Is advertising what’s wrong with the internet?


5th of April 2019

The current digital model of advertising closely follows the doctrine of communications popularized during the early years of 20th-century. Perhaps the most inspiring literary work of the genre, Obvious Adams by Robert Updegraff, was published in 1916, a year after the horse population reached its peak. One of the issues with digital advertising is that it is merely an “on steroids” version of a system that dates back to a time when most people did not have a car, phone, or electricity. It was a world characterized by a lack of connection. The way of living of an average person in 1916 it was more like the way we lived a million years ago than how we live today. In such a world, it made sense that brands used the few opportunities they had to connect with people. However, in a hyperconnected world, it does not make sense.

In the most massive boycott in human history, roughly one in every three internet users take active measures to protect themselves and their loved ones from online advertising.

Visiting an average website, more than 80 percent of the downloaded data is associated with advertising, and in many countries, an average person will pay more than 10 percent of their monthly salary for 1 GB of data.

The inventor of Javascript, the technology the modern web is built on, famously said that the surest way to get malware on the internet is through an ad.

Advertising fraud, a form of international crime entirely based on exploiting online advertising, based on the most conservative estimates is more substantial than the next five cyber crimes combined.

Terrorism, political extremism, adversarial influence campaigns that aim towards creating division and confusion in the society, all focused on leveraging the advertising-funded internet, have become a severe threat to democracy and civil society.

All the while much of journalism, the alleged guardians of truth, have been reduced to virulent clickbait and occasionally, outright deceit.

Still, the most concerning aspect seem to be the economic model of online advertising. A practice referred to as cognitive harvesting.

One prominent platform reported 9 billion hours of monthly use, that is, 9 billion hours of cognitive energy. The platform in question is known for utilizing similar techniques as casinos, to convert people’s cognitive energy to as many ad views and clicks as possible. Peak use on the platform takes place during working hours. The platform reported earning $0.30 per every person-hour of time contributed on the platform. In comparison, the OECD total for GDP per person-hour is $47.26.

Virtually all platforms follow the same model based on the idea that it’s meaningful to algorithmically harvest human cognition and then sell it pennies-for-dollars to the highest bidder.

Even if today’s system of digital advertising is not what’s wrong with the internet, it is an integral part of what is wrong with advertising.

We have now a quarter of a century of evidence on the adverse effects of advertising on the internet, let’s use the next quarter of a century to find something with a positive impact. Embracing this opportunity, I do not doubt that in just ten years from now we will look at much of today’s digital advertising similarly as we look at email spam now.

Let us not lose sight of the critically important role brands plays in the market economy. We must assume our responsibility for using the power we have to support the development of an internet we can be proud of. An internet we will be happy to leave to our children and future generations.