As a longtime ad guy, I now confess:
I have a love-hate relationship with the products of my own profession.
I love ads that draw me in with intelligence and wit.
I hate ads that barge into my life uninvited.
When I was a wide-eyed junior copywriter, I came to appreciate the code of ethics that guided the high-quality ad agencies.
I was taught that since people don’t actively seek out ads, we had to be respectful of our audience and capture their attention through creativity. It was our job to attract customers, not brow-beat them.
In other words, we tried not to annoy people when our goal was to start a conversation with them.
Honestly, it didn’t feel like a code of ethics. It just felt like common sense.
When it came to digital advertising, one of the prime directives was that we shouldn’t hinder or obstruct in our effort to get people’s attention.
Specifically, we couldn’t have an ad pop up over a web page and obscure its content, forcing people to find a way to remove the eyesore. And we certainly couldn’t have a video auto-play upon page load. The viewer needed to “give permission” by clicking the Play button.
Such considerations were more than agency guidelines. Website owners wouldn’t allow advertisers to “force-feed” their readers in this way. They were protective of their audience.
Obviously, things have changed. That basic respect for the audience has seriously eroded.
Welcome to the dark side of capitalism. Competition creates a never-ending quest for growth. Companies are always searching for new ways to get noticed by consumers, and websites are always searching for new ways to attract advertisers.
Let’s call it what it is: advertising pollution.
As is the case with real-world pollution, some companies make an effort to keep the advertising environment clean. Others, not so much. I suppose it’s easier to justify polluting the virtual world, since those electrons don’t make us physically ill.
Everyone gets that advertising is what powers the internet, and that our favorite sites wouldn’t exist without it. We welcome ads that are relevant to our life and work. Unfortunately, for some this is simply license to abuse.
CNN.com does a good job demonstrating the creeping effect of advertising pollution.
Click a CNN video today and you must first sit through a commercial. Click on a news article and a video at the top of that article will auto-play upon page load — starting, of course, with a commercial.
This in-your-face approach didn’t exist just a short time ago, but now represents business as usual.
Even worse, mainstream sites like CNN.com serve as inspiration for others. Since CNN ventured toward the dark side, I’ve noticed a number of city-based newspaper sites doing the same.
Thanks to competitive pressures, what was once unthinkable has become the norm.
Google, of course, is a leader in advertising pollution, with YouTube being a showcase for intrusive advertising. Many YouTube videos start with a mandatory ad, others start with an ad that can be dismissed only after the first 10 seconds.
Even more annoying are the ad overlays that actually appear on top of the video you’re trying to watch. It won’t go away until you click the X. If you want to see the entire video unobstructed, you must drag the playhead back to start over.
There are plenty of good guys and bad guys in this story. You can see for yourself which websites treat viewers with respect, and which have the advertising scruples of a junk mailer.
Just as TV stations regulate the frequency of ads and approve ad content, it’s the website owners who make the rules about what kind of advertising we see.
Not too long ago, they simply didn’t allow intrusive ads. Now, in the effort to snare more advertising dollars, they’re open to anything.
Shall we have a mass uprising in protest?
Oh. Didn’t think so.
Well, just remember, we still have the power of the click. Use yours wisely!