By January 5, 2012 2:47PM [link]

I generally dislike advertising, but why? And how much is ok?

I initially set out to categorize ads into two buckets. Those I called "passive" ads were ads alongside an app or web page or newspaper article or etc that I'm using, which can catch your eye but do not interfere with the main content. The others I called "active" advertising, which would be something like a TV commercial or splash screen ad that prevents you from using the main content for a short time to (hopefully) make you pay attention to the ad. But then I found a large grey area between them: those little dancing sprites in the corner of TV shows that advertise something. Or any squeaky flash ad that runs alongside the main content of a web page. Or anything really garish and bright that screams at you with colors if not sound, forcing you to look at it.

Instead, let's rank ads according to a spectrum of intrusiveness. A subtle line of text in a light font in the corner of a web page is less intrusive than several lines in a bolder font, is less intrusive than a small static image, is less intrusive than a big static image, is less intrusive than a slide-show of images, is less intrusive than a moving video, is less intrusive than an "interstitial". And different people are willing to tolerate different levels of intrusiveness.

I prefer services that have little or no ads, but not exclusively. I generally avoid live TV and radio because of (among other things) the ads. I instead watch TV on Netflix and listen to Pandora. The free Pandora does have ads but they are (to me) less intrusive than FM radio. For a commonly used app or service, I'd prefer to pay a bit rather than use a free service with ads. Though for a less commonly used app, bring on the ads. I read the print newspaper and some magazines, but generally toss out all the ads without reading through them. (I do of course glance at them as I'm doing this, and the ones that are on the same pages as the articles I can't help but look at.) I don't mind if the bus I'm riding on has a big ad on the side, or if the street I'm riding by has billboards on it. I think the bus and street would look better without them, but I'm happy making the compromise with my bus fare and the ad. Given a chance between paying the true cost of producing all that news content and taking the ads with my subscription, I'll keep the ads. Though I'd be interested to know what the cost would really be. What if the newspaper offered two subscription prices, one with ads and one without? I suppose this is what some newspaper websites do.

What would Times Square look like with no ads? Race cars? Soccer jerseys? Clearly we expect advertising in some places, and tolerate it in others. I also have no problem with advertising as a business model. If Google can make a zillion dollars by making a "free" email service (or video web site, or etc.) where the users really are the product, then that's fine with me as long as those users are happy with the arrangement. Android exists largely to allow Google to send ads to mobile users via lots of "free" apps. (I publish a few free, ad-supported, apps myself, on both Android and iOS, so I'm enjoying a bit of advertising as a business model.)

Advertising does diminish the quality of the product, at least a little bit. Or sometimes a lot -- the worst are those web sites which break up a one page article into five or fifteen "pages" so they can increase the number of (supposed) page views which they make their advertisers pay for. With any luck, one or both of consumers or advertisers will catch on to this and stop frequenting those kinds of pages. If I painted a big ad on the side of my house, I bet my neighbors would complain that the neighborhood looked worse for it.

Companies that push out a lot of ads (like Google and Facebook) will try to collect more and more information on us, so as to serve more relevant ads and charge advertisers more for the privilege. To some extent, this is ok -- I'd rather see an ad for a software development tool than for a thousand dollar gold watch that I'm never, ever, going to buy. Maybe you'd prefer the watch ad to the dev tool ad. But as technology allows these companies to gather and process more and more data on us, we're going into uncharted territory as to what they can do with it. Where do we draw the line? I'll probably draw it in a different place than you. I hope we're aware of when we cross that line.

What does the future hold? Advertising isn't going away. The intelligent advertisers will learn to make the most of the various mediums without annoying their audiences (too much). Some people will make money peddling products supported by advertising and some will make money by selling products directly. Same as it always has been. We as consumers of products or services should be aware of the various ways in which we're paying for them. Sometimes by cash out of pocket and sometimes by looking at ads. Sometimes both. Same as it always has been, at least as far back as published newspapers and likely even before then.

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