Advertising: The Big Fail

The recent announcement by Apple that its newest operating system would allow ad blockers has set off a wave of consternation among advertisers and the publishers that live off of those ads. Estimates of how many online folks currently use ad blockers range from 20% to 35%, but that appears to be rising rapidly and with Apple’s announcement the fear is that ad blockers will be downloaded onto most of our phones.

In response, I’ve seen doomsday forecasts about the future of journalism. I’ve seen moralistic pieces trying to shame us into not using ad blockers. Others have bemoaned the “greed” of the producers of those apps. And still others have tried to portray publishers as innocent victims in the war between tech giants (in this case Apple vs. Google).

But the problem here isn’t the morals of the digital reader, nor is it about any unsavoriness amongst the developers. Rather I think it’s a logical outgrowth of a failed industry, advertising.

highway billboard


The very premise of advertising was always to get you to see something that you in fact never chose to see. Whether it was ads on the printed page, commercials on television, or billboards on the highway, advertisers sought to thrust themselves into your line of vision when you were hoping to see something else.

That advertising produced what was an assumed audience. Rates were based on the circulation of the newspaper, the viewership of the TV program that an ad interrupted, or the number of people that drove down the highway a billboard sat next too. Advertisers tallied up these numbers and sold their clients on this as an audience. Did anybody notice, read or react to these ads? Who knew?

But the jig was up when all this went online. All of a sudden we had measurement. Initially advertisers and publishers tried to sell their customers on the same sort of assumed audience numbers. They would talk about how many people accessed a page that a display ad appeared on. Then some of the guys paying the bills starting asking the next question. How many people clicked on the display ad? The answer came back pretty quickly. Pretty much no one.

loud ads


The response of the advertising industry was to take the commercial drivel that online audiences had already rejected as being of no interest and to deliver it in increasingly more intrusive ways. Hence we had the likes of pop-ups and video pre-roll. So what’s happening now is we’re taking something that consumers have already rejected as undesirable and thrusting in the way of something that they are trying to get to. Does that sound like the makings of a successful business?

At the same time the marketing and advertising industry has moved into the espionage business, accumulating all sorts of data about each and every one of us through various means of tracking. The promise is that they will be able to deliver targeted ads to the most appropriate audience. So far they’ve missed the boat here also.

Amazon is one of the leaders in this area, recommending products based upon our past purchases. Here’s an example of what Amazon does for me. A couple years ago I bought a book about a fashion designer as a Christmas present for a relative. So Amazon solicits me to buy more books about fashion designers. But I have no interest in fashion or the designers and I’ll probably never buy another book like that. I guess something was missing in their data.

About six months ago I was in the market to buy a new car. I shopped around a bit online. Ever since I get lots of new car ads. But I already bought a new car and I’m years away from buying another one. Looks like this data has a hole in it too.

The use of data to target ads has grown at the same time as most online advertising has been placed programmatically. What that means is that you don’t buy an ad on a specific page or even a specific site. Instead the “program” identifies appropriate online placement for your ad. I have a hard time imagining that this works since most of what I see is on the order of the miracle pill that enables you to lose 50 pounds in a week. (And I don’t need to lose 50 pounds so they didn’t get that right either.)

winkingIn the past few years advertisers have been pretty open about acknowledging how ineffective their traditional tactics have been and have turned to what it now called native advertising. The idea behind native advertising is that it involves content that looks to be “native” to the Web site on which it is published. While both the buyers (advertisers and marketers) and the sellers (media and publishers) of native advertising will expound upon how they are committed to identifying these paid entries as just that, they surely are winking at each other as they say this. Because the effectiveness of this type of advertising is directly related to how well it deceives the reader into thinking that it is in fact native content, that is, non-commercial, journalist-written, editorial content.

I can’t think of any other industry that has a standard mode of operations to give their audience what they don’t want. Is it any wonder this is blowing up? We don’t download ad blockers because we don’t want publishers to get paid. And we don’t download them because we want to get back at Google. We use them to keep stuff we don’t want to see from getting in the way of the stuff we do want to see.

Ad blockers won’t eliminate advertising. And they won’t destroy publishing. But they are a pretty good indication that advertisers have to rethink their tactics and some publishers are going to have to look at new ways to meet their payroll.

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24 Responses to Advertising: The Big Fail

  1. GP Cox says:

    Great points made here, Ken. Truth in every line! People don’t believe me
    sometimes when I tell them just how much Facebook does with everything they put on their page either.


  2. Wow does this hit home for me. Targeted advertising has been the biggest dupe ever for precisely the reasons you mention. It’s almost gotten to the point where I hate to shop online for things like insurance, cars knowing that I will be forever inundated with useless ads! Never occurred to me until I read this how in the past we have never had a true measure of the success of ads! But when I think back to my career, we always said the same about any leads we got from shows. Great article!


  3. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, I never really thought about this before. I do hate those video pre-rolls and I don’t think I’ve stopped to think ‘I must get that’ Usually I just click the ad off.
    But business will still need to get their new product message out – since advertising companies are considered creative, I guess we’ll find out just how creative they can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Phoenicia says:

    My pet hate are the adverts that are shown before a Youtube video is played. At least it gives the option of skipping but interestingly only after 5 seconds of viewing the ad!


  5. Erica says:

    Somehow, the advertising industry always rebounds. Product placement has become huge for advertisers. So now we a character in a movie driving a Ford Suv, or that character is drinking a Pepsi. Advertisers always rebound


  6. We give so much of our privacy away, because of convenience. I am surprised about how “Used to it” that it is now standard.
    Ads popup, that we are not interested in, just to pay for the privilege of us visiting the site.
    If we start using Ad blockers, it might change this attitude, or they will create more software to go around the add blockers.
    Thanks for sharing this great post.


  7. Donna Janke says:

    Great post. I hadn’t considered advertising as a failed industry before but you make very good points. I ignore and click away all the ads that pop up on my computer and I suspect I am not alone in that. But advertisers continue and become more persistent. I wonder what new tactics they will take if use of ad blockers become common.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Ads work when they have information that you want and that you choose to see. For example, what’s playing at the local cinema. Not too many of the ads we see would fall into that category.


  8. So true, Ken!
    I think clearing the history/cache/cookies helps eliminate them stabbing us with repeat ads for old product searches. But on a Mac, doing that often wipes out all my saved stuff, so I tend to put up with the nonsense. Now with a DVR on the TV, I zip through commercials. Not that I would remember the product being advertised in lieu of the “cuteness” of the ad. I’m going to pay attention the next couple of weeks and see if there is any ad that actually makes me check out the product.

    Shared on Twitter and LinkedIn.


  9. There will always be advertising and promotion. Just a question of what form it takes. At the moment I’m using as many adblockers as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t mind advertising, I see the need for it, But, I do mind deception and computer trickery. Statistical lies are one of my biggest pet peeves. The other is switching icons or rewording phrases in such away you have to do the opposite:, “to close this ad, press continue “.


  11. Beth Niebuhr says:

    We can’t look at anything online without there being a consequence. Oh, all right, blogs like this are pretty safe! But I do get tired of seeing ads for things that I bought and things I just browsed. It doesn’t matter if you already bought it, the ads go on. Highly irritating. Hopefully this will evolve in a less annoying way.


  12. Meredith says:

    I hadn’t heard of the ad blockers, but I’m all for it! I was just pondering the possible extinction of traditional advertising the other day. I guess extinction would be too much to hope for, but it definitely needs to adapt if it’s going to survive the information age.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post Ken! As a person in the social media marketing industry, I know first hand how much research it takes to be able to share the right industry content at the right time to the right viewers. I think of it like an social experiment but it is constantly changing. It an easy job. It’s sometimes futile but a lot of my clients have never done social media before so they need as much brand exposure as they can get. Thanks for sharing.


  14. I’m not a fan of YouTube ads either. They ruin the flow!


  15. klagowski says:

    Having worked in advertising for years, I can see how much it’s changing – but not enough. In its heyday, all you needed to succeed in the business was a talent for creative and persuasion. Now, they want people with math skills! It’s all about the algorithm. Scary stuff.


  16. Great post, Ken. It’s logical that because I’m involved in travel, that I get so many travel ads put in my queue. But why do they keep showing me belly fat ads? Is it because I eat so much chocolate???


  17. Andy says:

    On very isolated occasion an ad may draw my attention to a product or service – for example, I remember seeing a late-1990s Apple ad in a magazine that caused me to look into getting an iMac – but for the most part I tune ads out as a matter of habit.

    Some ads repel me, however. A couple of commenters mention YouTube ads: I often see Mountain Dew ads at YouTube, and I don’t like Mountain Dew (this is putting it pretty mildly), and when I see these ads I don’t think “I want a Mountain Dew” but rather “Yuck, get that stuff away from me.”

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Jason @ says:

    Most advertising doesn’t bother me. It’s crazy to see how progressive it has gotten over time. I remember back in the day you would get any type of ad advertised to you, Now its mostly off of your searches.


  19. If I am receiving the content, app, or software use for free, bring on the ads (although banners are preferable to pop-ups). If you are willing to pay for the service, that’s another story. Don’t tell me that the ads offset my cost. Charge me what it takes to remove the ads and let me decide if it’s fair value.


  20. and another thing…Burma Shave!


  21. oh wow! great points Ken. Never heard of ad blockers, that is so cool.
    cant stand the adverts on youtube videos


  22. JoHanna Massey says:

    Yes indeed Ken. I need only work on a piece of writing for an hour and get bombarded by “Are You Writing A Book?” Ads for publishing houses to kick in.
    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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