Vincent Varney

About Vincent Varney

Vincent Varney is a Sydney-based writer, recent Communication graduate and lover of food – provided it’s non-dairy, non-soy, low GI, low salt and unprocessed. You can see him lament his depressing diet and other things by following him on Twitter.

Online advertising: Stop complaining you freeloaders

“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”

Benjamin Franklin intoned these words of wisdom in a letter in 1789 to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, proclaiming two certainties that still hold true to this day.

The latter takes effect when you enter the workforce – the beginning of the end, I’m told time and time again – and the former is a more permanent kind of employment, or disemployment as the case may be.

My jobless, eight-year-old self was far from thrilled with the introduction of the GST in Australia, which had an immediate impact on the $3 pocket money my parents gave me each week.

How was I expected to afford a packet of Wizz Fizz and the new issue of K-Zone?

Despite my loathing for the GST, there’s another tax I’ve always been happy to pay – television advertising.

A tax?

Yes – the trusty three-minute ad break that slots its way into your favourite TV show is effectively the price you pay to watch free-to-air television, and even my eight-year-old self thought it was a good deal (nine minutes of ads for 22 minutes of The Simpsons was a steal).

And I don’t believe I’m alone here.

I’m not saying anyone loves television advertising, just like no one loves paying income tax, but most people accept it and pay up.

But there’s one tax – a near identical one, at that – that not everyone is as happy to pay as I.

Online advertising.

In the interest of transparency, let me state that I do work in the advertising industry, but this isn’t the reason behind my tolerance. I don’t support online ads because I like them (and I mostly don’t) – I support online ads because I understand their place in today’s online business models.

Advertising works in the same way on the internet as it does on television: the user can access content – be it a news story or a video of a monkey riding a pig – and rather than being asked to empty their wallet, they see a few ads instead.

Strangely, despite it effectively mimicking the TV model, online advertising results in a cacophony of howls from the peanut gallery.

The opposition to online advertising appears to be twofold.

Firstly, users tend to develop a sense of entitlement when they sit in front of a computer, assuming that free access to online content is their right. The internet’s power to make information more openly available might make free content seem like a right, but with so many businesses struggling with the transition to cyberspace and issues such as illegal file sharing and copyright, the assumption is plain bratty.

There is also an ostensibly warranted fear of data mining, where a user’s browser history can be harnessed for targeted advertising. As much as Google might deny any data mining, let’s not kid ourselves: of course it happens. Advertising is where Google makes its billions. But if a person is actually afraid that targeted advertising will lead them to make purchases against their will, they’re not giving themselves enough credit. No ad is that good, and no ad can do more than contribute to a greater decision-making process behind any purchase.

We’re talking advertising, not Inception.

Frankly, I’m happy for my internet use to be recorded for targeted advertising. If online advertising is a tax, then, just like real life taxes, I should be able to play a part in deciding where my online taxpayer dollars go. I want to see ads about sneakers and sweaters and Radiohead – not diets and jewellery and Viagra.

I want to see my taxes go towards something relevant to me.

Despite my reasoning, the amount of people who agree with me is equivalent to the audience numbers for The Shire. A lot of people will go out of their way to avoid online ads altogether, even installing ad-blockers on their computers, which is insane – online ads fund free content. Take Spotify, for instance, which grants users free access to a near-endless catalogue of music, and all these users have to do in return is see or listen to an ad here or there. The model has its flaws, but it’s better than artists getting screwed over through piracy.

Put simply, if you use ad-blockers, you’re potentially killing your favourite sites.

However here’s where ad avoidance becomes mind-boggling: ads alongside a web-page might be a tad bothersome, but they’re also pretty easy to ignore. Content advertising, advertorial and press release journalism (content that hides advertising in articles, videos and other media), on the other hand, is not nearly as easy to avoid or even spot. These methods might be less disruptive than traditional ads, however, they’re anything but consumer-friendly and are much scarier and more dangerous than data mining.

I realise your gut instinct is probably to never trust anyone in advertising, along with politicians, snake-oil salesmen and Kyle Sandilands, but I can say with certainty that persistent ad avoidance will, and already does, lead to disguised advertising.

In pursuit of tackling this issue, companies like Fairfax Media have begun raising paywalls around their services, but asking for a subscription is a hard sell when users already feel entitled to pay nothing for content, which is why ad support is a worthwhile model.

There’s no doubt that online businesses should be taking the initiative by explaining to internet users why they rely on advertising, but the sense of entitlement that the internet has given many people needs to be whittled away.

Online advertising is just a tax, easily paid, and as long as advertisers aren’t holding guns to heads, the ads are also easily ignored.

However, the more actively internet users avoid online advertising, the worse the ads will get.

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