Online advertising gets a bad rap.
Consumers, bombarded for years with belly fat and acai berry ads, don’t welcome most display, video, and search ads.
Fortunately, many digital ads have evolved. They’ve become more relevant and less invasive, and consumers have become more open to them.
But what if ads disappeared? The alternative to an ad-supported Internet is a pay-for-play world supported by subscriptions or private ownership. Consumers may think they want an ad-free Internet, but do we really want to pay subscription fees to access all the sites we currently visit for free? In the end, advertising is the only thing that will keep the web free.
The web is a free resource we take for granted. Since the early 1990s, when it was first introduced, the web has grown at rates no expert could have predicted. And advertising has paid for most of that growth.
Imagine if access to web content had been set up differently, with a subscription model. A subscription model would limit Internet access to those who could afford it. And content creation would be driven by those few companies able to find enough subscribers to sustain their writers, editors, and techs. It would be a much smaller web.
Thankfully, most web content remains free. But it costs money to create that content. Professional writers, editors, photographers, designers, engineers, and on and on—all spend a great deal of time and effort to create the content we enjoy for free. And where does the money come from to pay for their work? From advertising.
Social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and user-generated content (UGC) sites like YouTube, also rely on advertising revenues to pay for the back-end hosting and technology that enables consumers to post their comments, videos, and content for free.
Everyone claims to hate online advertising, but everyone also uses it. We don’t engage with all of the advertising we’re exposed to. But when the ad is interesting, relevant, or just a deal we can’t ignore, we do indeed pay attention.
More importantly, with all the heated debate about Do Not Track and other privacy initiatives aimed at the online advertising industry, one issue rarely comes up: the impact these controls would have on free speech.
While regulators, privacy advocates — and companies like Microsoft — who support initiatives like Do Not Track say they will protect consumers, the unintended consequence may have more insidious effects. By reducing the effectiveness of advertising, Do Not Track and other restrictions on data usage would reduce publishers’ advertising revenues. This would dramatically impact the availability of content created for the web. That, in turn, would stifle investigative reporting, dissuade open discussion and commentary, and muffle free speech.
If independent publishers lose a large percentage of their ad revenues because Do Not Track or other initiatives restrict the free flow of information on the web, they’ll have less money to fund unbiased, journalistic content creation. And if social and UGC sites lose some of their ad revenues, they’ll have to start charging users to post content, thereby muffling the voices of many consumers who can’t or won’t pay to express their opinions.
What will rise in their place? Only well-funded websites run by large publishers that do have the money to create and support content—which would, by definition, reduce the variety of voices on the web.
Websites funded by corporations and wealthy individuals always have a strong bias, so the content they create or host will reflect those biases. Without ad-funded content creation, independent publishers will suffer—and so will the overall quality of content produced on the Internet. No one wants to see a world where the majority of content online comes with biases tilted toward those of the largest corporate publishers.
All advertising is not created equal. Targeted, relevant ads don’t harm consumers—personal information is not necessary, or collected, to produce them. And they serve as the funding source for lots of amazing content creation and distribution. In fact, the more tailored advertising is, the more it’s worth to advertisers. With higher ad revenues comes more rich content that spurs vibrant discussion.
What regulators should be most concerned about is keeping the Internet an open, democratic space where all opinions are supported. Better advertising means better content, and that leads to a greater diversity of voices on the web.
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