Why Little Short Stories Are Popping Up in Google Ads All Over the Internet

Matchbook rolls out its latest round of mini tales

Photo: Ippei Naoi

Some Google ads are well written, but these are literature.

If you stumble upon a Google ad this week that doesn’t want to sell you anything, you might have just discovered Matchbook’s “Ad Stories.” The literary magazine just rolled out Volume 5 of its short stories posing as ads, which it places online through Google’s AdWords program. There are 10 new stories, which you can see scattered among Google search results and on the Matchbook website. (See them below as well.)

Brian Mihok, a fiction writer in New York who edits Matchbook with R.B. Pillay, explained to AdFreak how Ad Stories came about, what he looks for in submissions, and how Google feels about the whole thing.

AdFreak: Where did the idea for Ad Stories come from?
Brian Mihok: In 2011 I was trying to think of projects for my literary journal that would allow us to publish stories in some unorthodox or untried way. I was just doing a regular internet search at one point and saw some Google ads and it struck me, what if those ads were tiny stories? The idea of subverting advertising as a way to distribute art that wasn’t selling anything excited me and my co-editor at the time.

Fast forward a few years and now Ad Stories are a once-a-year project for Matchbook, which is currently edited by R.B Pillay and myself. We ask people to send us submissions of stories that fit within the tight confines of Google’s AdWords program. We like pieces that feel layered and complete. There’s something the best ad stories do that includes as much in the text as they omit. The really good ones point to bigger, complex narratives and emotional relationships without having the space to show them. It’s not easy to do. We try to avoid jokes, one liners, etc. We want stories, and we’re willing to accept that “story” may be redefined in the course of writing an ad story.

How does Google feel about the project?
We’re definitely operating Ad Stories on an “Ask for forgiveness, not permission” philosophy. We’re prepared at any moment for Google to pull the plug and tell us move on. So far, though, they really haven’t stood in the way. It’s been six years now. During our first Ad Stories run, I was even contacted by one of the AdWords customer service people to suggest how to better use keywords for people to find our “ads.” She said, “I see what you’re doing here, and maybe you might want to do such and such to get a better reach.” I thought that was pretty great, actually.

Of course, that was one person, and we’re aware that the next person could flag us for some unintended use of AdWords and shut it down. Several times stories have gotten flagged for “potentially offensive content” by the algorithm, but when the stories were then sent to a person to judge, they’ve been approved—maybe all but one, and then we worked with the author to revise the story so it would work.

How does your ad buying work? Do you have a set budget to run the stories for a certain time, at a certain reach?
Buying the ads works on a cost-per-click basis. Essentially you only pay for an ad when it is clicked on. So that allows for an ad to be potentially displayed thousands of times before you hit your budget. We set a daily budget, and when that gets reached, the ads cease appearing on the network until the next day. That prevents us from accidentally owing Google problematic amounts of money.

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