Opinion

There is good in online advertising, if we could just get rid of the surveillance

Online advertising has been so debased by creeps and crooks, and oversold by hustlers and liars that it is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate the good in it – argues Bob Hoffman

For over 10 years, I’ve been writing about how shitty, worthless and dangerous I think most online advertising is. Today I want to talk about the good in online advertising.

The best part of online advertising is that it funds an amazing array of free stuff (let’s try to avoid the ‘it’s not really free because you are the product’ cliché for a few minutes).

Sadly, online advertising has been so debased by creeps and crooks, and oversold by hustlers and liars that it is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate the good in it. If we could eliminate the creeps, crooks and hustlers, and allow the web to provide what it is capable of providing – well, that’s what this post is about.

A look at the numbers illustrates clearly how much we value what we get online. The average person in America, for example, now spends almost four hours a day online. This is not inconsiderable. And we wouldn’t be here if we weren’t getting some substantial value from it.

The key piece is this: Virtually everything we enjoy about the web is paid for by advertising. Whether you hate advertising or love it, there is one simple truth that must be acknowledged – advertising provides the money for companies to create the stuff we like and use online. This is why it is important to preserve an ad-supported web.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with online advertising. But there is something terribly wrong with the flavour of online advertising that we have evolved.

Essentially there are two kinds of online advertising. The good kind supports quality publishers, does not spy on us or track our every move and respects our privacy by not collecting unnecessary personal, private information (what the marketing industry loves to call ‘data’). It doesn’t share it, sell it or leak it into the digisphere.

The bad kind of online advertising is only superficially advertising. It is mostly tracking-based spyware disguised as advertising distributed primarily by machines (programmatically).

The bad kind is the kind that the online media industry has defaulted to. It relentlessly follows us around the web and collects unnecessary personal and private information about us usually without our knowledge and consent. And it shares, sells and leaks this information promiscuously in all directions.

It supports the shittiest publishers by using software to find the cheapest, crappiest environments to distribute ads to, thereby stealing money from quality publishers and giving birth to self-inflicted brand safety issues.

Because its primary model is data-based direct marketing (what we used to call junk mail) it leads to a style of ‘click here’ advertising that magnifies the most annoying and irritating aspects of advertising. The politics of online advertising is the part that I find most bewildering. For over a decade, the powerful players in the advertising world have been working relentlessly against their self-interest.

Advertisers would be much better served if they knew where their ads were running; if their budgets were spent influencing consumers rather than enriching adtech middlemen; if their ads were appearing on high quality sites instead being ‘programmatically’ strewn all over trash sites; if tens of billions of dollars weren’t being stolen by criminals with fraudulent websites and imaginary viewers; if hundreds of millions of people were not blocking their ads.

All of these problems could be substantially mitigated by doing one simple thing – ending tracking. And yet the moment there is a suggestion of setting some limitations on the ability of online advertisers, media, and publishers to spy on us, the advertisers rise up through their tainted trade organisations (like the 4A’s, ANA) to oppose it.

The same is true of publishers. Quality online publishers are having their audiences and revenue stolen from them through data leakage (in which programmatic systems follow valuable customers to cheaper sites and reach them there); they are victims of criminal activities like fraudulent lookalike websites stealing their audiences and ad revenues.

They are losing more than half their potential revenue to the sinkhole of adtech middlemen; they have lost control of their brand identities by allowing automated systems to determine who and what can be advertised on their sites; and they are losing revenue as ad blocking continues unabated.

And yet, once again, the moment the subject of limiting the slimy hand of tracking and adtech comes up, they mostly oppose what is clearly in their own best interest.

Online advertising doesn’t have to:

  • be despised by the public
  • subvert democratic institutions
  • enable corruption and fraud
  • place personal and private information about us within the reach of criminals
  • devalue the work of legitimate online publishers
  • waste billions of dollars of advertisers’ value on fraud
  • degrade our news media and journalism

Online advertising supports so many good things we enjoy and appreciate about the web. It gives us entertainment and information. It allows us to befriend people we would otherwise never know.

It would take so little for the online ad industry to do so much good, for itself and for the public. We have decades of evidence that tracking is not a necessity for advertising success. Television never tracked us. Radio never tracked us. Newspapers and magazines never tracked us. And we have more than enough evidence that adtech is in many ways not just non-productive, but counterproductive.

We need to get rid of tracking – not advertising – to make the web what it ought to be.


Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of two independent agencies and is the author of the Ad Contrarian blog, where this post first appeared

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