Advertising Doesn’t Have to Irritate, Intrude, Lie, Cheat and Generally Suck

The future of advertising and the media it supports rests on building real relationships

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: A window cleaner walks past a billboard with a small portion of an old advert remaining on February 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Crumbling Advertisement. (Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Let us be gentle as we deliver this message to the good companies that pay for you to enjoy (I hope) this page—as well as most content across all media—for free: Your advertising sucks.

Then let us try to help them fix that, or else their generous subsidy could disappear and with it much of the media we enjoy—the rest retreating behind paywalls for the edification and entertainment of only those who can afford it.

That their advertising sucks in the view of the customers they want to reach is apparent with the news that online users will block $21 billion worth of advertising globally this year, according to PageFair and Adobe.

The situation for advertisers and the media they feed will only grow worse as Apple (AAPL) introduces adblocking into the heart of its next operating system, iOS9 and OS X El Capitan. Apple won’t just enable the blocking of ads but of “cookies, images, resources, pop-ups and other content.” (“Content blocking” sounds more like the goal of tyrannies from Iran to China, but I digress.)

Yet I digress again. The point here is that advertising sucks.

Ad-blocking has become an industry aimed at killing an industry (advertising) that supports an industry (media), leading to yet another industry aimed at unblocking the blocked. Advertising is trapped in a vicious Imodium/Ex-lax downward spiral.

Self-interest abounds here. Apple is not advertising-driven so it is motivated to hurt its chief rival, Google, which earns 90 percent of its revenue from ads. AdBlock Plus, a leading application that does what it says, whitelists advertisers that meet its standard but then charges large companies—notably Google—for their ads to be let through. I’d say that smacks of blackmail or racketeering. I will also argue to users who block ads that they are ripping ramen noodles out of the mouths of starving journalists and media makers who need advertising support to work.

Yet I digress again. The point here is that advertising sucks. Let us listicle the ways:

  1. Advertising is almost always irrelevant.
  2. Advertising is oppressively repetitive. That is only worse now that so-called retargeting advertising will note when you look at a pair of pants online so those pants can stalk you across the web for months.
  3. Even with all its newfound data and artificial intelligence, advertising is still stupid. It doesn’t know that you already bought those damned pants and keeps selling them to you.
  4. Advertising interrupts—first radio, then TV and now our Facebook streams.
  5. Advertising is intrusive of privacy. I will argue that the humble cookie has been unjustly demonized by the Wall Street Journal, for cookies do useful things like reducing the frequency with which ads are served to you (see complaint No. 2). Still it’s true that the advertising, media and technology industries gather much data without giving their users any control or transparency into the reasons and consequences.
  6. Advertising is irritating. It always has been. Go to anyone over the age of 50 and whine, “More Parks Sausages, Mom,” then watch them cringe.
  7. Advertising is tacky, a glaring, blaring blight on the visual and auditory landscape. On most sites, there is just too much of it.
  8. Advertising in inefficient. The only advance on the net is that marketers now have a better chance of determining which half of their dollar is wasted.
  9. Advertising lies.

So how do we fix it? Not with native advertising. That is just another lie, designed to make us think an ad is not an ad. But we’re not as stupid as advertisers—and media companies—take us to be. As online metrics company Chartbeat has learned, users engage with a web page—that is, they scroll through it—71 percent of the time when the page contains real content but only 24 percent of the time when it carries so-called native advertising. And that leads me to one more complaint to fill out this listicle:

  1. Advertising is an insult to our intelligence.

Advertising can be fixed just as media can be by building relationships of relevance, trust, respect and value with the people they serve rather than continuing merely to spout messages to the masses.

I’ll give you an example. I’ve been shopping for a new car. I have specific, geeky desires, including wanting Android Auto. I have now tried to get a simple answer about its availability in the model I want from a certain automaker’s Twitter account, PR department and two of its dealers. They’re not equipped to know me and help me buy what I want. They are built to sell me what I likely do not want.

To make advertising more useful and worthwhile on a foundation of mutually beneficial relationships, some warnings are in order.

  • For brands and technology companies: You must have the means not only to record data about customers but to make it open to them, to allow them to control and correct it, to explain clearly what you do and why, and to show what benefit will come to them—such as giving them relevant information. You must build trust through consensual transactions and radical transparency.
  • For consumers: To receive relevance from advertisers and media and avoid their useless noise, it will do you no good to hide in the faceless anonymity that ad- and cookie- blockers provide. You will need to reveal yourself and your desires.
  • For media: If you do not first learn the relationship business yourself, then you will bring nothing to advertisers in this transition. There is a significant risk that marketing will wake up, improve and move on without you.

These days, it’s said that the new oil in media is not content or distribution but data. No, I will argue that value will lie in trusted relationships. If marketing and media are built on knowing and serving customers’ needs, then they will be more welcome and efficient.

Of course, there will still be many instances when advertisers try to sell us what we don’t (know we) need. Fine. But make that attempt informative, engaging, compelling, entertaining, and honest and we might choose to listen.

The real lesson in the era of ad-blockers is that the customer is finally and truly in charge. Until now, advertising technology has mostly enabled more irritation, intrusion, repetition, opacity and creepiness as the co-conspiratorial industries—advertising, media and technology—desperately try to shoehorn old measures of success—reach and frequency, or now unique users and pageviews—into a new reality. They must reimagine marketing from the customer down.

Advertising Doesn’t Have to Irritate, Intrude, Lie, Cheat and Generally Suck