Advertising is Hated — and Failing

By Philip Bump , written on May 14, 2012

From The News Desk

People hate ads, with two exceptions: A) Sometimes one particular ad campaign will strike the public fancy, or B) Sometimes people happen to be in the ad business and, thus, are paid to like ads.

In general, people hate ads so much that they’ve made ad avoidance an art. A tool that facilitates skipping ads is now part of a standard cable sign-up package. There is software that removes ads from webpages. Ads are used as a punishment, such as in the case of Spotify and Pandora, which will intersperse their music offerings with ads unless you pay them not to. Their ads might as well be cobbled together like ransom notes out of various typefaces from the newspaper.

Not that anyone buys the newspaper any more. Unable to figure out how to turn a profit and with digital ad revenue stumbling (at least for the New York Times), the newspaper industry is evaporating.

People keep trying to convince themselves that the flexibility and interactivity of the Web will save advertising, that they can gimmick their way to profitability. Pop-ups, pop-unders, overlays, interstitials. Like the straight man in a "Three Stooges" movie, advertisers are in a constant state of realizing they’re being had. “Hey, wait just a minute…” But the barrel of gimmicks isn’t bottomless.

The problem with advertising on the Web is that it is smart. It is numbers and data and 104 companies tracking your every move. It ends up being like a civil court case between car salesmen, where every phone call has been recorded and each lot has a full complement of CCTV cameras. It’s trying to run a shell game using transparent shells. Advertisers can better see how much people are buying because of their ads, and they’re usually not very excited about what they see.

Online publishers have two options. A) Get visitors to like the ads, or B) Just scramble to keep being paid to show them.

No one knows how to make ads that people actually like, at least not consistently. BuzzFeed’s trying to, but the effort is like trying to make a hit song: even if you have the general formula for making something go big, even if you’ve done it before — who knows?

Saying “I’m going to make this ad go viral” ignores the fact that the vast majority of viral content is ridiculously stupid. The second strategy, then, is the high-volume approach, same as it ever was. When communications systems wither, more and more of what’s left is the advertising dust. Junk mail at your house, in your email; crappy banner ads on MySpace. Platforms make advertising cheaper and cheaper in a scramble to make up revenue through volume.

Companies are totally cool with the high volume plan, once they fool themselves into thinking the brute force, low-cost strategy somehow works. It is easier to believe you’re being successful, when the bill is small. And thus every medium to-date has ended up as a simulacrum of 1978 Times Square: dirty, riddled with half-working neon signs, porn-obsessed, vacant but for detritus.

When the president of the Washington Post says he wants more slideshows, what he’s really saying is, "We need to drop the price on our peep shows," or "You can fit more of those grocery store circulars in the box if you wrap them all up with a rubber band." And when Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic says that slideshows are garbage tactics that make everyone mad, he’s saying, "Have some self-respect. It’s not that bleak." (While The Atlantic seems to know what it’s doing, the scene for banner ads is pretty bleak.) But volume means lots of little checks coming in, and everyone likes being paid to show ads. So why fight it?

Another tack: stop publishing content for content’s sake. Amazon is starting its own blogs to promote products. Gawker is trying to figure out how it can better profit from retailer referral fees. Amazon is becoming a content creator; Gawker is becoming a sales catalog. Advertising becomes content; content becomes ads — no one likes anything and everyone makes money, (or maybe not).

People used to buy snake oil, because they couldn’t look it up on Yelp. A merger with content lets advertisers side-step social reviews. If they don’t, advertising is meaningless, just a marker of existence instead of a persuader.

The good news for advertisers and publishers is that there’s a new, still-largely-untapped medium: mobile. It’s a whole new arena to pitch, to innovate, to gimmick. Your phone won’t know what hit it.

The good news for consumers is that websites and magazines and TV shows we like still exist. The bad news is that we never want to pay for them, even by directing our attention to the ads that envelop them.

But whose fault is that?

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