The problem with the problem with advertising

Dustin Davis
Dec 2, 2014 · 5 min read

Trying to hide or kill advertising doesn’t actually do any good.
It might do more harm.

Google recently launched their new Contributor service, which allows for users to suppress ads in exchange for monthly payments to the sites (something that Slashdot and other sites had done for years), and the internet today is hooting about this as being the end of advertising and the rise of micropayments. There are a few problems with that.

First though, most ads suck. I work in advertising, and most advertising sucks. It’s fine, let’s say it. Get it off the table so we can move on.

Ads serve a purpose. They’re the bee of the professional world. Every person in the developed world is affected by advertising. The world is commerce-driven. It’s easy to blame car companies or technology companies or shoe companies for all the ills, but every employable task anyone does is beholden to the advertising. What they do can be leveraged, sold and transacted with by other people.

Even if you remove the ‘advertising’, you’re still left with four fundamental truths. In order to succeed professionally or even just survive, your company (or even you, fine artist) needs people to:

  1. find out about your offering
  2. find out why your offering is better than the competitor
  3. find out what the hell to do with your offering
  4. need to buy that offering, or why

Paying to skip advertising doesn’t actually scale for our world. All you’re furthering is Google and the site itself. You don’t extend that reach into the rest of the things I defined above. You’re furthering an echo chamber. Your job will be at risk. Or more likely, you’ll let some more insidious form of advertising in.

Reading London: A Biography, I came across a quote describing early Londoners relation to advertising, and it reframed consumerism in a way I hadn’t thought of before:

Here we have the image of the Londoner as “devourer” of the news, just as he was a devourer of food and drink. It is one of the first intimations of the “consumer,” one who can only experience the world by the act of ingestion or assimilation.

We live in an inter-related consumer culture. We tend to bemoan ‘the need to buy’ more than anything because it’s the most vacuous, but the reality is the transactions we all make support each of us in turn. Sure, do we need a new car right now? No. But will thousands of people lose their jobs if you don’t buy one? Yes. Will those people not buy insurance, or go to the doctor, or eat out, or buy organic vegetables, or YOUR organic vegetables, or a book? I digress, that’s a different article.

Google Contributor isn’t actually a solution to advertising. It’s advertising avoidance fast-lanes. You pay monthly to not see ads on certain marquee sites, the most trafficked sites. In the future it might extend to every site, sure. Both of these lead to the question: how does a site become a marquee site? Or more broadly, how does one learn of new sites with which to presumably skip the ads?

Word of mouth? Valuable links shared from friends? Content picked up and harvested by users of social networks? Articles on the big sites that you’ve paid to avoid banner ads on? These are all forms of advertising. They’re all more underhanded than our basic banner ad or preroll unit.

Let’s also not forget that the altruistic Google is one of the world’s biggest advertising networks while also serving up this panacea to the suffering.

This directly leads to one of the bigger problems currently facing the ad industry: the blurring lines of content and advertising. Sponsored articles, undisclosed corporate shilling and video posts from your trusted tastemakers are causing the FTC to crack down. We bemoan Facebook, but we all stay because it provides a value to us in keeping in touch with our friends and family, all the while advertisers can pay to have our data or our networks or to feed us targeted ads or to have an ALS icebucket challenge spread.

Why? Because we ignore the more obvious ads, so they’re less effective. This means that alternate ways have to be found, and unfortunately, thus far those ways suck. They all take approaches from old media and force them into the new, or they’re evil.

I don’t want two back-to-back preroll units. I don’t want banner ads, and I don’t want sponsored content. I don’t want someone I trusted taking money on the side and compromising their opinion. I don’t want to pay banner-ad protection money to Google. I also don’t want to pay to access content or sites.

If you’re saying you’re not me, and that you’ll pay, I guess we’ll see. I think we’re more alike than you think.

So here’s what I propose. Stop complaining about advertising. Demand more appropriate advertising. This means a new format*. One that hasn’t been devised yet. One appropriate for the internet. This format will:

Be contextual and appropriate to content and user desires

This new advertising will understand the one time you looked at kids’ stuff for a baby shower doesn’t mean that you want to have baby stuff blasted at you non stop. It will not interrupt you accessing the content you came to watch. It will not arbitrarily break your content flow.

Be appropriate to the viewport and intended duration of visit

Our new format will factor in the media in which it runs, and respect those responsive boundaries. If it ends up taking the form of an image overlay, it will not overlay the thing we came to see. It will not take 5 seconds to load on a page we’re intending to spend 10 seconds on. It will not play 200 times on every site because the media buy and ad network dictated thus and the client didn’t commit funds to run 200 different versions.

Be defined as advertising

Don’t screw with our content, advertisers. Don’t screw with our trust, publishers. It’s fine if this new format is a site sponsor, but disclose this and don’t scream it.

Dear everyone taking up this challenge, work harder than making this new format a site sponsor.

Provide a value

We’re all admitting there’s a need to showcase our wares and to tell a story of why this widget is needed. There can be a value to this. Be more than a BOGO ad. Unless of course I’m walking into a fast food restaurant and you know what, I will save 1.00 by having two of a Taco vs a Taco and a Burrito.

You, viewer, will promise not to ignore the ads. You won’t skip the ads. Don’t swat the bees. They pollinate your flowers.

*I hesitate to even call this advertising, because this is a tacit admission by all of us that we are all connected and need to see and share what we do, but what the hell, let’s call it advertising for right now.


Insights, ramblings, musings and other thoughts from the…

Thanks to Matt Anderson

Dustin Davis

Written by

I’m a Creative Director. Meaning I think of crazy ideas dumb enough to work. PDX via SLC via DTW.



Insights, ramblings, musings and other thoughts from the team at Struck (the agency, not the verb)

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