Commentary

Can the Pact Between Consumers and Publishers Be Saved?

Since the dawn of mass media there has been an implied, if not tacit, agreement between programmers/editors and consumers that advertising would help subsidize the cost to develop and deliver content. In the case of terrestrial broadcasters, advertising would cover not only costs, but provide the profits necessary to improve programming and distribution, all to the consumer's benefit. Without advertising, magazine and newspaper subscriptions would cost thousands of dollars a year like the scientific journals that are not advertising supported such as NATURE and The New England Journal of Medicine.

A countless number of studies have shown that many, if not most consumers, like the information they get from ads; everything from news of product launches to sales to what the smart set will be wearing next fall. According to a study by Mindshare, 80 percent of people think the newest iteration of ads - television product placement - is okay.

The march of technology (from coaxial cable to fiber optics to Wi-Fi) has improved the delivery and availability of content and improved our ability to deliver ads that are in synch with user interests. But at the same time, other technology has enabled the consumer to walk away from his half of the historical content/advertising agreement. Advertisers also played a role in breaking the pact by placing ads in spam and spyware that did not return meaningful content or useful functionality in exchange.

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In point of fact, the pact is already broken. There is a no ending the arms race of anti-ad technology (pop-up blockers, spyware removal programs that also remove third-party cookies, TiVo). There is no way we can "un- invent." Once these developments hit the market, we cannot move backwards. Yet everyone discusses the problems and possible solutions individually as if they are not part of a larger problem.

We have to analyze, review, and think again about the fact that the tacit pact is broken. What can the advertising and content industries do as a whole to restate the contract we have had for so many years? This is a life or death decision. Will the end game be content ONLY by paid subscription? I wonder how consumers would feel if during the month of, say September, no ads were delivered in any form, but they'd have to pay their "fair share" for all the content they consumed. Especially when they've being paying $4.95 for an entire issue of a magazine with cost-subsidizing ads and get an invoice for $85 for reading one story. Or $175 for watching an hour-long drama? You are already paying for cable TV, no matter what you watch.

Are we embarking on a new era where publishers and advertisers will have to reward users for seeing ads? There are Web sites that do this already. In some of our ad units we give away tools like language and currency translators as a reward for spending a longer time with the advertiser's message. In the latest offering we enable users to record VoIP calls and conferences. Some TV shows are linking to sponsored online games to increase exposure to ad messages. Are these innovations or another slide on the slippery slope that will teach consumers that they can, in effect, charge us for their attention?

I wish that I could wrap this up with a simple solution, but I can't. It is a complicated issue working at every level of advertising from direct mail to broadcasting to online. My suggestion is that we stop viewing each encroachment on the historical advertising/content agreement as a separate problem, but see the bigger picture of a problem that is only growing. SO GET BUSY!

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