Ads make the ‘net go ’round

Robin Hanson has a very Robin Hansonny post up:

It’s fairly short, so you should go read the whole thing, but I’m a big fan of this bit:

Many see ads as unwelcome persuasion, changing our beliefs and behaviors contrary to how we want these to change. But given a choice between ad-based and ad-free channels, most usually choose ad-based channels, suggesting that they consider the price and convenience savings of such channels to more than compensate for any lost time or distorted behaviors. Thus most folks mostly approve (relative to their options) of how ads change their behavior.

I’ve been arguing for some time that the news media exist primarily to sell advertising space and only incidentally to provide whatever acts of journalism they may inflict upon innocent consumers.  If you want a paper without ads, you probably want a paper that costs twenty bucks a copy (and for which there’s no market, which is why you can’t get one).  Oh, are you one of those clever fellows who uses something like Adblock Plus?  Congratulations, you’re a moocher!  Savvy folk like you evade online ads, but the sites that depend upon ad revenue don’t get any less dependent — so they make ads ever more intrusive, to the detriment of people like your grandmother who aren’t quite as savvy.  Dick.

But if most people dislike ads, it’s interesting to ask why.  Robin has some ideas:

One plausible reason is that ads expose our hypocrisies – to admit we like ads is to admit we care a lot about the kinds of things that ads tend to focus on, like sex appeal, and we’d rather think we care more about other things.

Another plausible reason is that we resent our core identities being formed via options offered by big greedy firms who care little for the ideals which we espouse. According to our still deeply-embedded forager sensibilities, identities are supposed to be formed via informal interactions between apparently equal associates who share basic values.

Permit me to offer a couple more:

First of all, the story that “ads are an evil destructive manipulative force that exists only because big bad firms run the world, and use ads to control us all” isn’t just a great piece of anti-corporate, pro-the-rest-of-us in-group signalling (which is useful by itself, as you’ve noticed by my use of the word “signalling”).  It’s also a great way to abrogate responsibility.  “Oh, it’s not my fault that I just devoured a large cheese-crust pizza and washed it down with two litres of Coke — teh ebil corporate ads brainwashed me into thinking I wanted it!”  It’s a fantastically (heh) effective fairy tale to tell when cognitive dissonance rears its ugly head: If someone (or some group) is behaving in a way that’s inconsistent with your world-view, it must be because an evil corporation or special interest group or even the Goddamn Liberal Media has advertised to them.

Were that the case, I don’t doubt that McDonalds and &c. would have brainwashed us all into believing that soyburgers are the tastiest things on the planet — surely it’s more profitable to turn soy directly into a burger patty and sell that to the consumer than it is to run tons of it through a cow first.  The fact that they haven’t — indeed, fast food menus are chasing consumer preference rather than creating it — suggests to me that advertising isn’t quite so goddamn powerful as we like to pretend.  But rather than acknowledge an unpleasant truth, we prefer to double down (heh) and impute to ads ever more astonishing powers of persuasion.

My second suggestion is unrelated: We feel cheated by ads.  Here I am, trying to watch a football game on a cable channel I’m already paying for.  All of a sudden, play stops, and General Motors is trying to sell me a Buick on the startlingly unlikely premise that the fucking thing’s sporty.  This isn’t what I bought!  I bought a (subscription to a (cable package which includes a)) sports channel!  Get the fuck off of my TV, General Motors, you parasitic wretch, and get back to the bittersweet spectacle of the Bengals breaking my heart again!

Nobody subscribes to a basic cable and ads package, or reads a blog for political commentary and ads.  The ads tag along in an unwelcome symbiosis.  The only exceptions that spring to mind are movie trailers and Super Bowl ads — welcome and expected parts of either experience.

(I’d add something about most ads landing somewhere in the realm between banal and idiotic — no, AdSense, I don’t need to know the one weird tip that a mom discovered to give me striated glutes — but people read Buzzfeed and watch Two And A Half Men, so I’m not convinced that the ads are any worse than the content.)

In any case, if you’re not paying through the nose for some content you enjoy, you should probably thank advertisers for the privilege.

11 Responses to “Ads make the ‘net go ’round”

  1. 1 perlhaqr
    April 23, 2013 at 09:58

    as you’ve noticed by my use of the word “signalling”

    Which, given that this is a somewhat niche concept, is itself signalling.

    How meta. :D


    I think the main reason ads ever bug me is because they are intrusive. They are in some way disruptive of the experience. I don’t watch TV (which, yes, could be signalling, and sort of is, but mostly it’s just because I don’t have any goddamn time) but have one for my X360. Which I also use to watch DVDs. And sometimes, I can’t skip the flarking previews. And since I’m there to watch a movie, not ads, the ads are disruptive.

    Likewise webpage ads that wiggle around and dance and flash and so forth. I’m not looking for the ads, I want what’s on the page. So the distraction is annoying.

    On the contrary, ads in magazines are usually subject related (for example, the vast, vast majority of adverts in “The Horse: Backstreet Choppers” are for motorcycle parts) and not particularly distracting. So they aren’t anywhere near as annoying, disruptive, or intrusive.


    • April 24, 2013 at 20:33

      Intrusiveness is a good point — it’s related to “ads are cheating” but not the same thing. This is one aspect that gmail does well: The ads blend into the interface rather than jumping out, and of course they tend to be subject-related, as you say, because google gathers keyword statistics and &c.

      News sites (for example) don’t have that option to nearly the same extent, because their content tends to be a lot more general. So instead of ads for fabrication equipment and TireRack.com, you get a bunch of banks desperately trying to attract your attention with full-window Flash overlays.

      • 3 perlhaqr
        April 25, 2013 at 11:30

        Actually, it’s funny you say that, because I really do get a lot of ads for TireRack.com and like, stuff I’ve searched for on Amazon. Mostly after I’ve already bought said thing from Amazon. :-/

        And those ads I don’t mind, even though I know I’m getting them because of evil evil cookies. It’s the “One Weird Trick” ads and “You’re getting sodomized by a mountain gorilla with a chainsaw for a cok if you aren’t doing this for your car insurance!” ads and the like that are annoying as shit.

        If I was going to refinance my house, I’d call my goddamn mortgage broker. I’m not doing anything financial in the $10,000+ range with someone who advertises with the dancing baby and wiggly flash ads.

        Maybe that’s really the key. I don’t see those ads as advertisement. I see those ads as spam. If your web presence reminds me of Nigerian princes and V1g4r4 + C1L41$… I am never, ever, ever going to buy anything from you.

        • April 25, 2013 at 12:25


          Maybe that’s really the key. I don’t see those ads as advertisement. I see those ads as spam. If your web presence reminds me of Nigerian princes and V1g4r4 + C1L41$… I am never, ever, ever going to buy anything from you.

          Here’s a guess: When a website (or magazine, or newspaper, or bus stop bench) has ads on it, we are the product that they are selling to advertisers. As long as the ads are reasonably context-appropriate, whether that context is “I’m getting ads for StopTech brakes because I’m reading Grassroots Motorsports” or “I’m getting ads for StopTech brakes because Google knows I search for motorsports stuff a lot”, we can ignore or even appreciate the fact that our attention is being sold to third parties. When the ads get blatantly spammy, that fact gets shoved in our faces, and probably we’re not too thrilled to be reminded that our web-surfing is worth half a cent per page load or six cents per click-through.

  2. 5 Vanzetti
    April 23, 2013 at 10:29

    >>>so they make ads ever more intrusive, to the detriment of people like your grandmother who aren’t quite as savvy. Dick.

    I installed ad-block on my grandmother’s PC, too, so nope.

    >>>to admit we like ads

    I don’t like ads. There’s nothing to admit.

    >>> ”Oh, it’s not my fault that I just devoured a large cheese-crust pizza and washed it down with two litres of Coke

    Speak for yourself. The fact that you consume feces doesn’t that all people do, or indeed that anybody should.

    >>>In any case, if you’re not paying through the nose for some content you enjoy

    Thanks to ads, the content to pay for doesn’t exist.

    • April 23, 2013 at 18:47

      You have comprehensively missed my point.

      • 7 Vanzetti
        April 24, 2013 at 02:26

        Your point, as I understood it, is that ads are good and people who are against them are hypocrites. Which is an opinion that completely disagree with.

        • April 24, 2013 at 08:54

          Haha, nope.

          I don’t know whether you’re deliberately straw-manning me or if my post just makes you so god damn angry you can’t think, but I don’t much care. (Perlhaqr and lelnet got the point just fine; the problem’s not on my end.) What fascinates me is that you’re wasting so much of your time and effort getting angry at my post.

  3. 9 lelnet
    April 23, 2013 at 13:19

    Meh. If you just ate a huge cheese-crust pizza, the only reason the word “fault” should enter into it is if it was sucky pizza. (In which case, making sucky pizza is the pizzeria’s fault, but eating more than a couple of bites of it once you realize it’s sucky pizza is still yours, and advertising doesn’t enter into it.)

    Yeah, I run filtering software when I browse the web. Mostly, it blocks non-approved JavaScript…which consists largely (but not entirely) of ads, and which (far more to the point) sucks RAM like crazy and slows my computer down when I have more than 150 tabs open at once. I don’t object to advertising per se (and as far as I’m concerned, the commercials are the only reason to watch the Super Bowl)…just to the kind that gets directly in the way of enjoying the content I want. And indeed, a significant fraction of what I’m training my filtering software to block isn’t even advertising, but rather poorly-implemented “features” that detract from the reading experience at the sites that use them.

    Hell, sometimes advertising is even _helpful_, if you’re looking to buy something.

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