Imagine if you were told that fossil fuels were the only way of extracting energy. It would be an absurd claim. Not only are other energy sources available—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear—fossil fuels aren’t even the most effecient source of energy. To say that you can’t have energy without burning fossil fuels would be pitifully incorrect.
And yet when it comes to online advertising, we seem to have meekly accepted that you can’t have effective advertising without invasive tracking. But nothing could be further from the truth. Invasive tracking is to online advertising as fossil fuels are to energy production—an outmoded inefficient means of getting substandard results.
Before the onslaught of third party cookies and scripts, online advertising was contextual. If I searched for property insurance, I was likely to see an advertisement for property insurance. If I was reading an article about pet food, I was likely to be served an advertisement for pet food.
Simply put, contextual advertising ensured that the advertising that accompanied content could be relevant and timely. There was no big mystery about it: advertisers just needed to know what the content was about and they could serve up the appropriate advertisement. Nice and straightforward.
What if, instead of matching the advertisement to the content, we could match the advertisement to the person? Regardless of what they were searching for or reading, they’d be served advertisements that were relevant to them not just in that moment, but relevant to their lifestyles, thoughts and beliefs? Of course that would require building up dossiers of information about each person so that their profiles could be targeted and constantly updated. That’s where cross-site tracking comes in, with third-party cookies and scripts.
This is behavioural advertising. It has all but elimated contextual advertising. It has become so pervasive that online advertising and behavioural advertising have become synonymous. Contextual advertising is seen as laughably primitive compared with the clairvoyant powers of behavioural advertising.
But there’s a problem with behavioural advertising. A big problem.
It doesn’t work.
First of all, it relies on mind-reading powers by the advertising brokers—Facebook, Google, and the other middlemen of ad tech. For all the apocryphal folk tales of spooky second-guessing in online advertising, it mostly remains rubbish.
None of this works. They are still trying to sell me car insurance for my subway ride.
Have you actually paid attention to what advertisements you’re served? Maciej did:
I saw a lot of ads for GEICO, a brand of car insurance that I already own.
I saw multiple ads for Red Lobster, a seafood restaurant chain in America. Red Lobster doesn’t have any branches in San Francisco, where I live.
Finally, I saw a ton of ads for Zipcar, which is a car sharing service. These really pissed me off, not because I have a problem with Zipcar, but because they showed me the algorithm wasn’t even trying. It’s one thing to get the targeting wrong, but the ad engine can’t even decide if I have a car or not! You just showed me five ads for car insurance.
And yet in the twisted logic of ad tech, all of this would be seen as evidence that they need to gather even more data with even more invasive tracking and surveillance.
It turns out that bizarre logic is at the very heart of behavioural advertising. I highly recommend reading the in-depth report from The Correspondent called The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising:
It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality.
The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).
Suppose someone told you that they keep tigers out of their garden by turning on their kitchen light every evening. You might think their logic is flawed, but they’ve been turning on the kitchen light every evening for years and there hasn’t been a single tiger in the garden the whole time. That’s the logic used by ad tech companies to justify trackers.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for users. The advertisements are irrelevant most of the time, and on the few occasions where the advertising hits the mark, it just feels creepy.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for advertisers. They spend their hard-earned money on invasive ad tech that results in no more sales or brand recognition than if they had relied on good ol’ contextual advertising.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is good for the middlemen doing the tracking. Facebook and Google are two of the biggest players here. But that doesn’t mean that their business models need to be permanently anchored to surveillance. The very monopolies that make them kings of behavioural advertising—the biggest social network and the biggest search engine—would also make them titans of contextual advertising. They could pivot from an invasive behavioural model of advertising to a privacy-respecting contextual advertising model.
The incumbents will almost certainly resist changing something so fundamental. It would be like expecting an energy company to change their focus from fossil fuels to renewables. It won’t happen quickly. But I think that it may eventually happen …if we demand it.
In the meantime, we can all play our part. Just as we can do our bit for the environment at an individual level by sorting our recycling and making green choices in our day to day lives, we can all do our bit for the web too.
The least we can do is block third-party cookies. Some browsers are now doing this by default. That’s good.
Alas, because this software is labelled under ad blocking, it has led to the ludicrous situation of an ethical argument being made to allow surveillance and tracking! It goes like this: websites need advertising to survive; if you block the ads, then you are denying these sites revenue. That argument would make sense if we were talking about contextual advertising. But it makes no sense when it comes to behavioural advertising …unless you genuinely believe that online advertising has to be behavioural, which means that online advertising has to track you to be effective. Such a belief would be completely wrong. But that doesn’t stop it being widely held.
To argue that there is a moral argument against blocking trackers is ridiculous. If anything, there’s a moral argument to be made for installing anti-tracking software for yourself, your friends, and your family. Otherwise we are collectively giving up our privacy for a business model that doesn’t even work.
It’s a shame that advertisers will lose out if tracking-blocking software prevents their ads from loading. But that’s only going to happen in the case of behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising won’t be blocked. Contextual advertising is also more lightweight than behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising is far less creepy than behavioural advertising. And crucially, contextual advertising works.
That shouldn’t be a controversial claim: the idea that people would be interested in adverts that are related to the content they’re currently looking at. The greatest trick the ad tech industry has pulled is convincing the world that contextual relevance is somehow less effective than some secret algorithm fed with all our data that’s supposed to be able to practically read our minds and know us better than we know ourselves.
Y’know, if this mind-control ray really could give me timely relevant adverts, I might possibly consider paying the price with my privacy. But as it is, YouTube still hasn’t figured out that I’m not interested in Top Gear or football.
The next time someone is talking about the necessity of advertising on the web as a business model, ask for details. Do they mean contextual or behavioural advertising? They’ll probably laugh at you and say that behavioural advertising is the only thing that works. They’ll be wrong.
I know it’s hard to imagine a future without tracker-driven behavioural advertising. But there are no good business reasons for it to continue. It was once hard to imagine a future without oil or coal. But through collective action, legislation, and smart business decisions, we can make a cleaner future.