The Advertising Bubble: The Sequel

Awhile back, I wrote this piece: The Advertising Bubble. Then, thanks to Hacker News I found that I’m not the only one with this piece: Is Advertising Morally Justifiable? The Importance of Protecting Our Attention by Thomas Wells. It’s a bit word heavy but if you can get through it I strongly recommend it. This article goes quite a lot further than I did initially but the spirit is essentially the same: It’s people who are tired of being bombarded by a seemingly never ending stream of product pushing.

After I posted the last one, I got into a very interesting discussion with someone at work about how the thing I had missed was relevance, in other words, advertising when done properly shouldn’t be viewed as noise by the person being advertised to, that it should deliver additional value to that user and encourage their experience.

This argument is valid: despite my feelings on ads, I regularly have responded to them, but they’re a certain kind of ad, a nuanced advertising that is sorely lacking these days. See what he’s talking about is say I were to add a 4K display to a shopping cart on Amazon. When you do that, here’s what you get:


First is a popup. Not a crummy focus stealing new window popup, but a well framed and well formatted all text one that asks if you’d like to add a protection plan. This is a $1,400 display after all, if the cat were to knock it over I’d be upset about that. This is a good ad: It’s a upsell, but it’s something that:

  1. I’d actually want.
  2. Has the potential to deliver additional value to me.

Let’s keep going:


Below the bit that tells me that the item was added to my cart, I get a selection of cables that would be useful to me. Interestingly, the first two on their list are adapters for Mini DisplayPort. I’m assuming this is because I’ve bought more than a few Mac accessories for my workspace over the years, and the DisplayPort cable that comes with that display will not fit a Macbook/Mac Mini/iMac.

The thing is though, I’m willing to bet money that if you sat someone my age, the prime demographic for the vast majority of marketing efforts down at a computer and showed them this, I don’t think any of them would call these ads. But they are! These are ads as they’re supposed to be, and it’s referred in that piece by Thomas Wells above: It’s a simple and to the point message describing the product, what it costs, and giving you the option to buy it.

I think pieces like mine and Thomas’ are signs that advertising in it’s current state is broken. We are bombarded by ads continuously: billboards, websites, radio, television, in our movies and on our breakfast cereals. Every medium we advertise on is getting more ads all the time, but all of them seem to be having less and less effect, and the advertiser’s solution to that so far is to make them bigger, more ridiculous, and more…more! More ads on every medium, right up to Samsung awhile back creating a TV that would insert ads into your own streamed media.

Part of the problem is that the current advertising schema for big media, i.e. television, has virtually no data feedback in terms of effectiveness. Even as pitiful as the Clickthrough rate is for digital advertising at least we actually know what it is: the same data for a TV spot in the Super Bowl can really be only measured by how much controversy the ad generates (and therefore more impressions) and then of course you’re dealing with potentially creating negative connotations for the brand in question.

A Market Bubble perhaps then isn’t an apt metaphor for what’s going on here: The value isn’t increasing, in fact it’s plummeting. The quantity is exploding. Ad supported content and websites are doing better than ever but it seems that it can’t possibly be a permanent thing, because no matter how well ad supported websites do, the advertisers paying the bills aren’t. Pieces like the one from ABC highlight consumer frustration: We feel like the only thing a lot of companies see us as are wallets that just need to be shaken enough or yelled at enough to give them our money.

Relevant advertising isn’t even seen as advertising, it’s part of the Good User Experience. Apple offering up movies that they think you’d enjoy on your Apple TV isn’t advertising, it’s a feature. Amazon proposing some cables I might find useful isn’t advertising, it’s a feature.

So I guess the moral of the story is more features, less ads.