Skip to main content

That animated GIF you’re sharing could be an ad in disguise

gif tenor bad 2017 ads
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Animated GIFs (Graphics Interface Format) are now 30 years old, and they are everywhere — we constantly use them to express feelings or joke around with friends, family, or even coworkers. They’re so ubiquitous on the internet that you can now easily find and share GIFs in all the popular messaging apps, like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, keyboards like Google’s Gboard, and even on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. They’re so popular, in fact, that a new trend is brewing. More and more of the GIFs you see are actually ads in disguise.

Before you get your pitchfork out in protest that advertising is invading your blessed animated memes, you should know this: you’ve probably already sent a GIF ad. We’re not talking about a banner ad-like GIFs of a flashing Starbucks logo, but something a little more subtle, fun, and relatable. Like the GIF below:

See the faded Domino’s logo at the bottom? It’s not going to stop most pizza-lovers from sharing the GIF in a conversation, and GIF search engines are getting paid by companies like Domino’s for pushing their brands. It’s a revenue model the makers behind GIF Keyboard are pursuing.

The secret search engine where GIFs are born

Have you ever wondered where GIFs come from? Most of us access them by way of GIF search engines — one of which is a company called Tenor (formerly Riffsy). You may have heard of Tenor’s first app, GIF Keyboard, and you have more than likely used its search engine, which powers GIF searches in apps like Google’s Gboard, Duck Duck Go, Kika, and TouchPal. They’re also a main contributor to GIF searches in services like iMessage, Slack, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, and Facebook (soon).

“Tenor … has become a search engine for people’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions.”

People use Tenor’s GIF search engine about 200 million times per day, and Tenor is looking to monetize its business by tapping into search terms, which perhaps unsurprisingly, are completely different from the types of terms you would throw into a search engine like Google.

“Ninety percent of our volume is people typing in emotions — things like “happy,” “sad,” “smile,” “smirk,” — versus Google, where it’s very intent driven; where I want to understand ‘how tall is this glass,’ or ‘how big is this iPad,'” David McIntosh, Tenor’s founder and CEO, told Digital Trends. “People are typing in things like “ugh,” or “smiling” — people don’t go to Google and type in “smiling.” Tenor, more than 200 million times per day, has become a search engine for people’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions.”

The fact that Google, the world’s biggest search company, decided to use Tenor’s API (Application Program Interface) over Google’s own Image Search to power GIFs in its keyboard app Gboard makes it clear there’s value in looking at these search terms. About 60 percent of Tenor’s volume is raw emotion, McIntosh said. Another 30 percent are emotions plus a term, like Minions (from Despicable Me). The final 10 percent comes from people searching for a specific GIF. The goal is to map these terms — these emotions — with advertisers.

For example, if you type in “good morning” into a Tenor-supported GIF search, you may or may not see Starbucks-branded content. Starbucks-related GIFs can come from terms such as happy holidays, coffee, good morning, cheers, and more. But if the coffee company wants to make sure Starbucks-branded GIFs are your first results, it can pay Tenor to map its content to “good morning,” putting those results at the beginning. The model is cost per share, so advertisers like Starbucks will only have to pay Tenor when someone shares one of these branded GIFs.

Will this ruin GIFs?

Will people get skittish about sharing ads? Probably not, Gfycat CEO Richard Rabbat told Digital Trends, because we’ve been doing it for quite some time.

“Advertisers are putting budgets behind [GIFs] now, because they see not only the fact that people are excited they can share it on messaging or social, but they’re using it to be a part of the conversation,” Rabbat said.

Tenor has been mapping branded content with GIFs since it launched GIF Keyboard. Last year, for example, the company worked with Domino’s to map branded pizza GIFs to terms like “party,” “celebrate,” and “love,” and it ended up driving more than 40 million views in less than six weeks. The same applies for new movies and TV series, as Tenor has partnerships with a variety of studios. The GIF company is starting to officially monetize the feature with select advertisers in its own app first, and it will then later expand it to wherever its API is used.

“People love showing this content as long as it maps to a particular emotion,” McIntosh said.

But for this model to work, the branded GIFs have to be high quality. Rabbat, who spent some time at Google long before launching GIF search engine Gfycat, said employees at Google never thought people would click on ads ahead of search results.

“When we looked at Search, for example, people were like, ‘how are you going to put an ad ahead of what people are really looking for?’ But then over time, the ad relevance became so good that people actually found a lot of value out of the ad itself,” he said. “I think that’s the bar we have to cross so we don’t deliver random advertised content. It has to be relevant, it has to be engaging.”

The folks at Giphy, Tenor’s main competitor, think people will share these types of GIFs no matter what because it’s usually representative of what they do in real life.

“GIFs are cultural soundbites,” Jason Stein, director of Business Development at Giphy, told Digital Trends. “All the GIFs on Giphy make up an entire language of culture that we use to express ourselves digitally in the same way that the places we frequent and the brands we wear help express ourselves in real life. Sharing a Starbucks GIF is the same choice as when someone walks into a [Starbucks] to grab a coffee on their way to work.”

Stein hit home the importance of creating high quality GIFs. Giphy, for example, launched Giphy Studios — a production studio made up of people who know how to “make GIFs look great.”

“It’s all great content, and that’s all anyone wants,” he said. “So if a partner is creative, understands the space, and makes GIFs that users want, there’s no “weirdness” at all.”

Editors' Recommendations

Julian Chokkattu
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Julian is the mobile and wearables editor at Digital Trends, covering smartphones, fitness trackers, smartwatches, and more…
You’re all wrong — 60Hz on the iPhone is fine
A video playing on the Apple iPhone 15 Plus.

The iPhone 15 launch feels like it was just yesterday, but rumors of the iPhone 16 are already floating around. Some of the most recent have been bad news for enthusiasts, as it seems Apple is happy to stick with one of the more controversial elements of the iPhone 15: a 60Hz refresh rate.

While some people have dismissed this as tech-bubble griping that no one in the actual public cares about, there's definitely some fire to go with all this smoke. A 60Hz refresh rate, while not criminal, is starting to look increasingly comical on Apple's $799-plus smartphones. After all, almost every single Android smartphone priced at more than $500 now has a 90Hz or even 120Hz display — so why are two of Apple's best smartphones languishing with objectively worse screen tech?

Read more
I’ve been using Android 14 for months. Here’s why you’re going to love it
Official artwork for Android 14 on a Pixel 7a.

A new generation of Pixel phones is hitting the shelves, and they boast the latest version of Android 14 out of the box. I’ve been testing the latest version of Google’s mobile OS since the first beta builds arrived, and so far, the experience has been pretty smooth sailing.

Surprisingly, Android 14 doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel in terms of user-facing changes. The UI looks identical to Android 13, and there aren’t many changes that would qualify as a must-have reimagination of the phone experience. But there are a few updates that make it worth the brief “wow” journey of digging into a yearly OS upgrade.
Android 14 has a cool trick for your computer

Read more
Sorry, but you’re all wrong — any Pixel 7 is a great buy
The Google Pixel 7a in a person's hand.

I bet you’re worried about buying a Google Pixel 7, Pixel 7 Pro, or Pixel 7a, aren’t you? There are some nasty horror stories about terrible reliability out there, and they’re enough to send many potential buyers screaming into the waiting arms of a Samsung Galaxy S23 or an iPhone 14 Pro, each ready to provide comfort with their solid dependability.

Well, at the risk of sounding smug, I’ve used all three and had no serious issues with any of them. And how’s this for a daring follow-up statement: When someone asks me if any are worth buying, I’ll say yes. You heard me right, I think you should buy a Pixel 7 phone.

Read more