Is Advertising Sinking The Internet?
I was reading an article the other day that proposed that one of the internet’s central villains is advertising. Does this surprise you? I fear there is some truth in the assertion. I think we’ve become hooked on the cheap and easy (but indirect and rather noisy approach) to selling products and services. Even as we’ve become addicted to it as a source of revenue, we’ve forgotten the fundamentals of what makes good business. Good business is about building trust with people to make change that matters in the world, ethically.
In contrast, if we think about what an internet built on advertising looks like, its key foundations includes encouraging people to share more data, targeting people with ever more sophisticated behavioural models and then bombarding them with advertisements through all sorts of mediums. Businesses built on this model want people to spend more time with more content, because it leads to more advertisements viewed or interacted with. Businesses in this model offer free services, because this builds a bigger audience for more advertisements. This isn’t an ethical model.
What started with the humble visual banner advertisement has long since developed into a strange fusion of Big Brother and Clockwork Orange. The system knows everything about you and has the means to force you to consume whatever it wants you to consume. The most recent example of this idea lets people have free movie tickets, so long as they sit through fifteen minutes of advertising. The catch is that eye-tracking technology is used to ensure they are actually watching the advertisement stream being played.
Ironically, it is early eye-tracking research that showed how basic banner advertisements were ignored. Research showed that people’s pre-attentive perception circuts eventually learned to ignore the obvious vertical or horizontal advertising placements; a phenomenon known as ‘banner blindness.’ A fear of losing out on the profits of this advertising driven model lead to an ever more sophisticated set of in-place and heavily contextualised advertisments.
However, it doesn’t matter how contextual modern advertising becomes, it hasn’t changed its fundamental approach of trying to capture attention. All the same, I get why it looks like a benefit. The cornicopia of advertising is cheap to deliver en masse to a well targeted audience. It looks good on the balance sheet.
However, we since learned that these same tools can just as easily be weaponised. The 2016 United States Presidential election was likely the most heavily influenced in history, through the same advertising technologies used to sell shampoo. It appears that millions of people were targeted with a wide range of pro-Trump and anti-Liberal advertising propoganda.
We’ve been inundated by advertising in the past. Writers of the time recorded Victorian London as buried under a paper snowstorm of handbills, posters and stickers. This development likely driven by the rise of cheaper paper. From 1805 to 1835 paper production rose from 550 tons to 25,000 tons. Cheap paper advertisements were passed out to passersby at train stations, shopping precincts or on the street.
The paper advertisments contained loud and brash demands for people to buy products or attend events. They were typically pressed upon people and then just as quickly discarded. This is not dissimiler to the cheaply produced advertising woven directly into our news or social feeds. Quickly consumed and just as quickly mentally discarded, these sorts of advertisments are aimed at large volumes of people, with the aim of catching their attention.
For all that it is a part of the modern web, internet advertising has always been built on a shaky foundation. The advertising world is built on an assumption that we are actually paying attention or that we will change our behaviour based on the advertisement. Billions of dollars are spent without any clear line of sight between the advertisement and actual action, just a sense that ‘we must advertise, it must be loud and at scale.’
The noise created by this approach saturates the very platforms that we try to use to do work. Not only are advertisers advertising at the top of their lungs, everyone else is too. We are all encouraged to show our plummage (or “personal brand”) more aggressively than the next person, hoping that the right person at the right time on the other end is paying attention and that we will get noticed, to our benefit. Adveristing feeds on advertising feeds on advertising.
Challenging our modern approach to advertising doesn’t necessarily render all marketing moot. Marketing is present in all human societies and in the animal kingdom. Birds market their suitability as mates with carefully cleaned sections of the jungle in which they enact energetic, complex and physically expensive dances in an effort to win the favour of a mate.
It’s interesting that the natural world seems to prefer what Seth Godin calls ‘permission marketing’. Permission marketing is where we focus first on whether we have someone’s permission to market to them, before attempting to do so. It is the antithesis approach to attempting to bully, bribe or trick someone into paying attention.
A switch to permission marketing and away from noisy and Orwellian advertising would probably change the very fabric of the web as we know it. I suspect we’d have to pay a lot more for the things we currently get for free. After all, they are being subsidised by advertising. But I don’t think I’d mind that. I think it would be a relief for the internet to become a space where we give permission to how our data is used and what we are shown.
Sansom, Ian (2003) Paper, an Elegy. Fourth Estate: London
Godin, Seth: “Permission Marketing” (1999)
Junk Mail Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash