Is It Time to Regulate Internet Advertising?

by | Technology

The world runs on advertising. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I’m no historian, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people posted little “help wanted” or “chain mail suit for sale (almost brand new!)” type classified ads on the sides of buildings, all the way back in the middle ages.

Every new communication medium has relied on advertising as part of its financing engine to help keep it afloat.

Print newspaper was one of the first mediums to recognize the power of advertising. You could call the classified ads department of any print newspaper, and place an advertisement in any number of categories.

If you were an employer looking to hire a new prospective employee, you might place an ad in the help wanted section of the classifieds and take advantage of the wide readership of that paper, and hopefully, net lots of good quality job candidates.

Or if you’re looking to sell your car privately, instead of going through a dealership, you might go the classified ad route which could net you a higher resale amount than the trade-in offer at a typical car dealership.

The advertising revenue model has funded and powered newspapers since the beginnings of the newspaper medium.

When radio became the next new communication medium to reach the masses, it was no different than print newspaper… it utilized the same advertising revenue model as newsprint.

And the same goes for television.

When the internet arrived back in the mid-1990s, it was the next great communication medium to hit the masses.

It’s interesting to note that it was NOT originally designed as a commercial medium. It was originally designed by Tim Berners-Lee as a way to help publish and share papers among the scientific community via a worldwide computer network.

But it wasn’t long before corporations saw the immense power and reach the new world wide web network was capable of.

It was literally a GLOBAL network that anyone with a computer and internet connection could access.

Companies quickly realized that the internet was a new gold rush where you could advertise your products and services and reach literally millions, if not billions, of people around the globe.

So it wasn’t long before the first wave of internet advertising arrived, in the form of internet banner ads. These were little embedded HTML images that, when you clicked on them, would redirect you to whatever internet page represented the online advertisement… if it was an internet ad for a new car, your web browser would redirect itself to the corporate website of the car in question.

And without question, this new internet medium ushered in a new golden age of advertising revenue.

Advertising in the Age of the Internet

Before the arrival of the world wide web, Microsoft was the digital king of the software hill. They raked in billions of dollars of revenue creating software applications for the masses.

But new companies, like Google, recognized the immense advertising revenue potential of the internet, and through their service, AdWords, allowed people and companies to place online ads next to the search results of their primary search engine.

Lately, traditional communication mediums like print newspaper and magazines have suffered through the technological disruptions which the internet introduced.

Major newsprint publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have gone through huge layoffs of their news and editorial staff, due to the loss of their traditional print advertising revenue. These traditional newspapers have lost important adverting revenue due to the fact that people are flocking to the web nowadays to get their news.

Traditional newsprint and magazines have had to radically change the way to fund their operations. Print advertising revenue can no longer sustain or fund many of these organizations in this brave new world of the internet.

So they are relying on other alternative revenue models.

One is what is referred to as the paywall subscription model. It’s really just a fancy term for paying a monthly or yearly subscription fee for the privilege of reading the internet edition of traditional papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major news agencies.

The problem with this model is twofold. One: it’s fighting human nature. We humans, given a choice, will tend to favor paying NOTHING over paying a fee to receive a good or service.

And the internet gives us a wealth of choices for things like the news. That’s why someone who chooses not to cough up the paywall fee for the privilege of reading the New York Times online, has plenty of other free and alternative news sources on the internet to get the equivalent information.

It’s clearly been a struggle for major news outlets like the Times to replace the lost print advertising revenue, with the internet paywall model… there are simply too many other low-cost or free ways of getting the news.

The other alternative revenue model has much more success, which is increased internet advertising.

This alternative revenue model seems to be winning.

But it’s also causing a new set of problems that I believe need to be addressed sooner or later.

These days, many of the non-paywall websites you enjoy visiting from your web browser, are positively plastered with ads in one form or another.

There are some pages that seem to barely contain anything BUT online ads.

It gets particularly bad when visiting websites on a smartphone device. Not only do some ads not proportionally adjust themselves to the smaller display window of a smartphone, many of these websites aggressively redirect your smartphone to the app store application of your smartphone, in an attempt to force you to purchase a particular app from that app store.

There are many popular widgets you can install for your web browser that can remove the ads from a webpage so that by the time it reaches your browser, all you see is the main content of the website.

And these kinds of widgets/browser extensions have become extremely popular, as many people are simply fed up with the deluge of ads they are barraged with these days.

It also makes the internet browsing experience significantly faster, as your web browser no longer has to download any of the ad content that was part of the original web page.

Although these ad blocker extensions for browsers have become extremely popular with consumers, it obviously causes big problems for many of these websites, which depend on ad revenue to keep them funded.

Many website owners have caught on to these ad blockers and now use tools to detect whether a web browser is using one of these ad blocker extensions when viewing their website.

If an ad blocker is detected, the website will prevent the user from continuing to navigate through their content until the user whitelists the website and allows their ad blocker to view ads. Otherwise, the user can’t proceed further.

I believe this kind of tit for tat action/reaction behavior between web users and web content providers will be harmful in the long run.

It’s time for some moderate government regulation to step in and create some sort of set of internet advertising regulations, so that a reasonable middle ground can be reached where internet users no longer feel compelled to use ad blockers, and in exchange, are willing to view internet advertising-run websites that don’t assault your eyeballs with relentless advertising content.

It’s not an unprecedented notion.

Television advertising has for a very long time, been regulated by our government to forbid certain things from being deliberately advertised on TV. It’s the reason why we never see television ads for cigarettes and cigars, and people are forbidden from actually consuming any form of alcohol in a TV ad.

The rationale behind these television advertising regulations and others is to help discourage and prevent youths and minors from being persuaded and swayed to purchase alcohol and tobacco products.

There are also restrictions on how much advertising can occur in any given hour of television broadcasting. This is to create a balanced ratio between advertising and the actual content one wishes to see on TV.

This same principle could be applied to internet advertising… perhaps creating some percentage ratio for how many online ads can exist on any given page. Or perhaps the visual size or space internet ads can take up on any given website. Or maybe even limiting the advertising based on some maximum allowable downloadable limit of ads that can reach a user’s web browser, in any given hour.

Whatever final limit is used, would greatly reduce the opportunity of online advertising abuse that I think is going on today.

Look, I absolutely understand that advertising exists for a purpose. There is a cost to everything. Many news and other websites couldn’t exist without internet advertising.

But that doesn’t mean companies should have complete free reign over the kind and amount of advertising that belongs on a website.

Companies like Apple are already baking new ad blocking features into their Safari web browser because they know consumers are getting tired of being blasted by aggressive advertising and advertisers that have the ability to track their web surfing behavior even after they have left their website.

I am fairly confident the time for some sort of online advertising regulation will arrive sooner or later. The degree of regulation is still up in the air, but change is coming.

I, for one, won’t be sad, when I no longer have to see yet another banner ad for the latest hair growth miracle cure for balding men …

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