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Advertising as a torture

Enrique Dans

Before its IPO on April 3, Spotify has highlighted an open secret in its United States Securities and Exchange Commission registration statement: that around two million people around the world have been using the service to listen to music without advertising but without paying, thanks to easily findable ways and alternatives to block advertising. Following the revelation, the company reduced the numbers of its users from 159 million users to 157 million, with a total of 71 million subscribers.

Beyond the implications for Spotify, which has undoubtedly contributed significantly through the convenience of its service to a decline in free downloading, for me, all this raises questions about the evolution of advertising: what is advertising for Spotify? Aside from representing over the last two years something like an additional 10% to its revenue stream, advertising is a highly effective way of annoying its users into paying for the service.

That is what advertising has become. If you work in advertising, congratulations: you create stuff for companies to use to hassle people into paying for their services. Awesome. We all know that advertising on Spotify is a losing game: your ad is being used to torture — and I can’t think of a better word — people who will hate your company for interrupting their listening pleasure. Think about it: advertising as torture. When two million people are prepared to go to great lengths to listen to music free of advertising, it’s because advertising is being inflicted on them, like torture.

In the past, I have discussed this issue in relation to Netflix which unlike Spotify, doesn’t offer a free service paid for by advertising. The reason is simple: 90% of Netflix subscribers prefer to pay more for the service without ads, a not insignificant $4 a month more, with some 74% saying they would cancel their subscription if the company started running advertisements.

In short, advertising has become a nuisance, with seven-minute breaks on many channels, during which viewers simply zap other stations or go and do something else. The advertising industry needs to ask itself some hard questions about just what it is it does anymore, as do television companies: are they selling a marketing tool or something that, in most cases, raises howls of collective pain? This comes down to inflicting controlled punishment on audiences in exchange for supplying them with a product. And that punishment, over time, has evolved to become such torture, that many people decide to simply avoid it, either by recording programs to watch later or installing programs to block advertising, as well as copying and pasting lists of IP addresses or servers into obscure system files on their computers or their routers. What does this all say? Sadly, advertising is no longer a marketing tool to inform or remind potential consumers of products, but instead an instrument of torture.

Sure, I know: open programming cannot be free: it is either state-funded, paid for through a license fee, subscription, or advertisers pick up the tab. This is the way it’s always been, and for many people in the advertising industry, that’s how things should stay, because there is no point in trying to reinvent it or adapt it to the world we live in today.

This isn’t about people wanting something for nothing. We’ve now reached the point where advertising has become a form of torture we must endure so as to be able to watch our favorite programs, which is not only absurd and hypocritical, but increasingly unsustainable.


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

Enrique Dans

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Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)