Online advertising: when better is worse

There I was, reading this paper called “Online Advertising, Identity and Privacy” by Randal Picker of the University of Chicago Law School, and learning quite a bit from it. He’s obviously thought hard about the conflicts (privacy) and opportunities (advertising) that arise when people provide their identity to online services, and about what kind of regulation may be needed to ensure those services behave responsibly with the data they collect. After all, as he says:

In the past, we have regulated intermediaries at these transactional bottlenecks – banks, cable companies, phone companies and the like – and limited the ways in which they can use the information that they see. Presumably the same forces that animated those rules – fundamental concerns about customer privacy – need to be assessed for our new information intermediaries.

In introducing the topic of advertising, Picker makes the standard point that “Ads in these [traditional] media are targeted to rough demographics. The Internet, in contrast, promises advertising matched to me”. And this, he claims, is a good thing: “Think about TV advertising and how many ads that you see for products that you never consume. Those ads are almost all wasted. Behavioral advertising [ie, personalized, online advertising] offers the promise of tailoring ads to individual consumers greatly increasing the efficiency of each ad dollar spent”.

And then it clicked. I’d never realised it before, but the assumption that accurate advertising is better for me than inaccurate advertising is completely wrong. 180 degrees wrong. The truth is that accurate, targeted advertising is not a good thing, it’s a terrible thing.

To be slightly more nuanced, there are two kinds of ads in the world: listings and intrusions (I’m sure there are better names out there, but that’s all I can think of), and while accurate listings are OK, accurate intrusions are a terrible thing, because they intrude more effectively.

Listings are ads that I seek out: If I’m looking to buy a second-hand chest of drawers I’ll look in the back of the local paper, or on Craigslist or on Kijiji, and here I want to be able to find what I’m looking for, just like Randal Picker says. An ad for a car is no use if I’m looking for a chest of drawers. if I were looking for a job I’d want ads that match my skills and interests. So when we’re talking about listings, accuracy is good.

But then there are all those ads that you try to ignore, because they work by getting in your way when you’re not looking to buy anything at all. TV ads, radio ads (thank heavens for the CBC), some newspaper and magazine ads are all intrusions. They work by intruding into something else that you’re doing and catching your attention. And what I want from these ads is for them to be as obviously wrong and inaccurate as possible, because then I know I can ignore them safely. The more inaccurate they are, the less they drag at my attention, and the less likely they are to pull me away from what I’m trying to do. More accurate ads are a more effective distraction. And while that may be good for the advertiser, and even for the owner of the delivery medium, it’s bad for me.

This is not some fancy rhetorical point – it’s actually how I experience newspapers and the Internet, and I suspect you do too.

Think about Adwords. When you carry out a search, you don’t want the advertised listings, you want the “honest”, unpurchased listings. Try it yourself. If you are interested in finding out more about the subject of this post you may google [online advertising]  (go ahead and click: the link opens a new window). Do you want any of those listings down the right hand side? No you don’t. Do you want to go to those top three advertised links? No you don’t. Fortunately, they are all pretty much obviously outfits you don’t want anything to do with and you can easily ignore them. But if they were closer to what you were really interested in, you’d have to look over them, wonder whether to click them, decide whether to discard them or not. It’s all effort and attention and I’m lazy enough that I really don’t need it. The closer those ads are to what I’m looking for, the more distracting they are, and the more effort it is to drag my eyes away from them to the results I actually want.

Fortunately, despite the promises of individually targeted ads that know my inner desires and motivations, we don’t have to worry about them becoming too accurate to ignore in the near future. After all, right now all we get is weight loss ads on Facebook and everywhere else and everyone gets to see those. Unless… you do see them too, don’t you?

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  1. Interesting. In fact, the web is much more a commercial medium than any other. There are not only ads on almost any page and better targeted to who you are, but there’s a certain marketing subtext. Why? It’s economy. The good old saying (“There’s no such thing as a free lunch”) will be true for facebook and Youtube, just as much as it is true for google. Where there are costs somebody has to pay for them. That’s why “free content” means the money comes from elsewhere. Either from a sponsor or from clicks. That is the web-currency you can trade to off-web-money by ads … However, to me it seems that the web more and more is flooded by sellers of all kind and marketing intentions and many users can’t see through this while they still can tell ads from non-ads. But tons and tons of non-ads are still marketing activities.

  2. I agree that the web has commercialized more activities than any other I can think of – conversations, letters, photos, and more. I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by non-ads that are still marketing activities until I clicked the link from your name.

  3. It’s a sad thing. The web has always been known as a free and open source of information – one free of commercial influence. Google changed that. Ads now drive the internet and most of its innovations. Ad blocking plug ins only do so much – and with Google’s firefox and chrome influence, and Microsoft gearing up their search/ad business – ad blocking software is only going to go so far.
    Targetted ads should be opt out. Until then, I’m getting extremely good at ignoring the noise on most pages I visit.

  4. If we are all good at ignoring the noise, then the ad-funded wave won’t last. I wonder what will come next?

  5. I think the naive pay for our experiences. I’ve no doubt that we’ll be paying for our specific internet ‘services’ in the future ala pay-tv. Until then, let’s enjoy what we’ve got.

  6. “…the naive pay for our experiences.” Pretty disturbing thought, especially when you replace ‘naive’ with less-educated, more vulnerable, most exploitable, etc.

  7. Jason Hinsperger

    Your Facebook example is interesting – I am sure they do targeting in their ads based on your profile settings. Last year, when I got engaged, and subsequently married, both my wife and I updated our status’s accordingly. Almost every ad I saw from then on when I logged into Facebook was related to weddings, wedding planning, rings, etc… That could not have been by coincidence.
    It does drive your point home for me though – several times I was distracted by those ads because I was indeed planning a wedding. However, I wasn’t on Facebook to do wedding planning, and the ads were wasting my time because I couldn’t just ignore them.
    Fortunately, the Firefox ad/flash blockers have resolved this problem – I no longer see (m)any ads.
    As for the weight loss ads, I don’t know what you’re talking about 😉

  8. Someone else who works not a million miles from us has told me a similar story. Not only that, but his friends got ads about suitable gifts for newlyweds.
    I have wondered if Google developed Chrome, despite funding much of Firefox development, because of concerns over ad blockers. But who knows?

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