USS Clueless -- Advertising and the web

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Advertising and the web

As many have noticed recently, there's been a collapse in the use of the advertising model as a way of financing the web. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about this -- mostly among those who were running web sites financed this way.

I, for one, am really glad to see this happen. It's not that I have ill-will for the semi-pro sites who are in trouble as their revenue dries up, but rather that I'm getting fed up with commercials showing up everywhere I go. I've watched this happen over my lifetime, and it seems as if I can't go anywhere anymore without having advertisements shoved in my face. As time has gone on I've seen advertising show up place after place, until it seems as if there's nowhere I can be without it being present. There are people out there who spend their time trying to think of new places where ads can be placed.

The problem is that there is so many advertisements in so many places that people are tuning the ads out, which means that the advertisers, in desperation, have to be more intrusive in order to force us all to look at them. So the colors are getting brighter and you're starting to see motion. (Electronics and batteries have gotten cheap enough so that the new trick is to put a blinking LED on a package in a store; the battery will keep it going for a month or two and with luck it will have sold by then.)

I've had enough. I'm fed up. I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

I won't break the law to fight back against advertising, so I can't do anything about billboards or ads on the shopping cart at the grocery store. But online is a different matter. I own and control my computer, and I decide what it will retrieve and display.

Let's review the argument against spam ("unsolicited commercial email") for a moment, shall we? The argument against spam is that the advertiser isn't paying for it. Rather, the unwilling recipient is also the one paying for delivery, through higher prices for access to the internet and higher network charges. The spammer pays for the cost of sending the spam (unless they use a free mailer) but I as the recipient pay for delivery. Therefore the spammer is forcing me to pay involuntarily receive something I haven't got any interest in seeing.

Well, web-page advertising is doing exactly the same thing. They pay the owner of a web site, and that money goes to pay for the bandwidth that the web site uses to deliver its content and its advertising. But they're only paying for part of the bandwidth, that used to get the data onto the internet. I pay for the bandwidth on my end, including the bandwidth which is used to deliver the advertising that I don't want to see. Which means that it is no different than spam.

Only I don't pay for or receive that advertising, because I use sophisticated software on my computer to block as much of it as I can. My software doesn't merely prevent me from seeing it; it actually prevents my computer from even retrieving most of it (the way I've got it set up).

Unfortunately, web advertising has the ability to be particularly obnoxious, with animations, sounds and popup windows which have to be manually killed. Fortunately, my software  prevents any of that crap from being retrieved or displayed on my computer.

The fact that some group is using the revenue from this advertising to keep alive or support their business model is not my problem. When a program like ICQ or AIM is using advertising to pay for their infrastructure, it remains the case that some of the cost of delivering that advertising is coming out of my pocket. So I feel no qualms whatever in using my firewall logs to find out where the ads are coming from, and to set up firewall rules to prevent them from being delivered, because they have no right to spend my money that way. If that means that they cease to provide that service to me, so be it.

I want the advertising model on the web to fail. I want all sites and all companies who are trying to fund their web sites and their programs with advertising to die or seek other means of doing it. I want there to be somewhere, anywhere, where I can go without being inundated with commercials. I am willing to accept that this will cause a shrinkage of the material available to me on the web. I accept that price and am willing to pay it. I want the advertisers to get a message from the people they've been imposing on for the last hundred years: that they're over the line, and that they have to change.

And the web is the best place to deliver that message. The reason is that the web is the only medium advertising has invaded where the customers have complete control over the delivery channel, and where the advertisers have an exact metric for how effective their advertising is (click-through counts). I want the advertisers to rock back on their heels, to think "Maybe we've gone too far." I want them to realize that the old-fashioned "shove-it-in-their-unwilling-faces" approach doesn't apply anytime the customers have the ability to defeat it, and that maybe those same approaches are ineffective in other places too (but that they've never really known it). I want the advertisers to feel a backlash. I want them to know how much they are hated. The web is where that can happen best.

TIVO and similar devices now present this same ability for television, and the exploding popularity of such devices is also sending a message to the advertisers. But a TIVO costs several hundred dollars. Ad blocking software is available for free, and can be run on any computer used to access the net, by anyone sufficiently sophisticated to set it up, or anyone who has a friend who is. And that's nearly everyone. The web is the medium where nearly all users have the ability to defeat advertising, to make it fail, to let the advertisers know that they've got to change. The web is a bi-directional medium. There is no involuntary push on the web.

Soon they're going to wake up to the fact that they have to make their advertising something that we want to see, or it will fail. And you're beginning to see that in television ads. For the Superbowl, the advertisers pull out the stops, and I've had people tell me that they watch it precisely because they want to see the ads. I don't, but it's nice to hear that it's getting better. But this has to become the rule, not the exception, and in all media, not just TV and the web.

Advertising actually has the potential to succeed on the web. But the right model for them is to actually create their own web sites, and to mix their product information with other information which people want to see. And a lot of companies already do this. I visit the home pages of a lot of companies simply to shop and purchase from them; I do quite a lot of that. Companies like ASUS, ABit, Crucial sell products I know about and want to buy, and I don't find their pages obnoxious at all.

That is what the advertisers need to learn to do. They've got to learn that ultimately advertising's effectiveness is proportional to the extent to which the audience cooperates with it, and by definition you can't force cooperation.

The ad-supported web sites are the unfortunate victims of this war, "collateral damage" in the colorful phrase that the military uses, and I'm sorry about them as they drop by the wayside and die. But we're playing for much higher stakes.

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