The way it ought to be

Ending tracking, ending surveillance, ending spying on the public is not a panacea for all the problems of the digital world. But it is a great place to start. We need to get rid of tracking – not advertising – to help make the web what it ought to be.

The Web the way it ought to be

Capital Thinking · Issue #851 · View online

Last week I was invited to speak to some members of Parliament in the UK. They are considering legislation to protect kids from online surveillance. My job was to give an overview of the issues.

My remarks to them….

-Bob Hoffman

On the Dangers of Tracking

Bob Hoffman | The Ad Contrarian:

Good afternoon.

Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to speak on the important topic of surveillance in online advertising. I hope my remarks will be helpful to you.

Advertising’s traditional job has been to impart information to people. Today, however, certain types of advertising have become equally concerned with collecting information about people.

I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that a good deal of online advertising can be viewed as spyware that only looks like advertising.

Most researchers estimate that about five display ads out of 10,000 get clicked on. But almost every one of those 10,000 ads is capable of harvesting information about the person the ad is served to.

Before I get into the details of why I’m concerned about online advertising, let me issue a disclaimer. Like most of you, I’m not a computer scientist or a software engineer. Trying to understand the arcane technology of digital advertising is above my pay grade. But you don’t have to be an automotive engineer to understand that a car can run you over.

About ten years ago, advertisers had a glorious vision for the future of our industry. Because of digital technology we had amazing new tools and amazing new media that we never had before.

Our ability to use software to track people around the web and reach each individual with personalized advertising was sure to make advertising more relevant, more timely, and more likable.

Our ability to listen to consumer conversations through social media and react quickly couldn’t help but connect brands more closely with their customers.

And the opportunity for people to interact with media was certain to make online advertising more engaging.

And yet, by the near unanimous opinion of people inside and outside the advertising business, the past decade has been a terrible misadventure for the ad industry.

Advertising has gotten worse, not better. It has gotten less effective, not more. The ad industry is less trusted than ever.

Rather than creating advertising that is “more relevant, more timely and more likable” we are creating advertising that is more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided.

One study showed that of all forms of advertising, the eight types most disliked by consumers were all forms of online advertising.

A headline in The New York Times recently asserted, “The Advertising Industry Has A Problem. People Hate Ads.”

Another recent report showed that of twenty-four different industries studied, advertising people were the least trusted.

Our industry has been in the middle of dozens of scandals. These scandals involve ad fraud, social media fraud, influencer fraud, click fraud, traffic fraud, brand safety issues, and enormous breaches and frightening abuse of personal data. Some of this has served to undermine peoples’ confidence in the integrity of democratic institutions.

I believe every one of these problems - to some degree - can be traced to the practice of spying on people online without their knowledge and without their informed consent.

In 2017 I wrote a book entitled “BadMen: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace.” In that book I wrote that we know the dangers that accrue when governments know everything about us, follow us everywhere, read our communications, and know who we talk to and what we talk about.

We know that because history has shown us the horrors of governmental organs like the Stasi, the KGB, and the Gestapo. But we don’t know what can occur when marketers know everything about us. When they follow us everywhere, read our communications, and know who we talk to and what we talk about.I wrote that 4 years ago.

Sadly, today we are starting to understand what those dangers are.

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Photo credit: Bob Hoffman