The Samovar

The end of advertising
September 14, 2007, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Business, Capitalism, Economics, Media, Politics

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?


The death of advertising? I wish! I can’t remember ever purchasing anything solely because of advertising, though of course I have become familiar with certain brand names this way.

I mostly use Firefox with a pop-up ad block – is that what you mean by ‘ad block’?

Meanwhile, my Gmail accounts are full of ads – the funniest ones being for Spam (tinned meat) recipes when I check my spam account. But it’s also a bit creepy because it means my emails are being scanned in order to put up ads that relate to things being written there.

I used to enjoy those annual films that came out with The Best Television Ads – do they still make them? Some of the ads were very clever and witty, but never seem to be the type I see on tv.

The most recent clever ads I’ve seen are the Sony Bravia ones – the exploding paint one and the coloured balls one. Yet when I went to buy a new 32″ LCD flatscreen recently I chose a Philips model (have never seen an ad for Philips televisions) simply because it was half the price and the picture looked quite fine to me.

Most of the time I think that ads are trying to con me somehow. Don’t most people feel this way?

Comment by azahar

The pop-up blocker is good, but you can do even better and block the ads that are shown on the webpage as well – take a look at the link to the ad block extension, you won’t regret it.

I’ve resisted getting a Gmail account for exactly the reason you talked about. I’m just dubious about having an email account with a company whose business model is based on poking their nose into my private emails.

I think many people – but by no means all people – do feel the same way as you about ads, but nonetheless the advertising is affecting them, because the effect of an advertising campaign is measurable, and it turns out it’s profitable. Possibly one of the reasons that companies don’t bother blocking people with the ad blocker plugin is that the sort of person who goes to all the effort of downloading a plugin especially to block ads is likely to be the sort of person who wouldn’t click the ad anyway.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

True enough – I certainly never click on any of the advertising I see. Unless I want to use something to ridicule on my blog.

As for Gmail, I opted for that after having had problems with various internet service providers, with whom I also had my email accounts. And when you change companies you also lose your email accounts, which is pretty frustrating (and annoying to all your friends when you keep sending them new email addresses).

At least with Gmail I know I won’t ever lose my stuff (I hope!) and I like their format better than Yahoo and Hotmail. Also, Yahoo doesn’t allow POP unless you pay extra for it.

I can’t imagine that any of my private emails would be of interest to anyone, so that’s why I don’t mind that aspect of Gmail.

Comment by azahar

Yes, the changing your email address thing is annoying and I can see why people go with Gmail – they do provide a fantastic service. I decided to get something where I was a bit more in control though – so I bought the domain. I think it’s about £10/year or it might have just been £5/year I can’t remember. Either way, it’s pretty durn cheap. Now my email and web page is managed through one particular company ( but since I actually own the domain name I can switch to another company if I choose to at any point and still keep my email address.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Hey, I have that too! With the clothing biz website. In fact, there are about half a dozen email addresses going there for various things (info, orders, wholesale, account payments, etc). And also one just called ‘azahar’. So I guess I could always use that one, except all those email accounts get an awful lot of spam. Mind you, so do my Gmail ones, though they are usually trapped and sent to the spam place.

Comment by azahar

I’ve actually managed to keep my emails spam-free without using spam filtering. I’m just very anal about only using my main email address for personal emails, and inventing new ones for each company I need to give an email address to. That way, if a company does pass on my email address to spammers, I can just block that one particular email address (which has happened a couple of times). It also means I can work out which companies are untrustworthy with email addresses. The only problem seems to be that when people I know sign up to facebook, they submit their entire address book to facebook which therefore now has my personal email address (although thankfully they don’t seem to pass it on to any spammers).

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

See also here. (it makes pretty much the same points as you.)

I’m reasonably sanguine about the invasion of my privacy, mis-use of my personal data and mind-control. Most web ads are pretty easy to ignore (although I do have to make sure I only use when the kids aren’t looking). If they have a subliminal effect, does it rally matter so much if I choose Coke instead of Pepsi? Arguably there are even advantages in being able to judge whether a site owner has ‘sucked Satan’s cock’ (Bill Hicks).

Micropayments? Bad idea! Which sites do you think search engines will prioritise – not-for-profit or those of organisations prepared to give them a decent cut? At least at the moment the advertising subsidises relatively open access to the subversive stuff.

As for gmail vs own name – what kind of control are you after? It’s not as if Google are the only people who can read your mail. And I find Gmail pretty good at de-spamming.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I liked this line: “Imagine that some boor has been yelling into your ear for so long that it’s come to seem normal. Now imagine that he suddenly shuts up.”

But the article misses an important point about google that I did mean to include in what I wrote but may have forgotten. Google ads aren’t blocked by AdBlock because they are only text and are clearly marked and separate. The fact that it chose to do this when all the other search engines had huge great banner ads and popups is one of the reasons it was such a success.

This might apply to what you said about micropayments too. Sure, at first the search engines would need to find another way of making money, and biasing the search results would be one way to do it. (There are already suspicions that this happens at the moment.) But, if one company chose not to do that, but to accept micropayments instead, they would do very much better. Their search results would be better, and we’re assuming in this scenario that people are used to a system of micropayments, so making micropayments for searching wouldn’t seem like a big problem.

“If they have a subliminal effect, does it rally matter so much if I choose Coke instead of Pepsi?”

No, but as someone who doesn’t drink, the fact that the ONLY non-alcoholic drinks you can reliably get in restaurants etc. are coke, water and coffee is a bit shit. Why aren’t there widely sold non-alcoholic drinks which aren’t packed full of sugar and/or caffeine? One possible answer is that any company trying to sell a drink that was competing for the non-alcoholic drink market would be competing with Coke and Pepsi, and competing with a giant like that is made much harder by the fact that they can afford an enormous advertising budget whereas a new company couldn’t.

We don’t pay for adverts directly, but of course we do pay for them, and the way we pay for them is indirectly, through the higher prices, less diverse and more monopolistic (or oligopolistic) market that comes about as a result of the enormous barrier to entry that advertising creates. (Apologies for the structure of that sentence.)

Re gmail: a few things. I don’t like changing email address because I then have to tell everyone I know what my new address is, people still send to the old one even after you’ve told them, etc. So if I want to keep my email address, and I have a Gmail one, I have to stick with google. Owning I can switch my actual service provider to any company I like. I don’t get adverts at the bottom of all my emails if I don’t use Gmail. I get a much cooler email address than if I used Gmail, and an infinite number of different ones (anything you like followed by at Most importantly though, I have my emails stored on a server which isn’t routinely scanned and used to advertise at me, which would irk the fuck out of me. Sure, the techies at could probably open my emails and read them if they wanted to, but that’s not really what I’m worried about. It’s the routine invasions of privacy that concern me, not the exceptional ones.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

But surely when Gmail is scanning emails it is only looking for keywords that would relate to specific advertising. Hence the Spam recipes.

Also, if you do change to another email address you can have all your Gmail forwarded there, so you’d always be able to catch the ‘strays’ who hadn’t registered the new address.

And I agree with Edward that Gmail does a very good job of trapping spam. I’ve not had any spam show up in my various Gmail inboxes all the time I’ve had them, though I usually delete about a dozen or so spam emails a day.

No, but as someone who doesn’t drink, the fact that the ONLY non-alcoholic drinks you can reliably get in restaurants etc. are coke, water and coffee is a bit shit.

This has never been my experience in Sevilla. There is usually quite a good selection of natural juices available at all tapa bars and restaurants I go to here. Though if I don’t drink wine with my meal (frankly, not often) the only other option I’d want is mineral water. Any sweet drinks, including juices (unless it’s breakfast), just don’t go well with savoury food dishes, imo. What sort of drink options did you have in mind?

As for ‘mind-control subliminal’ stuff in advertising … I don’t drink either coke or pepsi, nor do I tend to buy most things I see advertised. And as I said earlier about buying a new flat-screen tv, I ended up buying an unadvertised brand even though I found the Sony Bravia ads very well made and entertaining.

Comment by azahar

But surely when Gmail is scanning emails it is only looking for keywords that would relate to specific advertising.

At the moment, yes. But google does have a (stated) ambition to know everything about you and to use that to both make your searches and things more relevant, and also to target advertising at you more effectively. Scanning for keywords is just the start of that process.

Any sweet drinks, including juices (unless it’s breakfast), just don’t go well with savoury food dishes, imo. What sort of drink options did you have in mind?

Yeah, well that’s the problem isn’t it. Non-alcoholic drinks (other than water) are assumed to be sweet drinks. I’m not saying this is entirely the fault of coke and pepsi, but their advertising dominance is I think part of the reason why there aren’t any good alternatives. There are some nice, non-sweet, non-alcoholic drinks, just not very many. Indian lassi is one example (you can have it sweet or not), but it doesn’t go that well with most food.

Re TV’s – you might not specifically buy a TV that was advertised because it was advertised, but you did get a Phillips TV, and Phillips is a huge well known brand that does advertise. Would you have bought a TV from a company that you had NEVER heard of? My guess is – possibly, but you’d be less likely to. I think that’s true of me anyway, and I’m quite fundamentalist anti-ad.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

I’m not sure I’ve seen Linux advertised in too many places.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Sure, it’s possible for products to exist without advertising, but what doesn’t seem to be possible is for them to be widely available. How often do you see a new computer for sale with Linux pre-installed? How often have you come across a public computer with Linux installed? (Answer: quite often if you frequent maths departments as I used to, but otherwise hardly ever.) To take the drinks example: Linux is like downloading a recipe for a non-alcoholic, non-sweet drink, and making it yourself; Coke and Pepsi are like Windows and Mac.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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