Internet Advertising Ethics – the gorilla in the room

Much has been said of late about the rise of the adblocker and what it means for the future of the advertising industry and, more worryingly, the internet.  I’ve largely kept my gob shut on the subject of advertising ethics up until now since it’s not very fashionable to stand up for the evil advertising community. But, after reading this call to arms for ethics academics, my resolve has been shattered. Bear with me caller, I shall explain.

Now let me start by saying I have no reason to besmirch Williams’s character, or single him out for my wrath – his article is well written and well argued and is clearly placed in the public domain for debating, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. Why respond to this article in particular? Simply, it belongs to the extreme edge of a movement whose point of view I have some (soon to be explained) objections to. Also, it arrived in my world at the point where my silence on the subject was already faltering.

Let me quote the final statement of the article as a flavour of the overall thrust of the debate:


Given all this, the question should not be whether ad blocking is ethical, but whether it is a moral obligation. The burden of proof falls squarely on advertising to justify its intrusions into users’ attentional spaces—not on users to justify exercising their freedom of attention.


Lofty ideals there. However, what Williams entirely ignores (as do the comments that I have read) is that most websites and the adverts on them exist to offer some sort of product or service that people actually want (either directly or by later fulfilment). What advertising does is draws people’s attention to those things, while also forming an essential part of the business model of the site displaying the ad. And you cannot blame any given company for desiring that any given consumer receives the aforementioned product/service from them rather than someone else; after all, most businesses earnestly believe their product/service is superior, whether it is or not, as otherwise, why bother? If people find themselves on mediums that consume their attention, or assailed by ads that distract them from doing the things that they supposedly desire (I think many people would admit to wanting to spend time playing Xbox games as much as, if not more than, spending time with family – hey, why not combine the two!) then maybe they want/need to be distracted.

Secondly, the cognitive bias/behavioural economics argument is a red herring. As the legendary Harvard Gorilla Experiment demonstrated, people are spectacularly good at missing bleeding obvious stuff when they are engaged in a task, and that’s assuming you can get them engaged in the first place, as if they’re not interested in something, they simply won’t engage. If a person is so unengaged in the task of absorbing some web content that they get distracted by an advert, it suggests that the content isn’t much cop anyway and probably doesn’t deserve the attention it was getting. If a site places an ad that’s so invasive that makes it hard for the consumer to consume their content, then they can’t have much confidence in that content, and the consumer should certainly consider clearing off. But this even misses the key flaw to the argument – the biases alluded to evolved precisely so that we, as humans/mammals/animals, can focus our attention on what matters while also remaining alert to potential threats or, dare I say it, more interesting stuff. Saying that it is somehow unethical to appeal to these so called “biases” (I prefer the term heuristics) is like saying that “blue cars should not be manufactured since people a drawn to blue and that would distracts them from the car’s overall ‘carness’” or that “people shouldn’t dress nice lest people might fancy them” (that last one is exploited quite a lot in certain religions). We’re built to desire stuff (food, sex) – if we didn’t we’d (literally) die as individuals and as a species. If people spend too much time on Facebook, or are distracted by ads, or get obsessed by Candy Crush and forget to collect their kid from school, it says more about the psychology and evolution of human nature than the medium itself. We were designed to do what natural selection designed us to do. Facebook, Twitter, Daily Mail Online, the internet are symptoms of that, not the cause.

Further to this, these mediums for supposed attention corruption (the sites that house the adverts) are pretty damn good at keeping our attention. Williams states “A product or service does not magically redesign itself around your goals just because you block it from reaching its own”. But that’s precisely what they do. Facebook (for example) is AMAZING at holding attention, ads or otherwise. This is the case because they collect usage data about billions of people and their site optimises itself, in real time, around what people respond well to. Everyone has their own goal when using Facebook (frequently to spend “time” with absent family), Facebook’s “product” is that goal. Facebook spends a hell of a lot of money on making their product as good as it can be, and they know that they are successful when people spend lots of time using it! That cost is accounted for by your advertising eyeballs. So by negating Facebook’s revenue stream, Williams is denigrating their ability to do the very thing he’s (paradoxically) getting antsy about them not doing (building a customer-centric experience). No doubt sites like Facebook could be better, but starving them of cash ain’t gonna help them in this endeavour!

So when the legions of ethics academic rise up and block the sorry arse out of internet advertising, which subsequently results in the news sites where they get their celebrity gossip going out of business, leaving them only with the Murdoch funded, reactionary corporate propaganda-media (with all their ethics and stuff), they only have themselves to blame. Perhaps then, they will offer a better alternative to just “blocking” the problem out of view!

I feel a little like I’m defending the devil here, but if the free internet is to be maintained there is a balance to be struck. Advertisers need to work harder to build better online experiences, and consumers need to continue to put up with their attention being corralled a bit. It will be a rocky road to the equilibrium where both advertiser and consumer are happy, but the forces of reciprocal value exchange demand that that day must come.

Now, were Williams to make the broader argument about how those exploitations of attention lead to unhealthy lifestyles by tempting us with what we innately desire – e.g. fat and sugar and sex, and lots of all of it – which some people are largely powerless to resist, then I would fully support it as an ethical debate. If we’re here to debate the ethics of rampant non-concented data collection and abuse, I’m all ears. But the ethics of trying to get people’s attention? Get the gorilla out of here!

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