Jaron Lanier’s book, Who Owns the Future?, takes on many connected subjects. His editor should have requested he split it into a series of two or three books. One subject he brings up throughout the book is the primary income source of Siren Servers : advertising.
Advertising has been a driving economic force since its beginnings. Signs and barkers were the earliest forms from pre printing press times. Newspaper ads started in the US, according to Advertising Age, in 1704. Benjamin Franklin offered advertisement pages in his Pennsylvania Gazette. Since then, advertising has been on a continuous growth path. Through the last century, the number of ads the average pair of eyes sees in a single day has increased astronomically. The estimates vary by orders of magnitude, from a low of about 250 to figures over 20,000. The larger estimates are inflated by counting every package label, every logo, every sign, every commercial ID of any kind that may have flashed in front of your eyes. That’s not exactly all advertising. I’m talking about advertising messages—billboards, radio and TV spots, print ads, banner and popup ads—messages that are not directly on the product; messages meant to get your attention, and with luck, hold it long enough to make an impression. The number of ads seen per day may be debatable, but the increase of advertising messages is unquestionable. Some estimates indicate that ad exposure has multiplied ten fold since the 1970s. No matter how you count them, we are over saturated. In the process, we have become desensitized. The uncritical, knee jerk response by advertisers is to step up exposure. For instance, as recently as the 1990s, a half hour TV show had 24 minutes of programing. That left 6 minutes, 20% of the time, for ads. Back then ads usually ran 30 seconds to a full minute. Typically three commercial breaks, each 2 minutes long, had 2 or 3 ads; total 6-9 messages. Today, programming has been reduced to 21 minutes, or less for reruns. That leaves 9 minutes, 30%, for ads. Commercials rarely exceed 30 seconds and many are now 15-20 seconds. Breaks are about 3 minutes long with 6-8 ads. Do the math. That’s 50% more ad time, about as many ads per break as you used to get per show, and at least triple the total number of messages, 18-24 every half hour. Watching a feature length film on TV is even worse. Typically ad breaks run about 4 minutes long with 12-14 messages each, and they increase the frequency towards the end of the movie. It’s torture to watch commercial TV. You can interrupt my attention only so many times before I give up. It’s diluting ad effectiveness, and alienating viewers. No wonder on-demand, download, and pay-per-view is rapidly overtaking old school commercial TV.
TV is just one example. Ad density has increased in every medium. And not only have there been increases, but new vehicles for advertising are popping up everywhere—movie theaters (you pay and are still subjected to obnoxious ads), illuminated, multi-ad billboards (very distracting for drivers, blinding at night—likely cause accidents), store check-outs (no way to escape), and ad placement even in schools and churches.
Here are a few maddening factoids. US pharmaceutical companies could triple their research spending without effecting the bottom line one penny. How? Drop advertising. They spend twice as much on advertising as research—twice. In 1965, 85% of primetime viewers were watching one of the three major broadcasting stations. Now, 85% of the viewers are spread out over the top 125 channels. We may be seeing more ads, but if you’re an advertiser, your dollars are spreading thinner than ever. (Do the math again. If evenly distributed, 85/3 = 28% of viewers per channel, today, 85/125 = 0.68% per channel. That’s almost a 98% drop. Do TV ads cost 98% less?) The newest irritation is ambient advertising. This is advertising in, or more accurately on, unexpected places, such as, sidewalks, public bathroom stalls, airplane tray tables, floors, grocery carts. What’s next, hotel room ceilings? How about at traffic lights while waiting for the light to change? Makes you wish you had a big can a spray paint handy.
There’s a saying in the ad industry. “Half of your advertising is a waste. Problem is, there’s no telling which half.” (That’s been paraphrased. The exact quote is, well, inconsistent, and attributed to, well, various people. A typical result of a “quote” that hasn’t a reliable source.) I’d bet, in the real world, it’s closer to 90%, 95%, or more, and there’s still no telling what’s working. One thing is certain, advertising is shifting from old media to the internet. And the pace is expected to double in the three year span from 2012 through 2014. It’s already quadrupled from 2000 to 2011. In 2011, one eighth of internet ad spending went to a single antisocial media site ($4 billion). We’re talking a total of over thirty-two BILLION US dollars on internet ads that are calculated by secret computer algorithms to be aimed specifically at you. And they brag about “giving you relevant ads.” When I’m interested in something, I’ll seek it out on my own, thank you. But get this, the standard banner ad has a click-through rate of 0.04%. That’s one click in over two thousand five hundred views, and the rate has been dropping every year since their inception. On mobile devices 50% of the click-throughs are accidental. And remember, those miserable rates are for ads supposedly calculated with you as the target. The problem is, or rather the good news is, people have learned to ignore banners. Banner Blindness as a phenomenon has been documented since 1997, yup, 16 years ago. To counter these trends, the industry is applying the brute force method. If somethin’ don’t work, just do it more, and make it more obnoxious. What happened to, “Work smarter, not harder.”? Of course, like spam, it’s a numbers game. And in case you haven’t been keeping score, a game that only the biggest, richest, multinational corporations can afford to play. A multi-billion dollar game, which in turn, makes the Siren Servers loads of profit, and consequently, all that money is just circulating from one deep pocket to another deep pocket. It does frightfully little for our souring economy at large.
There’s a limit to how much a mind can absorb. That limit was surpassed decades ago. The human nervous system has an efficient and effective means for dealing with overload. It blocks it. Desensitization is a normal defense mechanism for filtering out excessive, continuous, or irrelevant stimuli. Yet we are being bombarded evermore by messages, despite the reduction in effectiveness, and increased cognitive filtering. Despite the annoyance. Despite the absurdity. Despite that fact that overexposure to advertising germinates mounting animosity, distrust, and alienation. Here we have one more reason to adopt a pay-as-you-go model in the digital world. Pay-as-you-go would eliminate the waste on ads. It would clean up our screens, our streets, our fields of view, and make the world a more pleasant place.