What’s wrong with online advertising?


I’m planning a major piece on the problems with online advertising. And I want to hear from you.

It feels to me like we’ve driven the digital world into a ditch. I don’t mind advertising that’s helping keep content free, or cheap. But I can’t figure out how these ads are supposed to be actually working — they seem to maximize annoyance with no actual value to the consumer. My list of pet peeves includes:

  • Ads that are intrusive, including autoplay video, and that make it virtually impossible to actually get to the content.
  • “Targeted” ads that are so completely off the mark you wonder why you got them. If online targeting is supposed to be so effective, why are the ads so irrelevant?
  • Ads for the one site you visited that follow you all across the web, even though you’ve already bought the thing (or decided not to buy it), like this woman whose Instagram is now nothing but bra ads.
  • Those bunches of insulting, zero-IQ ads at the bottom of every news story about how some actress from the 70s looks now, or remodeling your kitchen, or the unhealthiest junk foods, or the one weird trick to lose weight, or the twins who were named the most beautiful in the world, that lead to nothing but sites filled with even more ads.

I have no problem with intelligent advertising. I’ve even bought things because the ads looked interesting. But there is a tradeoff here — the ads make the online experience not just bad, but awful, and I cannot figure out how this level of advertising stupidity generates enough cash to make up for that.

So here’s my charge to you.

If you are knowledgeable about online advertising, explain it to me. I might even want to interview you.

If, like me, you are just a victim — what have I missed? What drives you insane? What do you want to understand better?

If all you want to do is vent, let fly. That’s fine with me. (Just be brief and specific, if possible.)

I look forward to hearing from you.

18 responses to “What’s wrong with online advertising?

  1. Josh, it’s interesting that you raise this question. I recently listened to a news report:
    BBC Business Daily: Is the digital ad market overvalued? https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3ct1j92
    One of the persons interviewed is the author of ‘Subprime Attention Crisis’ (ex-Googler) who compares ad company valuations to mortgage backed securities.

  2. How great of you to ask. Re intrusive, I especially despise the gigantic ones that run across the whole article complete with huge photos, suggesting that I am too stupid to see anything that might interest me.

  3. I find it amusing that after I make a purchase, and this has happened to me with printers, TVs, test equipment, and most recently an AV stereo receiver, that my ads suddenly fill up with those devices.
    It can be a little disconcerting at times especially if I do a single Google search on something and suddenly the ads target that subject.
    it has become something of a game to see how I can influence the preferences with oddball searches.

  4. The multiple pop-ups drive me crazy. If it gets to a third pop-up, banner or other message that I have to close to see the content, I’m out of there.

  5. We would all be shocked at the scope of the data files certain companies are compiling about us. Ten years ago one company told me, “We see every single consumer in the U.S. at least once every 14 days…” By “see” they meant track on a website. Imagine how much more efficient they are by now.

    Every time we visit a webpage, an auction sale starts behind the scenes to sell the “impressions” on that webpage to the highest bidder. How do companies evaluate the price of that ad space? By looking at our data files. Within milliseconds, the auction is complete and every space on that page is sold to the highest bidder.

    Every click we make on that webpage is recorded, bought, sold, and traded. Same for how long we leave that page up on our screen (even if we’re really taking a bathroom break). Same for every comment, post, Like, or Gmail we send from that page–and these are all scanned with machine learning systems to extract every last morsel of data from them.

    In short, the ad problem is really a data problem which is really an identity problem. Our online identities are being pilfered, bought and sold without our knowledge or permission, all so that a few companies can sell us ads.

    A less well-known part of the problem is that unwanted ads, trackers, pixels, cookies, and all the other devices companies use add up to a huge amount of bandwidth that slows down our experience, gums up our systems, and that ultimately WE PAY FOR in our ISP or mobile fees.

    So not only are online ads intrusive, irrelevant, ugly, silly, and little more than visual spam… the infrastructure behind them makes US PAY for stealing our identities to serve advertisers and a handful of Big Tech companies.

  6. I share your experiences. In addition, I started doing Duolingo for *free* in exchange for agreeing to watch ads. (I like exploring motivation, and love learning.) I’m on a 504 day streak now, and in addition to learning Spanish, I’ve experienced a lot of gaming strategies (and watched a ton of ads with the sound off).

  7. In the advertising world, they do know they have a problem. The ads that follow you trying to sell you something you already bought, they’re called “dumb ads” by the industry. They know you looked at the product but they don’t know if you bought it or not. But since buyers are a small percentage of the people who viewed the product sales page, you’re included in the shotgun ad campaign because ultimately it’s cost-effective.

    Agencies who are working in the data mining field may be the people to talk to on this. Exergen is one. Also, software platforms that help their clients with that data. Instead of working with hard software rules, they look for correlations in the data that could help that person. Such as a male buyer who never buys clothes but looked at women’s clothes right before his wife’s birthday. Don’t show him any more ads for women’s clothes unless he continues to look at them because now he likes buying her clothes. I believe Software AG’s platform works in this area.

  8. Your ask is very timely this week with the impending release of iOS 4.5 that will change the way it manages app security (which is throwing down the gauntlet against Facebook). Related to that is the end of third-party cookies, which will near-term consumer benefit but probably long-term lead to more insidious methods of user tracking. And then there’s the near duopoly of Google and Facebook, which at this point pretty much own the online ad experience. Anyone else, including Amazon, comes in a distant third.

  9. I agree with you about the clutter of online advertising. There is one exception, the advertising that is done on the Ravelry site [www.ravelry.com]. All of the ads have to do with needlework and it is the one site that I visit that at times, I go back to see/click the ad that I just saw. I am not the only one, there is actually a feature on the ads that allows you to go back to the previous ad. The ads are present but not obnoxious. Take a look to see online advertising really done well.

    Thank you for your thoughtful research and analysis.

  10. I installed AdBlock on this desktop years ago. Sometimes I can’t see an article that has been hypertexted (done in blue ink) on this and other blogs because the site I’m re-directed to has detected my ad blocker. It offers to let me disable it for that page but I always decline, knowing I can get the cited link somewhere else. My default search engine is DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track your movements online. It’s not as powerful and comprehensive as Google so sometimes there is a need to switch over to there. But again, any ads that my websearches would generate are ones I never see.

  11. Several years ago I was doing research for a story about bicycle riders with diabetes. I was planning to interview people who participated in a charity event — but not having much experience or knowledge of diabetes I didn’t want to come off totally ignorant. So, of course, I searched on keywords like “diabetes,” “cyclists,” “bike events,” etc. and within a few minutes was deluged with ads for diabetes medications, devices for checking for blood sugar levels, natural remedies for diabetes, and on and on. To this day I still get web ads for diabetes organizations and medications, insurance, etc. It’s annoying, especially since it appears I’m on many radars as a diabetic. I also worry that this health profile these companies have compiled about me will eventually make it harder for me to make the case that I don’t have a pre-existing condition such as diabetes.

  12. I am not an expert at ads, but somewhat of an expert about the Internet. Toxic advertising is as old as lying and other forms of abusive persuasion. The 20th century—especially the second half—was probably an outlier—as in so many things. Concentrated media provide a point of leverage for applying social and legal pressure. Popular media—whether print or broadcast—was expensive and complicated, and run by corporations who were held accountable. The Internet is not the same. Even though ad platforms are owned and ostensibly managed by large corporations, they are in reality marketplaces run by computer systems, mostly without oversight. The tech companies provide a mechanically self-sufficient platform, but otherwise, users (advertising buyers and sellers) are free to use it however they want to. And since much of both demand and supply is also automated, and unsupervised, it is a free-for-all. Most of the websites hosting ads, and most of the companies buying ads, are small and unsophisticated. They have no idea how to sell. Many of them don’t even have reputable products (either the web content providers or the advertisers). Most of web advertising is a scam. Most of the web is a scam. Until we clean up the general web, we can’t clean up web advertising.

  13. While not always considering advertising, newsletter subscription boxes bug me.

    If I’m visiting a site for the first time, there is zero chance I’m going to sign up for their newsletter until I’ve read the article I visited the site for in the first place.

    If the article is well-written, informative, and delivers on the original promise, then I may consider becoming a subscriber, but not before.

  14. It is what it is.

    In the early 1990s I was doing national design seminars for designing web sites. I ran a listserv that had some quarter-million subscribers, and had “WebDesign-Review” as part of the Design & Publishing Center that would critique web sites. I had many attendees who came to my “Make-over Clinics” (Including Apple Computer) where we discussed their sites and how they could be improved.

    At some point the book “Web Sites That Suck” came out and was all the buzz of the design community. So we posed to our readers (about 160,000 subscribers) what where the TOP TEN REASONS WHY THAT WEB SITE SUCKS.

    ADVERTISING was the #1 response. “Your web site sucks if it has advertising”

    Since those days thousands and thousands of web sites tackle the “Sucks” question. A lot of water under the bridge, and today everyone takes it in stride.

    Big Tech and Madison Ave got involved and the rest is history. It is what it is.

    Now, Ad-blockers are coming of age, and even the browsers are building in techniques to avoid rude advertising.

    At the end of the day we have to give credit to Vincent Flanders, who was the very first to coin the concept : Web Pages That Suck: Learn Good Design by Looking at Bad Design Paperback – March 1, 1998


    also talk to :


  15. Josh, two forces are at work here. Neither knows or cares much about actual consumer preferences.

    One is the technocratic class that’s so excited about its capabilities that it doesn’t question the propriety of their application. To them, every message on every digital channel is an opportunity to attach or insert an interruption. The other is the professional managerial class that talks about users as “eyeballs” and “clicks” rather than as humans. They produce content to appeal to the worst qualified prospects, and are just successful enough to keep going.

    Whenever I feel hopeful about our collective cultural imagination, I think of those forces and that hope vanishes.

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