Online advertising

The web has an ad problem. / Daniel Oines via Flickr

 

To hope for online advertising to be completely stripped away from the fabric of the internet as it stands today is foolhardy. But looking at latest trends in digital content consumption and distribution paint a dismal view of user experience when it comes to our lives online. The moment I launch my browser, I am inundated with any number of the following: Horrible pop-ups, jarring animations, large sticky ads, interstitials, full-screen rollover ads.. pick your poison.

Be it websites or your social feeds on any platform, the barrage of promotional messages from brands follow us around as an inescapable digital fever dream.

While there’s an entire debate about online advertising being a necessary evil that subsidizes journalism and keeps the content tap flowing, this one’s not as much about the product (ads), as it is about the packaging (aesthetically and functionally appalling).

The mechanics of the tech-media-advertising ecosystem have rendered an entire industry oblivious to what is good for their primary audience – readers, and see them as consumers whose fickle attention streams need to be hijacked and then sold to the highest bidder.

Publishers and platforms are increasingly amping up alternate intrusive methods for serving ads. Facebook started displaying ads within the message stream on its Messenger app last year, another example of interruptive experience in a consumer application, which ideally should have only a pure human-to-human element.

We know of course that marketers ruin everything.

As more and more users install and use ad-blockers, the trend poses an existential threat to digital publishers. A PageFair report from 2017 shows that 615 million devices now use Adblock, the majority of which are in Asia.

While attempts at codifying online advertising standards are being made, in the form of Coalition for Better Ads, a coalition of international trade associations and tech/media companies with a mandate of improving consumers’ experience with online advertising, critics are neither impressed nor hopeful. Consider the research findings from the group –

On desktop, consumers told the Coalition they do not like pop-up ads, autoplay video ads with sound, prestitial ads that have a countdown timer, such as those found on Forbes.com and large sticky ads that consume more than 30% of the screen.

Who would’ve guessed, right?

As AdAge reports

..if consumers in Europe find pop-up ads annoying, will consumers in Africa find them equally annoying too?

The organization’s sluggish pace to answer such pedestrian questions highlights the long road ahead for both marketers and publishers.

 

Media-Capitalism-Complex

We have now been living in the internet era for well over two decades. It’s good to keep in mind that although its origins can be traced back to government funded research in the defense department, with philosophical underpinnings of techno-utopia, the growth of the modern internet has been a result of, and been nurtured by capitalism.

The promise of the democratization of many-to-many communication has resulted in unprecedented innovation with far-reaching benefits. We must, in the same breath, also appreciate that it has also resulted in the creation of monopolies that exert immense power, both economic and political. In a Monthly Review article, Profs. Foster and McChesney write –

 

This economic context points to the paradox of the Internet as it has developed in a capitalist society. The Internet has been subjected, to a significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.

 

There is value for readers in advertising, no doubt. Some are doing it tastefully, with results. The problem becomes acute when media companies continue to favor the profit motive over their core purpose (geared towards reader experience) and are complacent at looking for alternative business models.

Unless the dominant market players take it upon themselves to re-think the current models, with some economic compromises in the short term, there can be no easy solutions to this intractable problem. The backlash may come sooner than expected.

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