The Upside Of Digital Advertising's Original Sin

Recently Ethan Zuckerman wrote in The Atlantic that he had “come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web.”  In just over four thousand words, Zuckerman not only provided his own background (he was part of the team that created the much-hated pop-up ad), but also the whole history of the ad-supported Internet, including the overall poor performance of digital ads, ads that rely on surveillance, and methods used to make targeted ads more effective.

It’s a good (though long) article, one that anyone working in the digital ad space should take time to read.  To extend Zuckerman’s metaphor: as with the biblical concept of original sin, which simultaneously paved the paths to damnation and possibility, digital advertising has created alienation but also enabled development.  Zuckerman might look back on his role in the creation of pop-up ads with a little shame, but where would we digital marketers be today without them?  Still innocent in the garden, I’d wager.

Internet marketers collectively took a bite of the pop-up apple fifteen years ago.  It exiled us from many consumers, but allowed us to learn.  So while I can tell you, quite frankly (as someone who was in middle school at the time that pop-ups were created) that I hate pop-up ads and that I have an ad blocker activated on my browser, I can also tell you that since their advent, we have gained real knowledge about how to create good digital ads.

Ads, to the extent that they make consumers aware of the things they care about, are not inherently bad.  But consumers are so used to the terrible execution of desktop advertising that they have learned to ignore the ads or have installed browser plugins that literally make them invisible.  

Still, we learn from our sins, and the sins of our predecessors, and we move on.  We can do better.  In fact, we are doing better. This is particularly true when you move away from desktop browsers and look at other media, such as mobile.  Instead of obstructing consumers’ activity, well-executed mobile ads are meant to enhance it, using the context of a consumer’s real-world behavior and location to provide ads that are in fact helpful and relevant.

These real-world insights are unique to mobile, giving us a fresh chance as an industry to deliver a better ad experience.  But in order to reach a critical mass of consumers based on real-world behavior and location, it’s essential that we have a way to disseminate ads quickly.  Such ads cannot be executed on a wide scale manually.  Where we might be able to identify the location of one person in order to serve him an ad, technology allows us to do this for thousands of consumers.  Programmatic platforms and real-time bidding strategies allow us to leverage this data we have collected about our audience’s current and historical physical context at scale.  This is not the blind push of pop-up and desktop banner ads, but a technology we as an industry have developed as a form of repentance so that we need never distribute irrelevant ads ever again.

At the beginning of the Internet, when we were in our industry’s Eden, we were naïve. Then we realized that there was money to be made.  With that first bite of the apple, we became responsible for ads so annoying that we did the industry a disservice and created great annoyance for consumers.  The mobile age is our chance to use what we learned from our original sin.  Thanks to developments in data tracking and analysis, as well as the advent of programmatic bidding platforms, we now have the opportunity to use consumers’ real-world behavior and intent to quickly and efficiently drive relevant advertising.

Kind of makes that apple taste better, doesn’t it?

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1 comment about "The Upside Of Digital Advertising's Original Sin".
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  1. Kyle Wendling from MEDIARadar, September 8, 2014 at 1:47 p.m.

    "At the beginning of the Internet, when we were in our industry’s Eden, we were naïve. Then we realized that there was money to be made. With that first bite of the apple, we became responsible for ads so annoying that we did the industry a disservice and created great annoyance for consumers."

    Was there ever an Eden? Who was naïve, what industry are you referring to? Ads appeared on the web as soon as critical mass appeared, it was an idea so obvious Tim Bereners-Lee probably thought of it as he was coding html. Ads existed in email and usenet long before.