Opinion

Direct response advertising: Apple treats the disease, Google treats the symptoms

Tracking enables marketers to creepily follow us around the web and pester us everywhere we go with whatever ads their idiotic algorithms tell them we're interested in and would be delighted to see – says Bob Hoffman

The state of online advertising is ‘beyond annoying’ – argues Bob Hoffman

Apple and Google both know there’s a big problem. The problem is that online advertising is a shit show of unprecedented proportions. In recent days, both Apple and Google have announced initiatives to deal with the problem. Google’s solution is timid. Apple’s solution is much better.
First let’s define the problem. Essentially everyone who uses the web is fully fed-up with the horrifying state of online advertising. It is beyond annoying, beyond stupid and beyond insufferable. People have always viewed advertising as a minor annoyance. But online advertising and the imbeciles who create and propagate it are so far removed from reality that human beings are in revolt. Over 600 million web-enabled devices are currently running ad blockers.

The hidden hand behind the horror of online advertising is tracking. Tracking, and the collection of personal information, is in large part responsible for many of the worst aspects of online ads. Let’s put aside for a moment the damage that tracking is doing to privacy, security, democracy and journalism, and just talk about two simple reasons why Apple’s solution is much better than Google’s.

The personal data that is amassed by tracking has turned the web into a non-stop direct response ad machine. Direct response advertising (whether of the junk mail, 800 number or ‘click here’ variety) has always been the ugliest and most annoying type of advertising. It is usually enabled by data bases.

Tracking enables marketers to creepily follow us around the web and pester us everywhere we go with whatever ads their idiotic algorithms tell them we’re interested in and would be delighted to see. Yes, they actually believe this horseshit.

The ad blocker is coming soon

Google’s Chrome browser (the world’s most popular with over 50 per cent market share) will in the near future be loaded with a partial ad blocker that will block what Google considers the most annoying type of ads. Google’s ad blocker has been developed with a group called the ‘Coalition for Better Ads’. This is a bunch of advertisers, publishers, online media and agencies whose stated objective is to force better online advertising. But whose hidden agenda is probably to protect tracking and surveillance marketing.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation has this to say about Google’s plan:

“While we welcome the willingness to tackle annoying ads, the CBA’s criteria do not address a key reason many of us install ad blockers: to protect ourselves against the non-consensual tracking and surveillance that permeates the advertising ecosystem operated by the members of the CBA.”

I agree with the EFF. Any effort to fix the awfulness of online advertising is laudable, even if it ain’t perfect and even if it is somewhat cynical. But Apple’s idea is much better. Apple’s Safari browser will soon employ ‘intelligent tracking prevention’. This will keep marketers from tracking us across sites. Don Marti sums up the benefit of Safari’s solution succinctly:

  • Nifty machine learning technology is coming in on the user’s side.
  • ‘Legitimate’ uses do not include cross-site tracking.
  • Safari’s protection is automatic and client-side, so no blocklist politics.

Apple wants to protect the user experience

The key difference in the way Apple and Google approach the problem can be found in the nature of the companies. Apple makes very little money from online advertising and has a self-interest in protecting their users’ experience. Google, on the other hand, makes virtually all of its money from advertising and has a self-interest in protecting tracking and surveillance marketing. The key thing to remember is that most of the major players in online advertising have a big stake in surveillance marketing. They will fight like hell to protect tracking.

Google have proven to be geniuses at subtle misdirection. Their whole search engine business is founded on the idea of misdirection — create a paid search result that seems to a consumer to be close enough to a natural search result to be believable. This is the essence of their business.

It is not surprising that Google’s ‘Better Ads’ solution would look like it’s treating the disease while actually only treating symptoms. Always keep in mind that Google, Facebook, the IAB, the ANA, and the 4A’s will always fight to retain tracking. Why? They are now in the surveillance business. Their business is collecting, selling, and exploiting the details of our personal lives and our personal behaviour.

Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of two independent agencies and is the author of the Ad Contrarian blog

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