Jul 14

The relentless (and annoying) pursuit of eyeballs

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.

How come?

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.


And disrespectful.

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!

  • Strangely I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I feel as though I am under assault by ads. I am annoyed and angry with ads.

    Here’s one of my favorite websites. It’s a news aggregator called “macdailynews.com.” The site hunts out news I’m interested in saving me time. I would rather pay them then see all the ads all over the site. And more and more I’m starting to see these innocuous and offensive strips of “You won’t believe how much Kim Karsdashian’s butt is insured for,” or “50+ Celebrities Who Have almost Died,” and on and on. I’m here for tech news, not warmed over TMZ type garbage.

    It makes an otherwise good site about as attractive as the junk mail bin in a cheap apartment building lobby.

    And then there is video. Grrrrrrrrrr….. Shiver…..

    Have you ever tried to watch a video being streamed on CBS, for example. First I have to watch 5 commercials. Then the video plays for a while, then 5 more commercials, and if I miss something in the video, and try to slightly rewind it, I’m hit with a 5 commercial penalty, or if I’ve seen this part and try to fast forward I’m hit with a 5 commercial penalty and so on. It’s utterly insane.

    Not 5 new commercials either. The same commercials over and over and over and over. The result being that they are progressively building animosity in me toward the products being advertised, not interest!!!! So help me Microsoft advertised the Surface so much on HULU that I believe they created anti-Surface sentiment without realizing it. I know you’d would have to hold a gun to my head to get me to look at one now.

    I mean I honestly hate that stupid girl that started the muffin store and manages the whole thing on her Surface.

    Then there is the phenomenon of having to watch a commercial to watch a commercial which is beyond sickening.

    The Web is not a dumping ground for advertising garbage. Someone seriously needs to re-think the paradigm.

  • Brad

    The pollution in these video ads is overwhelming, it’s sad to see the content suffer because of a mindset and sense of urgency to generate some quick advertising revenue, which from their perspective does make sense (obviously they need $$ form somewhere).

    I think the reality of it all is that it’s easier for a site like CNN to see yes to these ads to (generating the much needed revenue), than to say no. By saying no what’s the real reward? Ideally one might think that site traffic would increase, but what’s the short term success of that if you aren’t showing ads? These sites have stakeholders, they have CEO’s, and they have the urgency to see revenue increase. No one want’s to go back and focus on a product, it’s too risky for a company of that size. I think this is why we are seeing so many startups pop up that have a main focus on delivering a better product. A start up is okay with not making immediate cash, they instead want to grow a user base. In the end I think we will see many Titans like CNN lose a lot more than they think, it’s a beautiful thing.

    Going back to ad placement. It seems like everyone is trying to push all this noise at you instead of exploring unique way’s to pull users into their product which I think is what Ken is getting at.

    The ads can be one thing, it shames me even more when I see these news sites using cookies to display “news” when it’s really something like ’50 places you mud visit before you die’, or ’10 life hacks to save you 10 minutes’. There was a great reddit post about the noise on a CNN page, here it is (http://i.imgur.com/FH2eJpm.png)

    It’s almost like these content sites are spreading themselves to thin. They want to be that saved homepage in everyone’s browser when in reality it’s never going to happen.

  • Rick Roberts

    I can’t imagine using the web without Ghostery and Adblock. I realize that hurts the good guys, too, but I have to protect my sanity.

  • N

    An astute analysis of the symptoms but not the cause, which is a lack of product development. But if you look hard you’ll find media properties that marry creativity and technology such that the advertisements work so well they can run only one highly targeted advertisement per article and charge a high CPM. To Google’s credit, AdWords is an example of such a product (there’s more than ore advertisement per search but they’re grouped), the problem being that AdWords is no longer sufficient for Google’s financial needs so it has gone downmarket per the YouTube examples in your article.

  • dumb

    Just watch Adam Curtis documentary
    on beginning of Ad industry one of relative
    of Freud used all his tricks that industry took
    and ran with it.
    Really scary.

    It is not just about clicking.
    It is about tracking via Cookies, history,
    links, tracking sites, etc.
    Kroger is recording everything that you purchase
    using reward cards, which mostly poor people use
    it order to get discount.
    You can’t purchase any item from Rite-aid or wallgreen
    without their loyalty card otherwise you pay double.

    Credit rating and credit cards have the same feature.

  • vas

    The vast majority has bought into the utter bullshit that advertising makes the web free. This delusion buries not only the fact that we have made a deal with the devil, but also that the deal really sucks. What we traded our souls for we don’t even get. The web would be both cheaper and better if we just paid for what we use straight up. And more importantly, society would be better. I’ll explain all of these.


    We’re not Facebook’s customers, advertisers are (more on this below). But we are the advertiser’s customers, and the cost of the “free lunch” is simply shifted to the price of the things we buy from them. In other words we still end up paying for the full cost of Facebook (and even more, as I’ll get to next). Costs may even shift regressively, to advertised products predominately consumed by those with lower incomes, in which case the poor are subsidizing the better off.


    Not only are you still paying for the full cost of the Facebook product you use, you are paying for all the advertising overhead: the costs of its advertising technology and infrastructure (huge, btw), the agency and creative costs (Don Draper and company have to pay for the hookers and scotch somehow, not to mention what’s-his-name who basically just lounges in his office barefoot thinking Japanese), and the advertiser’s big marketing departments (that often outnumber and outspend the people making the product!).

    “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” – Jeff Hammerbacher, fmr. Manager of Facebook Data Team, founder of Cloudera

    So in addition to the original product cost and the ad overhead costs, you are also paying the opportunity cost of an inferior product (as Dennis Curtis points out in the OP) as well as the engineering costs of figuring out how to optimize ad revenue, because that’s what happens when websites have to design to please advertisers over pleasing us, the users. Dalton Caldwell makes this point comparing Sourceforge to Github[1]. As ergo says in a comment[2], “If the new news feed is making their advertisers happy (and bringing revenue into Facebook), then that’s what they optimize for.” As jfoster says in a comment[3], “Ad-supported models untie the relationship between UX and revenue.”

    Furthermore, our identities and privacy are bought and sold to the highest bidders. And where do the bidders get their money? From us of course! A double whammy! We’re trading our privacy for free product? Bullshit. We get personalization? Bullshit. Personalization means optimizing something for me, not optimizing for the advertiser. Again, we’re not the real customer. We’re certainly not Google’s[4][5].


    “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club

    Think of the social costs of advertising. The web is infested with misinformation and manipulation. Beside the lying ads themselves, relying on a revenue stream entirely dependent on how many ads are seen severely affects the moral choices of those who decide what gets produced and how its presented. What are the costs of a misinformed and variously manipulated citizenry, of distortions to the free-market?

    Knowledge and discourse are the lifeblood of both democracy, free markets, progress. The web, from the little scammy websites to the big brand ones that so many blindly trust, has a huge influence on who we vote for, what we buy, and most importantly, what we believe.

    There is no free lunch, and there is no free web. This “free” ad-“supported” web we have is much too expensive.

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair

    I am grateful that you, an insider, is speaking up about this. Your points about the perverse incentives is spot on.

    [1] http://daltoncaldwell.com/an-audacious-proposal

    [2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7484075

    [3] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7484442

    [4] Lloyd made his pitch, proposing a quantum version of Google’s search engine whereby users could make queries and receive results without Google knowing which questions were asked. The men were intrigued. But after conferring with their business manager the next day, Brin and Page informed Lloyd that his scheme went against their business plan. “They want to know everything about everybody who uses their products and services,” he joked. – Wired, http://www.wired.com/2013/10/computers-big-data/all/

    [5] Google’s once famous clean and neutral search results are now cluttered and biased (http://arstechnica.com/business/2013/10/new-banner-ads-push-actual-google-results-to-bottom-12-of-the-screen/).

  • Randy

    This should have been only an one liner article:
    “Install AdBlockPlus.”

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  • vas

    “Everyone gets that advertising is what powers the internet, and that our favorite sites wouldn’t exist without it.”

    The author nails the two sources of the problem, that advertising drives the internet, and that everyone believes we have no choice.

  • Noko

    And then they mark us as the bad guys for using ad blockers.

  • Don’t use Adblock Plus. Use Adblock Edge. Plus sold out a while back.

  • yet another steve

    I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a video that required me to watch a commercial video first. Certainly I dismiss the ad (and the video) in 95% of all cases.

    Now it’s no loss for the site that I didn’t watch the video. But if there are enough of me it breaks the web and advertising in general. I suspect I’m not the only one, and by making advertising disrespectful, the advertiser is never reaching me, or people like me, people who value their time.

    I guess ads get the audience they deserve.

    Frankly I’m on the web to read and your best shot as an advertiser is something that I don’t immediately reach to dismiss.

    Moreover, the web as we know it is not guaranteed to last forever. Ad pollution just increases the trend towards less advertising friendly mobile apps.

    I like the analogy. And whether a polluted site is deadly or simply smells bad, it repels people and has no audience.

    The internet–the connecting of devices across the globe–is here to stay. I’m not so sure about the web as we know it… ad techniques like this could make it the next AOL.

  • I’m glad to know that I am not the only person who feels that advertising is becoming truly intrusive in my life. I use ad & tracking blocking software because I’ve reached saturation point, I just can’t stomach it any more without it seriously impacting on the quality of my life.

    I’ve even started streaming ad-free tv to avoid the glut of insurance advertising (as well as the emotional blackmail that reality TV advertising employs).

    There needs to be a better way.

  • This article is too little, too late. We have ad-blocking tools now. I use them. I advise other people to use them. If that screws over your business model, tough shit. My business model is called “having a day job”.

  • Five years ago, the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, banned all outdoor advertisements. Not just billboards. Large store signs, too. Here’s a before and after video: “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vta6Cn_dLTE”.

    What was the result? The city looks better, 70% approval by citizens, and the city is enjoying a boom.

    To reduce advertising, we need to tax it. That’s under serious consideration in Congress. See “http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/sen-baucus-goes-after-advertising-tax-reform-draft-154051”. The plan has bipartisan support. The ad industy hates it, of course.

  • qka

    Ken —

    I just had to chuckle at the juxtaposition of this article’s title and your banner artwork eyeball.

  • Nameless Coward

    Sun Tzu had some great thoughts on resistance, uprising and war against forced to watch adds. And I believe Buckminster Fullers repply to this all was, not to fight but invent that which will replace systems andways of old.

    In mant ways Apple adheres to the philosophy of replacing the old and not fightbut to reinvent etc, and many cant seem to grasp this.

    Back to Mr. Fuller and the dorks of the crony capitalist force. They do fight change and fight and so work has started to just simply replace their silly schemes and
    systems of coercion. What work you ay ask? Bitcoin and wayn kewler stuff. Maybe just too kewl even for hipsters.

    Apple too is becomming more and more traditional.
    Gettimg in bed with IBM – the company that helped modernize human resources, administration of jews for hitler… Not in the least to keep track of human experimentation results. Iwatch any one?

    Any ways who watches Cnn and consorts? If you want real news just start by looking else where. drudge reprt breaks real news. all the cnn and concorts do is trying to sticking to the old. They are already dead.


  • Karl

    As mentioned before, tools like AdBlock Plus are the fix, but they are also the cause that over time advertising will outsmart the ad filters and / or cause content to be paid subscription only. Rather than stuff more obnoxious ads on pages on the providers side and get defensive with even niftier tools on the consumer side both need to dial back their onslaughts.
    I am perfectly fine to watch a 5 second commercial before seeing a well done news story. A documentary or movie is fine with even a bit more commercials up front. After that just leave me alone! Don’t frame the movie player into a bed of ads and by no means disrupt my viewing with more commercials.
    As for web sites, push the ads to the right and bottom and make it easy to temporarily hide all the ads with a click of a button. I still see them, but once they are acknowledged you had my three seconds. If nothing caught my eye you lost your opportunity, now leave me alone.
    And definitely stop tracking me, do not make me provide user names or emails for comments (like here and yes, I used fakes, so what does that help you), and don’t ask me to sign up providing private information…unless I get your content entirely ad free in return.

  • Gilbert

    I use Ghostery and AdBlock. It not only removes Ads from pages, it removes the space they use on the page. So I get more space on screen for interesting content.

    Some websites, I let Ads get in. Because I use them daily, and because their Ads are not too annoying (displaying them, I show some support for their revenue).

    This combination of No Script / AdBlock / Ghostery removes Ads from Google’s YouTube (those inserted either at beginning or in videos)

    Any website where an Ad cannot be worked around gets an immediate “Tab Closed” treatment.

    NoScript does marvels on those web sites.

    I understand they need revenue. But the machine where those pages is displayed is MY machine. They’re wasting my power ressources displaying stupid Ads. Sometimes people are taking a few coffee/minutes break at work, and can’t have a video on autoplay when checking some news. And most : they are using MY bandwidth.

    Some of use do use phones to check on news, and some are using bandwidth capped accounts. So don’t expect me to waste any bytes on Ads content.

    The more intrusive they get, the more people suppress or get around those Ads. Every person I take care of their computers or install them, they get the Firefox + NoScript + AdBlock + Ghostery treatment. By mouth and ear, like every computer technician, we propagate this way of browsing all around.

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  • Braden Best

    There’s one more problem with intrusive ads: they are essentially stealing my bandwidth, and by extension, the money I pay for the service. How dare you! If you’re going to force me to sit through an ad, then you should pay me. It’s because of this BS that I stopped watching TV a long time ago. I’m paying for that cable with the limited funds I earn, so why should I have to have that money wasted by ads that I don’t want to see, let alone have obstruct my experience?

    It’s for that reason that I have adblock, and until advertisers either start paying for my bandwidth or stick to respectful, non-evil side-banner advertising, I will continue to use adblock. You guys (anti-adblockers) have no right to complain about people like me using adblock. Stop being evil and I’ll stop using adblock.

    Here’s an analogy:

    Imagine you are deciding between two companies (these are based on real companies, but I will not say which):

    Company A costs $20/month, but their internet service inexplicably cuts off roughly 40% of the time. This means that 40% of the time, you are not getting what you are paying your hard-earned cash for. Yet you still get charged full-price at the end of the month, and the tech support laughs at you when you call them up. Everyone you ask has something nasty to say about this one.

    Company B is a little more expensive, at $30/month, but their service nearly ALWAYS works, and their tech support is amazing. The few times it ever cuts off, it’s only for a few minutes at most. When they get calls complaining about downtime, they work out deals to make up the difference. Everyone you ask says this one is great.

    Which would you sign up for? If you chose B, then you are a rational person. If you chose A, then you’re an idiot who likes to get screwed. I’m betting the anti-adblock crowd would choose A. After all, it’s the same principle.

  • Braden Best

    I feel exactly the same way. I read your comment just after posting mine, and you touched on pretty much everything that was on my mind. I’m glad that I’m not the only one that’s pissed about forced ads wasting my bandwidth.

    When someone preaches to me about the evils of ad block, I just say something along the lines of, “I’ll stop using adblock when you start paying my bandwidth and power bills. Then you can display all the ads you want. Go nuts!” That usually shuts them up.