Advertising sucks. Let us listicle the ways.

From my Observer column (read the whole thing here):

Advertising sucks, let us listicle the ways:

1. Advertising is almost always irrelevant.

2. Advertising is oppressively repetitive. That is only worse now that so-called retargeting advertising will note when you look at a pair of pants online so those pants can stalk you across the web for months.

3. Even with all its newfound data and artificial intelligence, advertising is still stupid. It doesn’t know that you already bought those damned pants and keeps selling them to you.

4. Advertising interrupts—first radio, then TV, and now our Facebook streams.

5. Advertising is intrusive of privacy. I will argue that the humble cookie has been unjustly demonized by the Wall Street Journal, for cookies do useful things like reducing the frequency with which ads are served to you (see complaint No. 2). Still it’s true that the advertising, media, and technology industries gather much data without giving their users any control or transparency into the reasons and consequences.

6. Advertising is irritating. It always has been. Go to anyone over the age of 50 and whine, “More Parks Sausages, Mom,” then watch them cringe.

7. Advertising is tacky, a glaring, blaring blight on the visual and auditory landscape. On most sites, there is just too much of it.

8. Advertising in inefficient. The only advance on the net is that marketers now have a better chance of determining which half of their dollars is wasted.

9. Advertising lies.

So how do we fix it? Not with native advertising. That is just another lie, designed to make us think an ad is not an ad. But we’re not as stupid as advertisers—and media companies—take us to be. As online metrics company Chartbeat has learned, users engage with a web page—that is, they scroll through it—71 percent of the time when the page contains real content but only 24 percent of the time when it carries so-called native advertising. And that leads me to one more complaint to fill out this listicle:

10. Advertising is an insult to our intelligence.

The column is devoted to fixing this.

  • Most would agree with your listicle, but advertising is just the canary in the coal mine here, no? How much of the internet ecosystem is spent “convincing” people to click on something for reasons unrelated to the value of that thing? Quite an awful lot.

    That’s what (mostly bad) marketing sometimes is, of course, but one end-point of what you suggest is that we as consumers might have ai agents working on OUR behalf that can tell us that Acme Co. makes pants that are both higher quality and cheaper than Century-Old-Brand A and Century-Old-Brand B. Or that 5731 people who have exactly my taste in movies like New Movie C, so I probably will too. We are on our way towards having these things already, obviously, though with less transparency and consumer-control than you’d like. And they need to put a little more I in the ai, but that’ll get there.

    So, while the problems with advertising are very fixable.. as we fix them, we’re all going to start looking down at the tools we have to do that in our hands, and think… “Hm. While I’m here, I may as well tear down the rest of this thing too and rebuild it the right way.”

    That would require a radical change in the Way Things Work, but the success of businesses like Uber suggests that we might be ready.

    [One big question then becomes — with Google, Fb, Apple, etc hiring machine learning experts like crazy, will this be another way for platform companies to eat more of other people’s lunches.]

    Thinking further… I’d also suggest that your conclusion about trusted relationships is very limited. Do I trust Respected News Org D to not screw up important stories? Do I trust Huge Old Corp E to keep my personal data safe? Do I trust Internet Giant F to Not Be Evil? We can all name many examples in all of those areas that have taught us that healthy skepticism and an ability to monitor and verify on your own are important to such relationships.

    When about the best you can do with most foundational internet companies is trust-but-verify, it’s hard to say where that leaves mere corporate mortals in building trust on such a foundation.

    Devil’s Advocate there I suppose, but still… typing this up, I realized that a clear ability to demonstrate that what you’re saying is true and accurate is the easiest way to sell me something in the internet economy. I may never completely trust you, but if you show me you know what you’re talking about you’ll make the sale.

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  • Paul Dughi

    Jeff, one of my frustrations isn’t so much with the advertising, it’s that businesses that do advertise often don’t follow through on their claims/promises. Here’s an example. I’ve also been shopping for a car (used). I went online and looked at all the dealer and aggregator sites. I got bombarded for days with retargeted ads and emails.
    I settled on 9 vehicles and emailed the internet sales manager at each dealership and told them I was ready to buy in the next 48 hours if they would tell me the car was available and give me the lowest pricing. 5 never responded at all – even after a week. Scratch them off the list. Did their advertising work? They’d probably say no since they didn’t sell me a car. But it was their problem, not the advertising.
    Of the 4 remaining, 2 sent form emails and never responded to my specific request. 1 called me relentlessly even though I specifically said no calls. Only 1 dealer responded with what I asked and was willing to work with me the way I wanted. Guess who got the business?
    Car dealers know their business has been turned upside down by the internet. Their margins are smaller. Buyers are more informed and have more options. They know they have to adapt… and yet so few have.

  • Jeff, I agree with every item on your list except for your contempt of native advertising. Ads are broken and it seems that making ads “more native” is part of the answer. Of course it’s hard to tell exactly what people mean when they use that term. Just like most things, there are good techniques and bad techniques. The frequent appearance of Shutterfly on The Ellen Show is a form of native advertising technique that works. The audience enjoys it, Shutterfly’s brand is promoted, and everyone’s happy. I’d say that some sponsored articles are also appreciated by readers, or perhaps more accurately, at least not reviled as advertising. You end this post with “this column is devoted to fixing this.” I’m eager to see your follow up thoughts on what works because we need to come up with a new model for subsidizing the cost of journalism. The answer isn’t pointing out what’s wrong; It’s taking steps in the direction of making things right (keeping in mind that advertising has never really been “good” in consumers’ eyes). My concern that your strong opposition to native advertising makes your students, clients, and follower less inclined to experiment with these new techniques.

  • I’m fascinated and impressed at how online personalities are the ones who are teaching marketers and brands how to make ads that don’t treat consumers like idiots. I’ve always had a problem with media that try to be a voice for all brands. Some of the most savvy YouTubers work with brands that match their voice and integrate products into their content in a way that doesn’t disrupt their normal way of doing things. The smart ones appreciate / respect their audiences first and will outright refuse to work with brands that goes against their values as not to risk alianating their fans. Have you ever heard of a magazine/website/tv network refuse an ad buy?

  • Jonathon Sciola

    As the west moves towards a services-centric rather than product-centric market I wonder whether paying for content becomes the new push-advertising and pull-advertising is gone.

  • Raymond Chuang

    Jeff, you missed a HUGE reason why people are using ad blockers: too many online ad providers are still using Adobe Flash, a plug-in program notorious for using up computer system resources and is a known vector for injecting malware into personal computers.

    Forcing the online ad providers to code their ads completely in HTML 5.0 (which was finalized back in the end of October 2014) and requiring that any media file attached to the ad cannot play unless by user interaction would TREMENDOUSLY help in slowing down the usage of ad blockers in general.

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