Advertising is one of my perennial bugbears. It does so much harm and gives so little in return. It saps creative talent from society at large, it distorts culture and politics, and perhaps worst of all, it’s unpleasant, noisy and inescapable. Feel free to take me up on any of those points in the comments if you like. Economics arguments about the signalling function of advertising aside, the only good it does is provide a large budget for things like TV, newspapers, web sites, etc. But is this really a good thing? Wouldn’t it be better if these things were paid for by what people wanted to spend money on?
Like a growing number of people, I use the Firefox web browser with the Ad Block extension to hide adverts on web sites. It makes web browsing a much pleasanter experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t got it already. Since a fairly small number of people are using Firefox, and an even smaller percentage using Ad Block, web sites which rely on advertising revenue have not had much reason to worry about this. A small group of tech savvy people were able to cut out the crap and still enjoy the free content paid for by the 3% of people who actually click on the banner adverts. However, that might be set to change.
The Register has an interesting comment piece on how things might be developing (the article is mostly about the business relationship between Google, which relies on advertising, and Firefox, which is largely funded by Google). Firstly, Firefox itself is becoming much more popular: just recently it was downloaded for the 400 millionth time (which is not to say that 400m different people are running it of course). Ad Block is also growing in popularity, the developers claiming that 2.5m people are using it, and an additional 300-400k per month downloading it. So, it’s beginning to be a serious threat. One web developer, Danny Carlton, wrote a piece of software on his web pages so that if you were running Ad Block, the whole web site would be inaccessible. Of course, this is fairly easily circumvented and there is the potential for a miniature arms race there. The ad blockers are bound to win this race for much the same sort of reasons as attempts to stop people copying music and films with Digital Rights Management (DRM) fail almost before they start.
So the question is: suppose enough people were blocking adverts, what would happen? What people are worried about is that all of these free web pages will have to start charging for access. Indeed so, but that could be a fantastically good thing. With modern web technology, it would be very easy to set up a system of micropayments. You subscribe to a micropayment service where you have an account you can top up just like a mobile phone. When you visit a web site, you pay a tiny fee to view their content. This fee could be the same or less than an advertiser pays to a web site. I don’t know how much that is, but it can’t be an awful lot given that on average only 3% of visits to a website end up with the person clicking the banner ad, and even then only a small proportion of those end up with an individual making a purchase. If the technology was unobtrusive and didn’t invade privacy, this could easily be very successful.
There is a danger though. Web sites might begin to rely on more subliminal forms of advertising and PR, like the ‘advertorial’ (an ‘editorial’ that is paid for) and subtler variants which are no doubt already out there. Like product placement, this is a form of advertising that can’t be blocked. Another short term danger is that the squeeze that this will put on content producers will mean they become much less adventurous with their output, and stick to what they know works (as is perhaps already happening).
One commenter on The Register article had an alternative suggestion: a “Reasonable Advertiser Network”. That is, an index of advertisers which do not use distracting animated or Flash adverts on web pages, but relatively unobtrusive, static images which do not take up too much space on the page. Users could choose not to block these adverts, but only the ‘unreasonable’ ones. That might sound far-fetched, but it has already happened to a certain extent. Part of the commercial success of Google is down to the fact that it has a very unobtrusive and straightforward advertising scheme: certain key words cause a clearly labelled ‘Sponsored Link’ to be included in your search results. You know exactly what the advert is, how it came to be there, and it doesn’t dance around your screen and sing at you.
My preferred solution however is the death of advertising, and there are some signs that it might be coming about anyway. Newspapers are apparently very concerned that advertising revenue is drying up, as are TV stations, etc.
It will be interesting to see how it plays out, and whether or not solutions that are easy to implement on the web (like a micropayment scheme) could be extended to other mediums like TV and news.
Now over to you: how do you feel about advertising on web pages and more generally? Do you use ad blockers? Would you be happy with a micropayment scheme like the one I suggested?