You’ll never believe how emotionally manipulative clickbait can be! Read on for a breakdown of the top 5 (or something) most annoying and arguably harmful ways that audiences can be exploited for that sweet, sweet click.

Scrolling through the front page of YouTube, it seems that my screen is covered with shiny, flashing, tantalizing fishing lures. Clickbait is most known in relation to journalism, but video creators aren’t above using attention-grabbing tactics to draw viewers in. The most pure form of clickbait can be found in those ads that pop up when someone (not me) tries to illegally stream a tv show.

Titillating pictures! Illuminati-level use of numbers! ALL CAPS!!!! These ads exist solely to draw your attention, and then you click on them, and then Putin gets your bank info and you still don’t know that one weird anti-aging trick a local mom discovered.

A Working Definition

Nilay Patel from The Verge defines clickbait as “a promise of value that isn’t met,” meaning the reader’s expectations are higher than what the media truly contains. Like a fishing lure, the clickbait uses a false premise to draw you in. I would add that clickbait entails an inherently negative experience, like being a fish with a hook through the jaw. Cats are popular, and there’s attention-grabbing videos involving cute cats having a nice time, but watching that will doubtlessly make you feel better than watching the following videos.

I’m not suggesting that content creators who employ clickbait techniques want to disembowel you for a fillet. Probably. I would argue that the videos I discuss do deliver on the promise of value, in that they are just as awkward or bigoted as the thumbnail says they are. In essence, clickbait is media that relies on some form of bias to grab attention, combined with more obvious ploys.


A Brazilian study in 2015 found that articles with “an extreme sentiment” in the headline were clicked on more often than “neutral” articles. Specifically, articles containing the most “negative news” were read more than articles with positive or neutral news. This is why so many YouTube titles are EXTREMELY NEGATIVE! And usually in all capital letters, so even if the words themselves don’t intrigue you, the presentation will draw you in. Exclamation marks also serve as flags, and question marks automatically draw the reader in. The language itself tends to posit the creator as having valuable, life-saving knowledge that the reader doesn’t have access to, prompting interest while boosting the authority of the creator.


Even before you read the title, you’ll see the thumbnail. There are often layers of emoji stickers and primary colors that typically fall under two categories: sex or fear.

A fun combo!

It’s very common to see women’s bodies displayed in the thumbnail, to attract a presumably male audience. The PG version of this would be using a popular female celebrity to draw attention to the video. The psychology is pretty simple here: she’s hot, click on the video to see her be hot.

Fear can present itself in blunt ways: scary clown, blood, got it.

But creators can also use institutionalized fear to attract viewers. There’s a whole genre of prank videos where white guys go out on the street and “pretend” to call black people the n-word (discussed further by Nathan Zed here). These videos rely on the assumption that black people are scary and violent, and the racism is further revealed by the creator’s tags.


Tags are used to make finding videos easier by relating them to other content and optimizing the search engine results. If I Google “cats dressed as cupcakes”, that is exactly what pops up. I’ve noticed two tactics heavily used by clickbait creators to maximize their reach. They tag their videos with the names of more popular subjects, like other creators (using Shane Dawson, specifically, is another tasty can of worms) or even news events.

Or, they tag their videos so that people who would be outraged by the content can find it more easily to argue about it and thus generate ad revenue. For instance, Nicole Arbour tags her rants with actual genres, alongside a clever variety of slurs. For her “Dear Black People” video, she tagged it as “Black (Ethnicity)” and “Caribbean (Region)”, so people who presumably have a positive interest in those subjects would find her video. She did the same with “Dear Fat People”, tagging the video as “Nutrition (Medical Specialty)”, an objective lie. Remember, even hate-watching generates ad revenue!

Of course, we all want people to watch the videos we make. But there’s a difference between honest content and content especially designed to manipulate. These tactics range from being irritating to actively harmful, and creators can definitely reach viewers without using cheap tricks. Put down the lure! Watch a cat video!

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