As I See It: To Ad Or Not To Ad
May 20, 2013 Victor Rozek
I never found Leonardo DiCaprio believable as an actor. No matter the costuming or how much makeup they trowel on his face, he always comes across as being a 12-year-old playing dress up. (He’s not unlike Tobey McGuire in that regard, but at least Tobey knows enough to make movies that appeal to 12-year-olds.) So when a moving flash ad for DiCaprio’s new opus, Gatsby, darkened my computer screen, it was both annoying and amusing. It did interrupt my browsing, but it also conjured up images of a child in a tuxedo throwing fits.
Not everyone finds advertising amusing, however. Annoying though it may sometimes be, advertising is the underpinning of a consumer society and in most contexts we have learned to accept it without fuss. With few exceptions, successful magazines offer more advertising than content. People still watch Cable TV although programs are edited to the bone to make room for endlessly cascading commercials. Billboards dot the highways, stadiums sell naming rights, and I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see a new Pope sporting the Nike swoosh on his papal regalia. Just Believe It. Advertising is the white noise of affluence, and we simultaneously accept and ignore it–just like Congress.
The Internet, however, is proving to be a less hospitable venue for advertising. Since its inception, content providers (at least those who were not selling access to naughty pictures), have struggled to maintain financial viability. Meanwhile, users–who from a provider’s perspective are anonymous consumers–became enamored with the notion that the Internet was a large digital candy store giving away its products, and that advertising intruded on their unalienable right to gorge themselves with content.
This tension between the providers’ desire to make a living and the users’ desire not to be annoyed has grown over the years as ads become more aggressive and blocking software becomes widely distributed. But providers warn that we are reaching a tipping point. Limiting the number of times an ad appears, reduces a publisher’s advertising revenue. Many sites, they fear, will be forced to shut down if they are prevented from making a profit.
Finding a happy medium has proven to be a challenge.
On the one hand, what Bob Pegoraro of The Washington Post says is absolutely true: “The web does not exist to serve you alone; you don’t get to order everybody else to inform or entertain you for free.” On the other hand, there is a reason why computers are prefaced with the modifier “personal.” We have a one-on-one relationship with our machines. Our joys, our sorrows, our secrets reside there, protected by firewalls and security software. Beyond annoyance, lots of spyware and malware arrives on the coattails of advertisements. Studies show that up to 90 percent of people do not trust online advertising. More accurately, people distrust some advertising. But frankly, unless there is a specific item we are considering purchasing, we simply don’t care. An argument can be made that while providers have a right to post ads, users have the right to block them. Providers call that theft. Users call it discernment.
Some of the problems facing providers result from the aspirations for a universally accessible Internet. The willingness to advertise presumes an affluent audience with disposable income and access to merchandise. But there are billions of people hungry for what the Internet offers who are too poor to interest advertisers. There is little immediate incentive to bring Internet services to remote, impoverished parts of the world. Video clips and movie downloads, in particular, have become a favored form of entertainment in much of the Third World. But they are costly to store and require ample bandwidth. Companies such as Veoh are either considering or have already made their services unavailable in many parts of the world, preferring to concentrate their resources on areas that offer the possibility of returns. Other cost-cutting remedies include reducing bandwidth and lowering video quality.
The majority of advertisers (except those hawking the most distasteful products) understand that being in-your-face obnoxious will alienate more potential customers than it will attract. And most site managers prefer to post polite and discrete ads that invite rather than demand attention and do not deliberately disturb the browsing process. (Readers will no doubt celebrate the fact that all of the advertisers at IT Jungle are extremely well mannered.) How much is too much may be open to debate, but ultimately an ad must be tolerable in order to be useful. Or, as the clear-thinking Pegoraro puts it: “If an ad motivates you to install Adblock, it’s probably gone too far.”
It is somewhat ironic that this debate is raging just as ads are becoming helpful. Marketing is evolving, and advertisers can no longer be dismissed as guys with marking pens defacing paintings in the art gallery. The infancy of personalized ads, based on individual browsing habits, interests, buying patterns, and anything else plucked from clouds of big data, has moved advertising from the general to the precise. Like industry-specific ads that cater to the known interests of an intended audience, personalized ads have the potential to assist rather than merely inform.
Alternate revenue sources have been tried with mixed success. Paywalls (such as those at the New York Times), micropayments (such as the strategy employed by iTunes), subscription and membership-based options, even Kickstarter is being used in an attempt to raise funds. Without advertising, however, only the biggest players are likely to thrive. Sites that can consistently offer free content, or content at drastically reduced prices, usually have additional non-Internet-based sources of revenue.
The paradox for Adblock and related software is similar to the contradiction inherent in choosing money over nature: What’s the point of being rich on a dead planet? Likewise, what’s the point of ad-free browsing if half of the available sites have been driven out of business? A growing number of Internet providers now monitor for ad blocking software and request that it be deactivated. They see it as a fairness issue and there is evidence that Adblock is getting the message.
Although its creator would probably deny it, the “Plus” in Adblock Plus refers to, of all things, ads. Adblock Plus Ads. Incongruous though it may be, Adblock, the scourge of advertisers and struggling web sites, and champion of the digitally annoyed, has evolved from focusing on exclusion to setting standards. While the more obnoxious and intrusive ads will still be banished, their static, well-behaved cousins are welcome. Users can also whitelist the ads they are willing to view. The imposition of standards will not be celebrated in all circles, but it does represent a compromise position in which the interests of all sides are served: annoyance is diminished, but advertisers can still reach potential customers, and web sites can still make a profit.
But as for Gatsby the movie, even a courteous ad that didn’t flare up and engulf my screen wouldn’t help. Not even if it offered discounted tickets. In the book, Fitzgerald pens the phrase “the colossal vitality of his illusion,” which precisely describes the ailment afflicting anyone deluded enough to cast DiCaprio as Gatsby.
Some things are just too hard to sell.