Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The Advertising Immunity is upon us

So the BBC ran an article recently claiming that web surfers are getting more 'selfish and ruthless'. In disbelief, I read the article in search of the proof of our increased/increasing selfishness. Apparently we click on less ads. And we do what we want faster. I kid you not. Being efficient, immune to distractions (such as ads) as well as being more aware of how the web works and hence wasting less time is proof of our selfishness. Next thing you know, we will be clicking on the bloody banners as an act of charity to prove our selfless nature. Now, I wanted to write this article for a while, but then I saw this post in a blog somewhere which put things into perspective. Aside from the silly title of the BBC article, it seems to be pointing to a reality. Advertising is based on the assumption that we cannot control our focus, that if you put something in front of us users/viewers/passers-by, we will pay attention to it, even if it is not what we were looking for initially. However besides the tools that we can use to block advertising on the web, it seems that ads on social networks are not having much success selling ads either.

So what happens when in this arms race, the human brain responds with improved focus? It seems that whenever a flaw in the mind is found and exploited to death, the next generation grows up with a predisposition to avoid this pitfall. There will always be a vulnerable minority, but the mainstream masses seem to handle themselves against narcotics, gambling and other shortfalls in human perception, if not by pure genetic ability, then by learned cultural means.

So, will the advertisers simply increase their dosage on more potent ingredients such as, say, sex? Oh I wish they do.


No, no, you misunderstand me. I mean, I wish they do so we can finally develop an immunity to sex advertising as well. Given a few years of course. Objectification of women and men as a means of increasing sales is simply classless. But if it can be done, someone will do it. It is the way of the market, and the way it should be. The good thing is that our brains and culture will also similarly evolve to distinguish commercial sexuality from the real thing and dismiss the former as mere noise, which it is. In a way, for some people, it already has. I am hoping in more of that for more of us.

What about personalization? That's the next big thing, right? The premise is simple: If they sell us ads that we _want_ to see, we will _want_ to see them. The catch is that in order to judge what we want to see, they have to learn quite a bit about each one of us individually. And that reveals the ugly twin of personalization, which is surveillance. And these twins are joined at the hip. In order to personalize, they have to know who we are and to know that, they have to keep an eye on us. Now, assuming people may not mind some surveillance by a commercial entity, even disregarding that too personal can become creepy, there is another problem with the core argument for personalized advertising. When the advertisers say "Advertisements you want to see are almost like actual content", they are missing the part where someone has paid to have their advertisement displayed. If that was the best thing for me to see, I would have found it myself. I would have paid to have it found for me even. The fact that someone is making an expenditure means that there is some distortion happening. And this distortion will be corrected itself by the same mechanisms that have dealt with the other distortions mentioned previously. If these hypotheses hold, then the advertising game is a dead end.

What next you ask? Well, it just so happens that advertising is the engine of the professional web. Most professional websites are competing for what they call 'eyeballs' which is what they sell to advertisees. Even subscription based publications are abandoning that model and turning to ads. But it is not just content that depends on advertising. Google itself is a company that is built on advertising, which brings in 99% of their revenue. Take the advertising away and the world is back to a very primitive web, one that either has no professional input, or one that depends on subscriptions, or micropayments. Surprisingly, Google seems to be aware. Of course it should be noted that it is not the only option. Organizations such as Wikimedia (parent of Wikipedia and other wonderful ventures) are surviving just fine without advertising so that should be a very viable model as well. For the ones that are not charitable foundations though, there is one very good avenue to replacing them: decentralization.

Here is where I of course offer the usual disclaimer: Take my words with a grain of salt. This is what I want to see, so calling me biased is an understatement. Take my words only as seriously as my arguments permit you to. I welcome you to challenge me in the comments. If you have an element of knowledge that I do not, if you have noticed a flaw in the arguments or if you have attained an insight that eludes me, do not leave me in darkness, I beg of you.