are a some extra examples spanning the gamut from benign to enraging.

  • New message/email/IM notifications
  • Breaking news alerts
  • Top stories of the day/week/month summaries
  • “We miss you; come back to your neglected app” pleas
  • Deal alerts. A new theme, wallpaper, phone, or car is waiting for you!

Starter Questions: Why Do You Hate Push Notifications (And Ads)?

Advertisements are nothing new, and in the android community we generally prefer to suffer through a few banners and popups than pay for a premium app. Why, then, is the notification drawer considered sacrosanct? What’s different about push notifications, and do our feelings about them change if we tweak a variable or two?

Content of the notification – “Please buy this thing from our advertising partner” is miles apart from a shopping app telling you about a sales event. Which ones do you click, which do you ignore, and which cause you to fly into a fit of rage? Based on media backlash, it’s safe to say people dislike movie promos and $800 phone adverts, but why, and what are the limits?

Opt-In vs Opt-Out – Are you more accepting of ads if you have to opt in? Does the presence of an opt-out take away the sting?

Granular Notification Settings – Android allows for muting app notifications, but it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Is this a problem? What about when using apps that deliver useful notifications (like new message alerts) alongside undesirable ones? How can app makers and Google change notification options to ease the pain (if it exists)?

Compensation – The Amazon Fire Phone is subsidized by lockscreen ads, and apps like Slidejoy bring the premise to Android at large. Banner ads and popups regular turn paid apps free. Would being somehow compensated for push notification ads make them worth the trouble? What sort of payment would you need?

Where do you draw the line on acceptable push notifications? Duke it out in the comments!

About author

Chris Gilliam
Chris Gilliam

Chris Gilliam is a front-end web developer with a background in physics, but his passions lie with open ecosystems, Android, linked data, and the unfettered exchange of ideas. He dreams of a semantic future in which knowledge organically evolves within hives of creativity like the XDA forums, and works, tinkers, and writes to help make that future possible.