I’ve had low-grade anxiety about this for ages, but a brilliant mea culpa in The Atlantic by Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, titled "The internet’s original sin", brought it into focus.
Then there was the Financial Times article exposing online fraud and, in The Observer, John Naughton had a pop at the surveillance culture online.
"This" is the parlous state of online advertising. Before you think I’m having a competitive snipe, remember that increasing amounts of TV ads will be consumed online. This matters to every one of us.
We don’t expect people to say they love advertising, even if they can be nudged into articulating its rational benefits. But we know they can – and do – love ads in particular: meerkats, floating beds, boys impatient for Christmas. Not just TV; they like outdoor ads brightening up cities and magazines’ ads are part of the reason for buying them. It’s a fair exchange – but also a delicate balance.
I’d like to believe every part of our industry strives to make advertising not just tolerated but accepted and, ideally, welcomed. It doesn’t feel like that online; most advertising I see behaves more like cowboy builders: bish-bosh quality, barely legal and with the certain knowledge that it can’t be traced. It feels like an industry that does not believe it has much future so goes to squeeze out every penny now.
Effectively, some advertiser was allowing its ads to be used as a punishment
Zuckerman puts this down to the "investor story", where advertising revenue and traffic are hyped to drive the short-term share price; excessive frequency, uncloseable pop-ups, click-bait and fraud are just some consequences.
I apologise to those striving to make online advertising a beautiful thing, but you’re being drowned out. Maybe because I’m 60, I only see ads for raspberry ketone, dental implants and sofas from a website I briefly visited last month. No space here to dissect addressable advertising and how creepy and insulting it can be, but 300 million people using Adblock Plus says something is broken.
I downloaded a free game app recently. After every move, I was served the same ad. Eventually, I paid 69p for the ad-free version. Effectively, some advertiser was allowing its ads to be used as punishment to promote an ad-free format. We are fast teaching people to become militant advertising avoiders.
Zuckerman’s conclusion is that we have damaged online advertising to such an extent that it must be abandoned. But surely we can collectively solve this? No-one has a better incentive. Talking is good and there are plenty of industry forums for that.
But nothing talks like money, so let’s use our investments to encourage the online advertising we want for the long term. Brands and agencies should reward only media owners doing the right thing: treating data and intellectual property respectfully and allowing independent traffic audits. Let’s not allow content to become commoditised by pricing all views as equal within superficial programmatic algorithms.
Moderation in all things: some frequency, some personalisation etc is good. Media owners must say no more often.
Even if we did just those modest things, the situation would immediately improve, and we could start to rebuild an online advertising landscape to be proud of.
Tess Alps is the chair of Thinkbox