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.
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.
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!