During seven of the daily eight hours of screen time I spend on my phone, I’m probably clicking through Instagram Stories. In between the baking time lapses and tie-dying videos and other quarantine content, I’ve recently been noticing the same thing: ad breaks. These brief pauses in creators’ regular posts are bookended by title slides, and feature a commercial-like series of stills or videos in which the creator shows off a new gifted bar cart or clothing partnership with Nordstrom. Then, almost as soon as it started, it’s back to banana bread and virtual happy hours. 

The trend began last summer thanks to English DIY and interiors blogger Medina Grillo. Rather than attempt to interweave her sponsored content with her regular posts, she figured it was clearer both for herself and her over 160,000 Instagram followers to make them totally separate—quite literally writing “AD BREAK” and “END AD BREAK” and the beginning and end of the stories. 

“One of the biggest things for me has always been to let my audience know that part of me giving you organic content [means] I need to also do sponsored content as well,” she tells me over Zoom. 

Grillo began blogging about design in 2015, and two years later was awarded the Winner of the Best DIY and Home Improvement category at the AMARA Interior Blog Awards. It wasn’t until 2018, however, that Grillo actually began doing sponsored posts. 

“A lot of brands that would approach me wanted me to do a collaboration, but for free,” she says. “And I would always say no, because I always knew that there would be a time when the right collaboration came about and it would be them paying me what I felt I was worth at the time.” 

In 2019, Britain began cracking down on ad disclosures and influencer transparency, so Grillo adapted by leaning all the way in with capital letters. In the year since, the “ad break” practice has been used by influencers like Bekah Martinez, Carly The Prepster, Grace Atwood, Kate Spiers, and Prepford Wife—a sign, Grillo hopes, that sponsored content is maybe, finally, becoming less taboo. 

Instagram user Carly The Prepster using the "ad break" technique for her sponsored Instagram Story

When did you do your first ad break? 

I started doing it early summer last year. I remember doing it because at the time there were a lot of new rules in England in regards to declaring your ads in your posts and your captions in your stories. One of the biggest things was that your readers need to know straight away that this is an ad. And at the same time, there's a lot of people that were saying they were very upset about influencers not being very upfront with how they're making their money. What is a sponsored post? What isn't? So that started to play in my mind. [I thought] maybe it should be just made really clear that this stuff between this slide and that story is actually sponsored and everything else isn't so there's no confusion whatsoever. 

What were your followers' reactions? 

I was surprised at how positive the reaction was. I'll say “ad break, this is just like what you'd see in a magazine or on a commercial, they help to sponsor the organic content.” And I think breaking it down in that way made my followers realize, Oh, okay, this is why she's doing ads. It makes sense. And a lot of the feedback was that they felt more inclined to watch because they knew that by watching they were supporting me somehow. So I think that really, really helped as well. And also I think as well, when you're doing ads, especially ads in advance where you have to get everything approved, sometimes you'll be going back and forth between past and present. And for me personally, I just think it's very confusing. So it's nice to be able to be clear, to say, “Okay, this is an ad break, I recorded it two weeks ago.” And then you stop and say, “Okay, everything's back to normal now.” 

“A lot of the feedback [from my followers] was that they felt more inclined to watch because they knew that by watching, they were supporting me.”

Do you think the negative stigma associated with sponsored content is shifting?

I feel like for my people that follow me, the attitude has definitely changed. What has happened in the past is that people might have done ads, but they might have felt guilty about doing ads. So maybe they didn't always declare it as they should have. There was a lot of guilt and mistrust about earning money, like people feeling guilty about earning money. A lot of creators are women [and] sometimes women feel, for some reason, guilty about making money, whereas men, I don't feel like they do. So I think because there was a lot of mistrust around it, having clear guidelines is making everything much more transparent and people are more receptive now.

For example, if I say “This is my ad. I do this for a reason. Can you please support?” People will support, whereas maybe a couple of years ago people were a bit baffled. “What do you mean by ads?” As you as people's knowledge about why they exist and why we do them grows, I think the attitudes are definitely changing. Whenever I get any comments regarding the ad break, it's always like, “Thank you so much for being open and honest.” So that just leads me to believe that a lot of people in the past haven't been.

How has it been seeing the trend get adopted by other influencers all over the world? 

I think I started noticing towards the end of last year. So I'd say around Christmas time, actually, I started seeing ad break being used and I was like, “Oh my gosh, like people are actually really catching onto this.” I didn't know that it would reach as far as America or Canada, Australia as well. I had no idea, but I think because of the reception, the response has been so positive, a lot of influencers are now taking it up and they're able to create good content and feel good about the content they're creating because they know that their audience understands why they're doing it. It's been really nice. It's lovely as well when people credit [me for] this idea, because then people can go back and read the reasons as to why I created it. 


A post shared by Medina (@grillodesigns)

The fact that so many creators are gravitating towards it must mean they were feeling some type of stress about ads as well. 

Yeah, definitely. And someone else mentioned another creator who said that it feels more professional for her because like you said, she felt a bit anxious about putting ads out and how people would receive them, but she feels like this way, it's more professional. And also, when you're saying to someone, “Okay, the next few slides are going to be an ad break.” That person can then think, “You know what? I don't want to see this ad break, so it'll skip it.” They have a bit more of a choice. A lot of the time what was happening in stories [was] that people were weaving in the ad, but it kind of felt a bit alarming sometimes. So this is a more natural flow. 

Right, like when the ad disclosure is really, really small or hidden—which probably doesn't come from a place of wanting to trick followers, but more fear of backlash and not really knowing what the right way to disclose it is. 

Yeah. Like fear of people feeling that maybe you're just doing an ad because of the money and not because you really like the product. But I think we should really be proud. For me personally, whoever I work with, I know that it's not just anybody. I work for brands that I like, that I use. If I haven't used it before, would I ever use them? Are they helpful to my audience? There's a lot of decisions that go into taking on a collaboration. And so at the end, when you do the collaboration, you should be proud of it. And that's what my thing is. Don't be scared to put a huge ad because it's an ad that's helping you to create content, pay your bills, and hopefully, if it's a good ad, will benefit you and your audience.