Ethics In Ad Consumption

One of the age old business models of print media has been the idea of not just selling subscriptions, but also mingling content with advertisements.  It's funny to pick up a magazine at a store and flip through the pages and you end up seeing more advertisements than actual article content.  It comes as no surprise then, to discover that digital media plays the same game, the twist being that a lot of online content is 'given away' and exclusively dependent on ad revenue to support publication.

First generation advertising came in the form of static banners and later popups, but as those forms of communication steadily increased in both quantity and subversive tactics to demand your attention, so too did technology's response to suppress them.  Flash mini-games became another distraction, but the arms race seemed to be taken to a whole new level with the Firefox browser.  With its modular platform, developing extensions to the browser opened a whole new avenue for dealing with the deluge of advertising that saturates content.  The biggest players in this arena?  AdBlock and NoScript.  Both extensions take similar routes in stemming the tide of advertisement.  AdBlock blocks the browser from loading content from known ad content sites, while NoScript takes a much heavier handed approach by stopping the programming language employed to load such advertisements: JavaScript.  These tools are very effective in what they do, but they raise an interesting question: is it ethical to block the advertisements?

After all, we the consumer are partaking of something we view as 'free', but the provider bears an awful amount of cost in not only creating the content, but also making it available.  One can't help but ponder, then, if we are in fact stealing.

Personally, I think not, but because of some very specific reasons.  To explain this, we have to look at some fundamentals of marketing theory.  Generally speaking, there are two strategies of Marketing, 'push' and 'pull'.

The pull strategy puts the power in the hands of the seller, because the consumer is approaching the seller with a known need.  The consumer typically has the requirements for the product, but has to research the best fit for it.  This would be an example of a person shopping for a vehicle: the consumer has a general idea of what he needs, but needs to figure out which (of the many) products will best address it.

Push marketing however has a severe disadvantage to the seller.  The seller has a product for which there is no current demand, so he must resort to means to generate demand from consumers.  Such marketing campaigns take 'shotgun' approach by using media such as TV commercials, magazine advertisements, and yes, spam.  The whole approach of push is to make as many people aware of the product, knowing full well that only a fraction of consumers will actually respond.  One of the bigger reasons that this occurs is that it can be difficult to target specific individuals because of varying demographics within the scope of a given distribution channel.

So, going back to why I don't think it is unethical to block such advertisements, we have to look at our own consumptive habits.  I don't respond very well to push strategies because I don't respond very well to artificially created demand of products that don't appeal to me.  I have a fairly good idea of what my 'needs' (or better stated, desires) are, so it's difficult to fool me into thinking I need something I really don't.  The second problem is that push ads are not tailored to my specific needs.  When you take a 'shotgun' approach to advertising, relevance can decrease dramatically.  It gets to the point where advertisements aren't helping me discover new products, but adding to the noise of trying to consume content.

Google Ad Words tries to take a contextual approach to advertising, where, if I am on a site that talks about mortgages, I must be looking for a lender and display appropriate ads.  This is a step in the right direction, but still falls short of really targeted advertising.

So, if a site is not displaying relevant ads, am I justified in turning them off? Maybe.  One other facet of advertising deals with not trying to sell you something, but also creating brand awareness.  Many times a firm isn't necessarily interested in selling you a specific product, but just wants to let you know that they exist.  These motivations in advertising seem rather benign, but I think the arguments for or against online advertising coalesce around how it's done.

If there is more advertising than content, you're sunk. used to be one of the higher profile offenders in this arena where the front page often had more advertising than headlines, which made it unbearable to look at it.  Flash animations are also horrible.  The intention is that animated objects stand out over static content, attracting your attention to the ad.  Then, the pet peeve of them all, scantily clad women.  Some sites fail to realize that people can get fired from work for viewing such content, even though it doesn't bare (pun intended) any context to what the user is actually consuming.  In a family friendly environment, such ads are inappropriate as well.

In all, less is more.  Less intrusion in the online experience would translate into more contact, because the arms race can stop.  So, I propose a truce.  I would gladly drop ad counter-measures if content providers would use static content, drop the Flash animations, and increase the content-to-advertisement ratio on their sites.  If your ads would be more targeted, I'd even consider clicking on them.  Until then, however, I feel perfectly justified in blocking them all together.  Your intrusion into my browser has exceeded a painful threshold.  You are a guest inside my browser.  And when you wear that visit out, I’ll just sweep the parts of you out that are offending.

Posted on Feb 18
Written by Wayne Hartman