Long-time readers know that I’m not a fan of ads. Specifically, I’m not a fan of ad-supported business models. But is that just a matter of personal taste? Or does advertising pose a clear and present danger to the digital environment?
Ad-supported models are at the heart of the “free” internet. As such, they act as a great equalizer, making online products and services available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
Moreover, machine learning systems help ensure that we see relevant, personalized ads. Pay-per-click and pay-per-action models align the incentives of ad-supported providers and consumers: providers only get paid when the consumers are interested enough in the ads to engage with them.
See in this light, the ad-supported model sounds like the love child of socialism and capitalism! It redistributes the wealth of the internet to everyone, while using market forces to optimize the effectiveness of ads.
Unfortunately, “free” comes at a price: our time, our attention, and our data. Let’s look at each of these.
Time, as the adage goes, is money. The average hour of free commercial TV includes over 10 minutes of ads. It’s hard to get similar statistics for online ads, but it feels safe to assert that the time we spend watching ads is not being exchanged for for anything close to the market value of our time — at least not in the US, where the median wage is $23/hour.
The cost of our attention is harder to quantify. But there’s a variety of research showing that interruptions and distractions increase our stress and require recovery time. Hence, to the extent that ads interrupt and distract us from other activities — which is precisely what they are designed to do — they exact a cost beyond the time we spend watching them.
Finally, ad targeting relies on extensive data collection. As a result, ad-supported websites and apps include cookies, trackers, and other data collection mechanisms. Again, it’s not clear how to quantify this cost, but we wouldn’t intentionally give up this data for free — and most of us have no idea how much data we are sharing, let alone how that data is being used.
The effects of the ad-supported model extend beyond the companies using it.
It’s impossible to avoid ads. In particular, Google and Facebook, which exert nearly monopolistic control over our access to the internet, don’t offer alternatives to their ad-supported core products. You can use ad blockers, but doing so fuels a technology arms race with ad-supported businesses. Moreover, the ubiquity of ads means a ubiquity of trackers.
It’s hard to run an online business today without ads. With notable exceptions like Netflix and Spotify, consumers have a strong preference for “free”. That makes it difficult to build a viable business without ads, at least when you’re competing against an ad-supported incumbent. As a result, even the people who want to pay for an ad-free service usually don’t have the option to do so.
Finally, the prevalence of advertising is driving a surveillance economy. Since we’re not paying for products, we — that is, our time, attention, and data — are the product. As a result, we are bombarded with relentless attempts to mine our data and monetize it. Even worse, the collection, combination, and centralization of that data makes us vulnerable to fraud and identity theft.
So, are ads really that bad?
Yes, I believe they are.
I concede that ads have been an equalizing foundation for today’s internet. But the price — in time, attention, and data — is unacceptably high. Moreover, the effects of ads go well beyond the ad-supported businesses that serve them. We can’t avoid the ad-supported business that dominate the internet, nor the surveillance economy that ads are driving.
Sometimes we have the option to pay for ad-free products. But usually not. We can use ad blockers and tools to protect us from aggressive tracking, but we’re just participating in an arms race — and it’s not clear that we can win.
Several years ago, Jeff Hammerbacher said that “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”
Ads are a kind of digital pollution — toxic emissions of our data exhaust. Let’s work together to protect our digital environment — and ourselves.