Advertising Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Published in Online Spin, May 11th, 2018.

Mark Zuckerberg sat on his fat cushion, gazing over the heads of the photogs at the senators. His posture, words and tone were calculated to project earnest honesty and helpful transparency. Nothing to hide. We’re here to help.

“What we found,” he said, “is that even though some people don’t like ads, people really don’t like ads that aren’t relevant. And while there is some discomfort for sure with using information in making ads more relevant, the overwhelming feedback that we get from our community is that people would rather have us show relevant content there than not.”

We would love to show people not-relevant ads, but they don’t like them! And who are we to argue? After all, we’re here to help.

Very kind -- but somewhat disingenuous. “There is some discomfort for sure with using information in making ads more relevant,” is actually a massive understatement. A more accurate way to say it would be, “People are a little uncomfortable when they notice that ads have been clearly generated by something they’ve done or clicked on. But if we told them the whole truth about how thoroughly we track them? They would completely freak out!”

That’s not just me guessing. Writing in The Intercept this week, Sam Biddle shared the results of a Harvard Business School study looking at exactly this question.

“[R]esearch subjects were asked to browse a website where they were presented with various versions of an advertisement -- identical except for accompanying text about why they were being shown the ad.… [The research subjects] were about 24 percent less likely to be interested in making a purchase or visiting the advertiser if they were in the group that was told they were tracked across websites, researchers said.”

It's no wonder Facebook’s efforts at transparency continually fall short of the full story. If people had true transparency, in real time, Facebook’s business would fall apart.

Outrage! Horror! It’s easy to point the finger at Facebook. It’s a huge company with a highly visible single leader.

But this isn’t just a Facebook problem, or a Google one, or a LinkedIn one. It is so so so much bigger than that.

In March, Doc Searls wrote a scathing assessment of interest-based advertising’s underlying dysfunction. He started by sharing a quote from the New York Times: “Facebook makes money, in other words, by profiling us and then selling our attention to advertisers, political actors and others.”

And then he dove into his real message: “Irony Alert: the same is true for the Times, along with every other publication that lives off adtech: tracking-based advertising. These pubs don’t just open the kimonos of their readers. They bring readers’ bare digital necks to vampires ravenous for the blood of personal data, all for the purpose of aiming ‘interest-based’ advertising at those same readers, wherever those readers’ eyeballs may appear -- or reappear in the case of ‘retargeted’ advertising.”

Searls offers a solution: drop ad tech and get back to high-value brand advertising. “That advertising… is actually worth a helluva lot more than adtech, because it delivers clear creative and economic signals and comes with no cognitive overhead (for example, wondering where the hell an ad comes from and what it’s doing right now).”

It’s one solution. There are others. None of them will be bliss -- but neither is ignorance.

Kaila Colbin