TikTok Shop is annoying on purpose

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Since TikTok Shop’s US launch last fall, users have been complaining that they’re seeing too many product ads. | Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

If you’ve opened TikTok recently, you’ve probably seen an ad for a product sold in the new, in-app TikTok Shop, which made its official US launch last September. In fact, you’ve probably seen the same TikTok Shop ad multiple times. With a sigh, you swipe away, but a few swipes later, there it is again.

Judging by the complaints strewn over the internet about the ads, people are not fans of so much advertising disrupting the flow of endless scrolling. In a series of unscientific tests using my TikTok account, I saw roughly five or six ads for every 20 videos. Not all of them were ads for products in the shop — about half the time they were good old fashioned sponsored ads from big brands such as Sephora or Amazon, distinguishable by their professional polish and lack of an orange shopping cart icon at the bottom that directs users to the product page.

The gripes about TikTok Shop ads don’t just center on how many there are (scrolling through your Instagram Stories feed, you’re likely to see plenty of ads, too) but how often you’ll come across the same one. The product the TikTok algorithm seems to have chosen for me is this collagen peptide powder — specifically via this ad from a youthful-looking woman claiming she’s nearly 50 years old. I see it so frequently that it feels like I’m stuck in a social media ad prison. Why are these TikTok ads suddenly stalking us all?

Pushy advertising is crucial to the TikTok Shop business model

One thing is certain: TikTok is definitely paying close attention to how the frequency of Shop ads is annoying users and affecting traffic. TikTok declined to share details with Vox on how Shop ads were served, including who saw which ads and how frequently they appeared.

Rui Ma, a tech analyst at Tech Buzz China, says there are reports that internally at Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, they believe that 8 to 10 percent of the app experience can be commerce-related content before users start leaving, “supposedly based on a combination of mostly hard data and some management intuition,” she tells Vox over email.

“I would personally be surprised if TikTok is not using this number as a guide to start,” Ma says, “but it’s possible that Chinese people are more tolerant of ads and this number could be too high for Americans.” 

Another sure thing is that social media is an ad business. Meta, which owns both Facebook and Instagram, made $134.9 billion in revenue last year, of which $131.9 billion came from advertising. TikTok, which is much newer to the US and has a smaller user base than Meta’s apps, made about $8.75 billion in ad revenue last year in addition to the commission it makes on each Shop sale.

Crucially, if TikTok Shop really takes off in the US, TikTok would sit on a treasure trove of consumer data amassed directly from users.

All the major social media companies serve their users targeted ads. Some of that data is collected by apps based on what you put in your profile, or your interactions and behaviors on the app. Until recently, they could pretty easily see which other websites you visited or which apps you used, but that got a lot harder when Apple started requiring all apps on iOS to ask if users wanted to opt in to app tracking. Most people say no, which has done a number on effective ad targeting, which in turn means that brands bought fewer ads. Facebook said it lost about $10 billion in ad revenue the year after Apple’s privacy feature rolled out.

With a built-in e-commerce marketplace, TikTok can snatch first-party data on users’ shopping habits in-house — no need to track them across the internet. “TikTok Shop is a huge ad measurement play,” says Garrett Johnson, a marketing professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. 

TikTok’s ad strategy isn’t exactly subtle, but Juozas Kaziukėnas, an e-commerce expert who founded the business intelligence firm Marketplace Pulse, argues it’s the reason TikTok Shop has been succeeding. “I think platforms like Facebook and Instagram were never willing to overtake users’ feeds with that [shopping] content just to kick-start the platform,” he says.

TikTok is willing, perhaps because it’s already known as the place where people are looking for viral products to scoop up. An eMarketer survey from last February, before TikTok Shop launched, found that the top places American consumers started their online product searches were on Amazon and Walmart — but TikTok made third place.

Could TikTok Shop’s aggressive, repetitive ads backfire?

The aggressiveness of the TikTok Shop ads could potentially be temporary, as the company monitors how many users they lose or whether time spent on the app declines. But it also might not be — the data could show TikTok that, for all the complaints, people are still as addicted to the app as ever. 

Ma, the tech analyst, doesn’t think the repetition is intentional, but “probably more of an ad inventory issue,” she says. If there aren’t a great number of Shop advertisers yet, that could impact how often you see the same ad, or, if the number of people in a target audience is fairly small, that might make repetition more likely, too. 

Yet the barrage of ads is perhaps particularly hard-hitting for TikTok because the app was long applauded for its supposedly magical For You page, a feed that felt bespoke to each user’s interests and quirks. While Facebook is stereotyped as the place for your boomer parents to post, Instagram for browsing your friends’ vacation pics, and X (formerly Twitter) for news and unhinged discourse, TikTok fans often expressed a sense of pride in having meticulously trained their For You feed to show novel, entertaining content. The TikTok Shop ads ruin this illusion

“I think someone called this the enshittification of social platforms,” says Kaziukėnas, referring to the term coined by journalist Cory Doctorow describing the tendency of online platforms to become worse in quality over time.

The frequency and doggedness of TikTok Shop ads point to a truth inherent to almost all social media platforms as they mature: The apps are increasingly just a place to stumble upon things to buy. 

This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.