Advertising and ad blocking

I’ve thought about advertising and ad-blockers a lot over the years, and the debate is getting some attention right now starting with a recent Ars Technica article, so I thought I’d put down some of my own thoughts on it.

Funding your content through advertising is hugely inefficient. Of the people who visit your site, usually only a tiny proportion click on (or notice) an advert, and only a tiny proportion of those then spends any money.  So a tiny, tiny proportion of your visitors give any money to your advertisers. So money filters down this system in tiny margins.  Then, at the bottom of the system, a tiny amount of the profits from the income covers the cost of advertising.  Then this money moves back up the system to you, usually via your advertising agent who takes a nice cut (I’ve heard Google pass as little as one twelfth onto the publisher in some cases).

And this doesn’t consider the costs of the advertiser choosing and designing the ad or the tonnes of bandwidth and gatrillions of CPU cycles used to serve the actual adverts.

It also does not consider externalities, such as pollution. Advertising is mind pollution. Advertising is designed to affect the behaviour of people for the benefit of the advertiser.  Why would anyone willingly expose themselves to something designed to steal their attention?

You might argue that advertising creates value – some viewers choose to buy when otherwise they wouldn’t have. But what of the huge proportion of people who just had their attention stolen? No value was created there.

Because not everyone is suckered in by it, advertising squanders billions of hours of attention every day to produce nothing.


Walking down a street in town I might get approached by a beggar who needs money to eat.  In the UK we have the Vagrancy Act of 1824 which prevents these people from harassing me. They can be punished by detention, hard labour and whipping apparently.

Advertising is just a company harassing me for money to eat.  They’re just better funded.  I believe we should be able to detain and whip their advertising departments.

Unobtrusive payment

But seriously, advertising is a broken method of paying for stuff.  If we could unobtrusively pay for content on the Internet, I’m sure enough people would do so to more than cover costs of production.

We need good, unobtrusive payment methods and a change in culture to pay for good content would follow.  We can work on changing the culture now though: support sites that are ad-free (or have ad-free subscriptions).  I pay for a couple of ad-free subscriptions myself – be the change you want to see in the world.

I look forward to the day when a site with advertising is a clear signal that nobody would pay for it otherwise. My ad-blocker could then just block the whole site to save my wasting my attention.

Full Disclosure

My company does a (very small) amount of advertising, though I’m not involved directly in it. I don’t know how well it performs. We also sponsor conferences and events, which is of course advertising. I also help run a couple of web sites that make money from advertising.

From a viewer’s perspective, I hate advertising. From a publisher’s perspective, I can make a few quid from it and kinda just hope the pollution isn’t so bad (we do not allow annoying flashing adverts, and block ads from particularly evil corporations whenever we can but frankly, I’m mostly getting by ignoring the cognitive dissonance).  I’ve not thought about it until now, but from an advertisers perspective, it’s of course nice to get new customers (though I’m not sure of the “quality” of the custom we get via advertising – I’m now interested in investigating this further).

I’m in no way dependent on any of my income from advertising, so it’s hard to speak from these perspectives.

Update: Poor people

I’m basically saying that because adverts are not well targeted, the majority of advert views are wasted. They’re mind pollution.

But in order for adverts to get more accurate, the ad companies need to collect personal information about us: what we do online, what we like etc. So we’re supposed to hand over our privacy, just so we can ethically view “free” stuff on the Internet?

Let’s suppose advertising becomes perfectly targeted. Every advert you see is something you really can’t do without and something you can afford. Wouldn’t this mean you buy everything you get shown? Wouldn’t this mean you’d run out of money?

Is it unethical for poor people to view ad-supported online content if they can’t afford anything being advertised? However well targeted the ads are, they have no money to spend so it’s completely fruitless. Perhaps ad supported websites should ban public library Internet addresses – poor people are reading for free!

Discussions Elsewhere


Kev says:

I only read that because you adviertised it on twitter.

john says:

Kev: My twitter feed is nothing but advertisements for what I’m doing. It’s more like an index in a book in that respect.

Do you complain about the advertising in the Yellow Pages? ;)

Andrew says:

I read this looking for your thoughts on ad blocking and didn’t find any.

Jonathan says:

Have you heard about flattr (social micropayments)?
The idea seems good, but it’s hard to say if it is going to work.

john says:

Andrew: all my thoughts on ad-blocking were right there in an iframe!

Seriously though, advertising is mind pollution. An ad-blocker is like breathing apparatus for your brain.

Miles Gassaway says:

Begging as a metaphor may not be the right fit. I’m thinking that begging is going to become much more common, and “harassment” be dammed. Advertising, on the other hand, is incapable of getting in your face, like the beggar on the street who is in no position to care what laws may prohibit his behavior. Advertising is regulated on a level that actually takes user experience into account, because it must.

strowger says:

Money geek talk: Micropayments is *really hard*. A whole load of regulation is heaped on anyone offering something that looks like a payment system.

The idea of low-friction payment (“unobtrusive”) is not compatible with the security needed to prevent fraud.

john says:

Miles: Advertising is really not regulated seriously. Most advertising (certainly most corporate advertising) suggests all kind of ridiculous things are true.

[…] argument. And people who bear counter arguments have good points to back theirs too. I came across this interesting article that introduce such good arguments. And one idea really made a new idea spark in my mind. But […]

Kev says:

John, yeah I guess you were talking mainly about advertising on websites (as it by and large exists at the moment) but I was trying to make a point that a blanket statement like “advertising is mind pollution” is a bit silly. You liked those gig flyers we had, for instance.

Brian says:

From your twitter comment, it seems like you don’t have any issues with well targeted advertising.

john says:

Kev: I was a little unclear in my dramatic summary “advertising is mind pollution. What I’m actually saying is that advertising viewed by people who are not interested in it is an external cost – much like pollution.

These external costs are currently huge, as most adverts are not relevant – and we’re forced to bear them (unless we use adblockers :)

Perhaps as advertisers get cleverer we’ll see adverts we’re more interested in, but until every advert I see is selling me something I really need (or want to experience) and can afford, then it’s pollution.

Anyway, to get this accurate, advertisers will need to keep collecting more and more personal data about us, invading our privacy.

And then, if every advert I see is something I need and can afford, I’ll quickly run out of money, so then no adverts are useful to me. Except perhaps debt management services.


So we should only advertise food and shelter?

Antony says:

“You might argue that advertising creates value – some viewers choose to buy when otherwise they wouldn’t have”

This indeed is a fallacy. Some viewers choose to buy when otherwise they *would have spent that same money on something else*, and with better judgment. The money the advertising company takes in, it takes away from another business. There is no creation of value from advertising. Actually, a loss, because the lured buyer could have gotten more value from their money by taking the time to choose how to spend it, unbiased.

I agree advertising is mind pollution & I think that it is lazy to depend on an advertising revenue model. Web business could get creative about revenue models and that would immediately get people interested. It is mind numbing for most of us who have had advertising trying to grab our attention all our lives. Over it! But interested in new and innovative business models. Where has all the creativity gone?

Tim says:

Give us a tenner, please. In return, I give you this reply.

[…] pay for content with no advertising Another post by John Leach called ‘Advertising and ad blocking’ who talks about advertising’s moral & psychological affect: Advertising is mind […]

I’ve never considered advertising like that. I’ve never used an ad-blocker because if I like the content, I saw that as the way for paying for it.

However, I’ve long believed that ‘general’ news is absolute poison. On the off-chance you don’t think that, I recommend reading ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’ by Dan Gardner. It basically confirmed everything I had believed for a while but went to *much* more detail.

I know don’t know why I hadn’t thought the same way about advertising – I guess it’s because I think it has overall a less negative impact on society and me then news.

I think this post might have changed my opinion about ad-blocking. Cool!

[…] Advertising is mind pollution. John Leach […]

[…] sites shouldn’t rely on ads alone for revenue. As John Leach wrote on his blog, one problem with this argument is that funding content solely through advertising doesn’t make a […]

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