Is Online Advertising Junk Mail?

Seth Godin is one of our generation’s marketing gurus. Here is what he wrote recently about ad blockers:

…advertisers have had fifteen years to show self restraint. They’ve had the chance to not secretly track people, set cookies for their own benefit, insert popunders and popovers and poparounds, and mostly, deliver us ads we actually want to see.

Alas, it was probably too much to ask. And so, in the face of a relentless race to the bottom, users are taking control, using a sledgehammer to block them all. It’s not easy to develop a white list, not easy to create an ad blocker that is smart enough to merely block the selfish and annoying ads. And so, just as the default for some advertisers is, “if it’s not against the law and it’s cheap, do it,” the new generation of ad blockers is starting from the place of, “delete all.”

This development, the growth of ad blockers, was easy to ignore until last week, when the top five best-selling apps in the Apple App Store became ad blockers. Then the industry had to sit up and take notice.

But all this is fixable.  Doc Searls, one of the writers of the original “Cluetrain Manifesto,” the Bible of the internet, says that to fix it, we have to get rid of what he calls “ad tech,” not advertising. Searls draws a distinction between ad tech and advertising that’s akin to that between junk mail and Madison Avenue. Ad tech was developed to facilitate performance advertising. Unlike what we admire and remember from Madison Avenue, junk mail

  • wants to get personal,
  • is data-driven,
  • is based on as much tracking as possible,
  • wants to follow you around (thats called “retargeting”)
  • mistakes tolerance for approval,
  • clogs distribution pipes,
  • is mostly litter,
  • cheapens its environment, and
  • wastes time and space in our lives.

Searls is careful to say that advertising is the baby and adtech is the bathwater. “The simplest solution to the adblock war is for non-tracking-based ads — the harmless Madison Avenue kind — to carry a marker* that ad  blockers can whitelist.”