Getting ahead in advertising

One of the other speakers at this year’s Webstock was Matthew Inman. While he was in Wellington, he published a new Oatmeal comic called I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened.

I can relate to the frustration he describes. I watched most of Game of Thrones while I was in Arizona over Christmas. I say “most” because the final episode was shown on the same day that Jessica and I were flying back to the UK. Once we got back home, we tried to obtain that final episode by legal means. We failed. And so we torrented it …just as described in Matt’s comic.

Andy Ihnatko posted a rebuttal to the Oatmeal called Heavy Hangs The Bandwidth That Torrents The Crown in which he equates Matt’s sense of entitlement to that described by Louis C.K.:

The single least-attractive attribute of many of the people who download content illegally is their smug sense of entitlement.

As Marco Arment points out, Andy might be right but it’s not a very helpful approach to solving the real problem:

Relying solely on yelling about what’s right isn’t a pragmatic approach for the media industry to take. And it’s not working. It’s unrealistic and naïve to expect everyone to do the “right” thing when the alternative is so much easier, faster, cheaper, and better for so many of them.

The pragmatic approach is to address the demand.

I was reminded of this kind of stubborn insistence in defending the old way of doing things while I was thinking about …advertising.

Have a read of this wonderful anecdote called TV Is Broken which describes the reaction of a young girl thitherto only familiar with on-demand streaming of time-shifted content when she is confronted with the experience of watching “regular” television:

“Did it break?”, she asks. It does sometimes happen at home that Flash or Silverlight implode, interrupt her show, and I have to fix it.

“No. It’s just a commercial.”

“What’s a commercial?”, she asks.

“It is like little shows where they tell you about other shows and toys and snacks.”, I explain.


“Well the TV people think you might like to know about this stuff.”

“This is boring! I want to watch Shrek.”

Andy Ihnatko might argue that the young girl needs to sit there and just take the adverts because, hey, that’s the way things have always worked in the past, dagnabbit. Advertising executives would agree. They would, of course, be completely and utterly wrong. Just because something has worked a certain way in the past doesn’t mean it should work that way in the future. If anything, it is the media companies and advertisers who are the ones debilitated by a sense of self-entitlement.

Advertising has always felt strange on the web. It’s an old-world approach that feels out of place bolted onto our new medium. It is being interpreted as damage and routed around. I’m not just talking about ad-blockers. Services like Instapaper and Readability—and, to a certain extent, RSS before them—are allowing people to circumvent the kind of disgustingly dehumanising advertising documented in Merlin’s Noise to Noise Ratio set of screenshots. Those tools are responding to the customers and readers.

There’s been a lot of talk about advertising in responsive design lately—it was one of the talking points at the recent Responsive Summit in London—and that’s great; it’s a thorny problem that needs to be addressed. But it’s one of those issues where, if you look at it deeply enough, keeping the user’s needs in mind, the inevitable conclusion is that it’s a fundamentally flawed approach to interacting with readers/viewers/users/ugly bags of mostly water.

This isn’t specific to responsive design, of course. Cennydd wrote about the fundamental disconnect between user experience and advertising:

Can UX designers make a difference in the advertising field? Possibly. But I see it as a a quixotic endeavour, swimming against the tide of a value system that frequently causes the disempowerment of the user.

I realise that in pointing out that advertising is fundamentally shit, I’m not being very helpful and I’m not exactly offering much in the way of solutions or alternatives. But I rail against the idea that we need to accept intrusive online advertising just because “that’s the way things have always been.” There are many constructs—advertising, copyright—that we treat as if they are immutable laws of nature when in fact they may be outmoded business concepts more suited to the last century (if they ever really worked at all).

So when I see the new IAB Display Advertising Guidelines which consist of more of the same shit piled higher and deeper, my immediate reaction is:

“This is boring! I want to watch Shrek.”

Have you published a response to this? :