Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Ad-blockers may be convenient but they're not ethical - or unethical for that matter


It had to happen didn't it. I mean the extension of the long war against commercial communication - advertising to you and I - into some sort of moral/ethical dimension. With the assumption that advertising is, by dint of its very existence and purpose, 'unethical'.

A new ad-blocking tool out today ensures that everyone can consume their favorite content while remaining on solid moral footing. The Ethical Ad Blocker Chrome extension, developed by internet artist Darius Kazemi, will block any webpage that contains ads, replacing it with a crude text page telling users to check out a list of auto-generating websites and non-profit organizations that give stuff away for free.

And the 'crude text page' says this:

Now it looks like Darius Kazemi is making a point that stuff really ain't for free but the reader might not get this. I'm sure most won't understand how looking at sites paid for through advertising without looking at the ads might be unethical.  Now I've no objection to ad blockers - lots of people use them, mostly because they find advertising annoying and intrusive rather than because they want to kid themselves they're living in some cool, hipster, 'no logo' ethical wonderland.

We know there is a free rider problem with ad blockers (by getting the content without advertising you are, in effect, avoiding the fee for using that content) but this is a problem for the advertising business rather than something essentially unethical. And it is the case that some websites - especially news websites - are simply overloaded with advertising making the reader experience unpleasant.

Advertising - and we're celebrating (if that's the right word) 60 years of UK TV ads - is a central part of our culture. I consider that protecting rights to advertise is no different in its essence to protecting individual rights to speak. Of course, just as with speech, I don't have to listen to the adverts and I'm entitled to tune them out (consider how you read a newspaper or magazine to appreciate this 'tuning out'). And we retain the power to punish liars, cheats and con-men.

There is a great deal of ignorance about advertising - from the misplaced idea that advertising increases aggregate demand through to the persistent belief that there is a thing called 'subliminal advertising' that makes us buy stuff we don't want to buy. Plus of course that Nancy Klein rubbish about 'no logo' designed to make wealthy westerners feel righteous while suggesting that none of the world's problems are their fault - rather we get to blame 'corporations' (and particularly the ones we don't work for who own big shiny brands).

It's perfectly possible for an advert to be unethical - it might misinform, mislead or exploit - but this doesn't make advertising unethical. The 'Dark Patterns' site discusses practices that are, at best, sharp and, worst, deeply exploitative (as an aside very few of these practices that have only developed since the web became widespread - but then web marketing is mostly just direct marketing on steriods) reminding us that the process of selling is fraught. And that we should pay attention when we're spending our money.

Advertising is essential. Not just because it pays for news, entertainment and so forth (there are, after all, other models here) but because without it we have no information about what we're buying. We are faced with product choice - unless, of course, your anti-ad stance leads us to Soviet-style empty shelves - but no information allowing us to make that choice. Without advertising our modern world simply doesn't work.

The problem (not the free rider thing this time) advertisers face is how to get information to you when you are a reluctant recipient of that information. Partly because, as you keep saying, too much of the advertising isn't relevant. So advertisers take two approaches - either they seek out new media to get their message, a general message, across or else they try to target that message to the consumers they know are interested in that information. Good practice in the first case leads to the ubiquity of styles, symbols and images linked to a given product - it's brand. And those brands are very much part of the wallpaper of western society: instantly recognisable, friendly and comfortable.

In the second case, good practice focuses on how well we target, screen and interact with the consumer. The idea is that we don't want to talk to people who don't want to buy our product so we try to screen them out. The problem is that there are a load of techniques we know raise response (if you want to learn about these read 'The Solid Gold Mailbox') and some are exploitative, even unethical. And while there are advertising rules plus a self-regulatory body, it still rests with us as consumers to pay attention when we respond to something.

The free rider problem on-the web (which this ethical ad blocker highlights) is a problem for the businesses that operate on the web - if there's no revenue who pays for those achingly cool loft offices and provides the pay allowing the workers in those offices to buy extravagantly priced beard grooming products or designer water. Long-term it's a problem for user - for you and me - because, as we all know, nothing much comes for free. If we beat down advertising the result ('be careful what you wish for') is likely to be less choice, more expensive products and an infinitely duller world.


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