Clive Thompson has a problem with advertising.
In the September issue of Wired ("The Problem with Advertising" issue 19.09), he suggests more online services and publishers should charge fees to eliminate the need for advertising. Thompson argues that paid models will, "Save the Internet from… the bloodless logic of advertising."
We know advertising is guilty of many sins. But Thompson and other anti-advertising advocates should consider these three redeeming qualities of the advertising model:
1. Advertising Subsidizes Innovation:
Thompson calls advertising, "one of the most corrosive forces affecting [the Internet]… this inevitably produces horrid, cynical designs that work against what the people want."
Yes, there have been horrid designs to create clicks, but they often backfire over time as viewers abandon the site. Digital advertising is very democratic: every click is a vote. Google's homepage is proof that good design and advertising can co-exist. It is an ode to white space - pure and functional - and it exists to generate advertising.
Advertising builds much more than it corrodes. Advertising created much of what we take for granted online. For decades the Internet existed only as a connection between non-profit institutions. The World Wide Web and browsers made the Internet accessible to everyone, and those ugly banner ads paid for the massive build-out. Thousands of innovations at Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft have been funded by advertising.
2. Advertising Creates Diverse Choices:
Thompson believes the advertising model was partially justified in the early Internet years because micropayment options didn't exist. I agree that Amazon and iTunes accounts are convenient to pay for content, but people use micropayments for services and content they are already familiar with like music, movies, e-books, and news. Micropayments favor the establishment.
Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief at Wired, calls the Internet a "long tail" of content. It would be difficult to discover new opinions, new events, and new services if every idea had to live behind a micropayment. Advertising keeps the long tail of diverse ideas available to everyone.
3. Advertising Bridges the Digital Divide:
Would the Arab Spring have occurred if Twitter and Facebook were paid services? Free content, subsidized by advertising, is what has informed and entertained us for over a hundred years. News, events, opinions, and new ways of thinking have been spread by free and independent media. Paywalls and micropayments would only create a wider digital divide.
Yes, advertising has problems. But the problems are a small price for the innovation, diversity, and information access we gain. Paywalls and micropayments should be limited to the large publishers and established services.
Brian Spencer (Twitter: @Brian_Spencer) is Vice President/Media Director at JWT Action. JWT Action, part of WPP Group, is a fully-integrated shopper marketing agency.
Brian has been in the advertising world for 15 years working on automotive, CPG, power sports, lawn equipment, and retail accounts. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.
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