Online Advertising is Broken

Technology is letting us down. After all, isn’t it supposed to serve us ads on our phones, tablets, and computers that make us want to buy more? Isn’t it supposed to show us ads selected for us based on our activities on the internet and the information it learns about us? But, most importantly, it’s supposed to predict what we might want to buy next and offer us some suggestions for these products and services. From all I observe and experience, it does a terrible job, even while it intrudes into our privacy.

If I click on an item or buy a product, it never lets me forget. On site after site, that same item pops up, based on the assumption that the more impressions the better. That may be true with TV or newspaper ads, but for most of us, it’s the opposite with internet ads.

Repetition is one of the reasons online advertising drives us crazy. A word or two to the wise should be sufficient. But seeing the same Harry’s Razor ad for weeks and months after purchasing one does not endear me to the company.

In fact, I almost stopped buying blades from them because the ads were so incessant and I became sick of seeing them on every one of my devices. I even tried clicking on the option to tell the ad delivery company it was too repetitive, but to no avail.

A while back, I clicked on an ad that promised a free pair of boxer shorts. Turns out, it wasn’t free and I ignored the ad. But now, six months later, how embarrassing to see boxer shorts plastered all over my computer screen!

What the online advertising industry forgets is too many “in your face” ads can create animosity and turn off potential customers. I pay almost $30 per month for online access to the New York Times yet often when I navigate to their site, up pops up an ad right over the top right corner of the front page, where I often go to click on an opinion piece, preventing me from accessing what I paid for.

Do the editors of the New York Times really think I’m going to pause to read this ad before reading the column? Of course not. I’ll look for the X to terminate the ad, if it can be found.

Advertisers know this and now think nothing of moving the X around or hiding it to make the ad more difficult to escape. Trying to outsmart me does nothing to endear me to these websites. It only suceeds in causing me to avoid them. I’m not interested in playing a video game called “Find the X before reading”.

Then there are some ads that say it will take you to the site you were heading for in 15 seconds. Just wait (and watch our ad). I can’t fathom how this behavior sells products. We need to bring in some psychologists to explain to the ad makers about what make ads more appealing and useful. It’s certainly not erecting obstacles to our efforts to work efficiently and to get things done.

But complaining is easy, so here are some ideas to try to address these problems.

• Allow us to read an ad later, just like in a newspaper. Some of us actually like newspaper ads, but would read them between reading articles, not during or not if we are heading to a story we want to read. If we see an ad of interest, let us be able to click on it to read it later. Have a browser tab accumulate links to these ads. In fact, ad sellers could access the list of ads we defer for later viewing and do a better job of figuring out what our interests are without invading our privacy.

• Do not repeat the same ads so often. If we don’t click on it after a few times or after a few days, let it go. You have our answer.

• Do a better job associating products to other products we might like. If we click on a watch ad, show us ads for pens, since those who like one often like other. Don’t keep showing us ads for the same or similar items.

• Avoid ads that contain a lot of content and slow things down. The increased number of ads with video and high-res images are depleting our smartphone batteries and using up our data allowances. Using up these scarce resources for advertising is just like sending junk faxes that use up our printer ink.

Actually, what I’d really like is the ability to go onto an ad free internet where I would pay a couple of hundred dollars a year to avoid all advertising. Would you and millions of others be willing to do this as well?

The advertising industry had better make changes. Clearly, the algorithms they are using are primitive and exhibit poor psychological intelligence. Ads should attract and intrigue customers, not annoy them. If they don’t get this fixed, we’ll all start using blocking software to opt out of these ads entirely.

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at

58 thoughts on “Online Advertising is Broken”

  1. Amen!
    But like any technology, it’s ethically agnostic. It’s simply a reflection of the society in which it participates.

    We even have heated debates, and “pay wars” over which digital payment system makes us spend money faster. It used to be products were branded, now the customers are too.

  2. I was thinking about this after a few of us were discussing how disappointing Medium has been with regard to the articles they promote. Medium has no way to gauge one’s interest on topics they don’t read.

    Similarly, advertising has always had a problem with, which one might think technology could help but apparently not, there is no way to gauge interest by what people say “No” to, what they _don’t_ click on. How does the old adage go? “I know half my advertising works, I just don’t know which half”? Seems the advertiser is assuming people are skipping ads simply because they hate ads.

    No one is asking why people hate ads. Or they don’t care, which is worse. The easy thing is to assume a click means something. The hard thing is to figure out why people _aren’t_ clicking. Besides. the advertiser may not like the answer. It may mean more work and advertising in the internet age is supposed to be easy. Tricking the reader is easier than figuring out what motivates them. That requires empathy and that is not quantifiable.

    Great article.

    1. Was it Steve Jobs who said that the internet is active viewing while TV is passive? Ads are less objectionable when you’re just sitting back letting the programming wash over your half-catatonic brain. But when you’re searching out specific sites and pages on the web, ads feel like obstacles that make it harder for you to get to your destination. I think that’s the basic reason people aren’t clicking.

      1. That is what I consider to be a large part of the problem. Internet ads seem to want to use the TV model of advertising, but only at its most basic level, interruption. Even TV ads have the ability to entertain—Aflac, Geico, Staples back to school ad where the background music is “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” while the parent runs around gleefully buying school supplies. When I read magazines of niche interest, like Architectural Digest or industry publications like Lighting Dimensions, the ads even have the ability to meaningfully inform and educate.

        As much as I hate ads, I have to agree with Ben in that there are good things about ads. What I hate is when I feel like I am being abused by the ads and advertisers. And using ads as a firewall to the content definitely qualifies as abuse.

        What advertisers seem to hate is actually being thoughtful in their ad creation and presentation. That takes too much effort. They want tricks. That’s unfortunate.


      2. That said, seems to me years of internet use has lowered my tolerance threshold for TV ads in that now my TV series viewing is mostly PBS and sports viewing is soccer because I can’t stand the damn ads anymore. And when they put ads on broadcast soccer, like they did on qualifying matches in the last World Cup, I just turn the set off in disgust.

  3. I am completely unable to fathom the psychology of complaining bitterly about internet ads when all you need to do to surf in peace and tranquility is install adblock plus, add all the suggested blocking lists on the welcome page, and then untick the “acceptable advertising” box. Problem solved.

    On mobile devices, install and configure either Adamant (non-nerdy), or 1blocker (nerdy), or weblock if your device is old. And again, your problem is 90% solved.

    1. I use an adblocker, but I disable it on certain sites, so that they can get paid. It’s not a question of whether the advertisers deserve to get screwed, it’s about who else you’re screwing. I make a semi-conscious effort to NOT purchase obnoxiously advertised products.

        1. The issue is about making ads more effective, not to eliminate them in their entirety. In fact my recommendation to the industry was to fix them or we would all be using ad blockers.

          1. “The column is about making ads more effective, not about eliminating them.”

            So, you are the podiatrist who, when a patient comes in with a gangrenous leg being attacked by flesh-eating bacteria, says “golly, that’s a really bad ingrown toenail you have, what can we do about that?”

            For reasons I cannot understand, you don’t use an ad-blocker despite being bothered by ads. So you notice how the ads that are supposed to match up with your interests actually seem only able to match up with your interests as of yesterday or last week. Instead of thinking that maybe the whole model of data mining your personal information and selling that information to advertisers is invasive, creepy, dangerous, and ought to be illegal, you think, “gee, how could we make advertisers better able to sell to my interests in a way that isn’t bone-stupid?”

            The entire system of user-tracking and personalized ads needs to be destroyed. Blocking of tracker networks and ad networks needs to be built in to every browser by default. Facebook needs to die in a fire. Google’s entire current revenue model needs to be taken out back and shot.

            Publishers that decide they cannot subsist entirely on subscription revenue need to go back to the old-school model of having complete control over the ads they have on their publications, and using the information they have on their readers, they can then solicit ads from companies that their readers will find relevant and useful to them.

            But please, stop with these anti-helpful “think” pieces that focus on cosmetic issues while ignoring the underlying disease.

  4. I agree that I can’t believe that Amazon continues to show me ads for the items that I recently bought. Maybe it makes sense to show me a similar item after I’ve had the item for a while in case I need a replacement, but not immediately before the item even arrives!

  5. I agree about the incessant repetition of the same ad. I click on a video clip in a news site, an ad pops up, so I let it play. Right after I watch the clip, I click on to another video on the same site and the same ad plays again. And again, and again. Who are the people who designed this ad strategy?

    Another news website. There’s an article with a picture of a pond filled with filth and garbage somewhere in the world and there’s a boy chest deep in it, scavenging. The caption at the top of the photo says something like “Look at all that garbage”, and a Mercedes Benz ad pops up in the photo so it looks like an MB car is right there among the garbage. I actually grabbed a screen shot and emailed it to MBUSA wondering if they know where their online ads are popping up and somebody, not robo-email, replied to thank me for alerting them to the unfavorable visual.

    Online ads really are broken.

    1. I forget who did this, but they had video clips and would show the ad after you watched the clip. If I watched the video I had no problem watching the ad. I guess i was a minority.


  6. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Internet advertising is probably the most data-driven industry the world has ever seen, and that for all your complaining about certain ad formats and how they follow you around, there is a huge body of data that proves that these are the most effective at driving traffic and conversions.

    This is the dilemma. Our instincts suggest that current Internet advertising is broken. However, the data accumulated in Google, other advertising businesses, and inside the advertisers themselves most likely suggests that current Internet advertising is fine. Google’s financial results are also quite good, and advertisers apparently continue to pour more and more money into Internet ads.

    I am generally underwhelmed at articles that only discuss the anecdotes, especially when they are taking on massive data-driven industries. I would appreciate more data to underlie your point.

    1. “there is a huge body of data that proves that these are the most effective at driving traffic and conversions.”

      And the mafia has superb profit margins. So, we should all just go along with allowing businesses to engage in unethical and illegal dealings as long as that’s what’s most effective?

      The problem with the ad-based, tracker-based, invasion-of-privacy-based model of financing the internet is not that it’s not effective, it’s that the human costs of this business model are severe and getting worse. Do we really want an a highly profitable internet that is run off the wholesale invasion and assassination of your privacy, or would it maybe be better to halt the cycle of abuse, reign in the profits, and have an better internet that maybe doesn’t make certain people filthy rich, but is more human and humane?

      1. I am totally with you on this, but your argument is totally different from the “online advertising is broken” argument.

        The “online advertising is broken” headline suggests that online advertising is not effective. I’m pointing out that if you want to make that argument, your have to make your case with data.

        1. Effective is a relative term. If it’s effective now with all of the issues cited in the column, then how much better could it be? And it may be effective by advertiser standards, but certainly not based on user expectations.

          1. Internet ad spending is growing at the expense of other media. I had a bit of trouble finding a nice chart, but the following link should give you a good idea.

            So it’s apparently effective relative to other media and it’s effective by advertiser’s standards. That why advertisers are spending money. I struggle to see why user expectations should matter at all.


          2. Why do user expectations or satisfaction matter? Because they have the option to follow the advice of Glaurung-below and block all ads.

          3. That’s a very recent discussion. Data on ad blocker usage is still scarce and ad companies are just starting to plan their countermeasures. I would say it’s too early to say that it’s a widespread option, and that it will remain an option in the mid term.

            It is definitely something to watch, but it’s a very speculative argument right now.

          4. “That why advertisers are spending money”

            They are spending money because it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see the internet is where everyone is. That doesn’t mean they yet know how to spend the money effectively. And for the ad platform who depends on the advertiser not knowing where to spend, they have had little reason to fix any of that. This is possibly a bubble in the dot-com sense.


          5. Very true.

            In the midst of a bubble, it’s very difficult to get people to take your warnings seriously. You need more than anecdotes.

          6. The article ends with a paragraph starting with the following sentence;

            The advertising industry had better make changes.

            My interpretation is that the author is sending a warning toward the advertising industry that their current ways will not work in the future. My initial comments was that to convince the advertising industry, you had better arm yourself with more than anecdotes. Bubble or not, the advertising industry is currently fixated on data, so if you want to convince them, you had better speak their language. You can start by trying to prove how irrelevant the data is, and how useless their data-centric methods are, but you can’t just ignore data and hope the advertisers will listen to you.

            I’m all for stopping the advertisers from intruding our privacy, but my opinion is that the kind of argument that the current article makes is not the way to do it.

          7. How is my experience not data? The advertisers (the ones who pay for the advertising) are already rethinking internet advertising. I’ve been in the board room where we discussed the difference between some broad shot gun affect vs actual targeting. Earlier everyone kept saying “The internet is a new ball game”.

            Well what we discovered is it isn’t a new game, it is just a new field. Click throughs and conversions do not customers make. We were told we couldn’t/didn’t need to ask the same questions we asked in traditional advertising. This turns out to be horse hockey. Of course the same questions apply. Who are the ad platforms going to target that is relevant to my company? How does the ad we present and the environment we present it in affect their decision making process?

            Of course there will always be gamblers who want to play the numbers. If they want to waste their money, well, it’s their money. Those kind of advertisers usually don’t have an understanding of who their customers are. But they have money to spend and there is always someone willing to separate a fool and his money.

            In an age of “data” epistemology is more important than ever:

            “There are no facts if there are not values, because you assign value of what is significant to pick out a pattern… Every perception is assigning value to the clues. You don’t see it if you don’t assign value to it.” Esther Meek


          8. Isn’t it self-evident that the “advertising industry needs to make changes?”

            Ad-blockers are the top downloaded non-game apps on app stores. The vast majority of computer malware is designed to display ads to defraud advertisers. What more proof do YOU need?

          9. I recently looked up the top downloaded, paid, non-game app ranking in Japan for the iPhone App Store. Only one ad blocker was found, and it was a local Japanese one. Yes several ad blockers ranked high on the list when iOS 9 was launched, but not anymore.

            I also understand about the advertising malware situation.

            On the other hand, take a look at Google’s recent earnings. They were pretty decent even though adblocking on the desktop has been on the rise for a while. Of course, to see the full impact of iOS ad blockers, we’ll have to wait a few more quarters.

            For the ad industry to acknowledge the need for change, it is likely that we need either a foreseeable future drop in ad revenue (which must be suggested using data), a social uprising (which could take the form of a quantitative questionnaire), or legislation that even Google’s lobbyist can’t stop.

        1. Maybe from a quantitative perspective, but not qualitative. It’s only more effective by playing a numbers game. That’s not actually targeting. “Targeting” based on clicks is targeting on incomplete and potentially irrelevant data. You need the qualitative for the quantitative to make sense.


          1. But marketing IS a numbers game. In fact, you could argue that Internet advertising has succeeded in making marketers extremely obsessive over numbers.

            To win in a numbers game, quantitative is what counts.

          2. “To win in a numbers game, quantitative is what counts.”

            Targeting those efforts is what counts. That’s why there is at least demographics, and, for the really thoughtful, there is psychographics. That’s why radio stations can tell you who their customers are, even broken down by time of day, to help you target your advertising. Advertising a metal group on an easy listening station is not targeting. That’s wishful thinking, but still a numbers play.

            In a lot of ways internet advertising is in the infant stages. It is broken _because_ most are playing a numbers game. Not because playing the numbers is effective. But because for the time being all the things that an ad platform could traditionally provide based on the decades of data (and for some centuries of data, like the NYT) is currently being gathered. So a numbers game is all many have to offer. But that doesn’t mean it is the most effective.

            This is the edge I think Facebook has over Google. Google only has the click that resulted from a thought process. They have to, at best, deduce the “why”, and why an untargeted but quantitative numbers game is currently needed by Google, whether it helps the advertiser now or not. Facebook has a better shot at the “why” and “how” embedded in the user’s timeline. That’s also why it was such a big deal for Facebook to cut off Google’s search engine. Google needed Facebook more than Facebook needed Google.

            For instance, Google may know that I’ve searched for a restaurant the same day every year. Facebook will know it is because that is my wedding anniversary. But let’s say Google may deduce that and offer fine dining suggestions. But Facebook will know I am looking for restaurants that serve a particular dish we ate when we first met or when I proposed. Facebook will know I asked my friends for suggestions. Facebook can target. Google can only play a numbers game, a game of chance. You tell me which is more effective?

            That’s also why it is such a big deal when Apple restricts customer data from companies that rely on user data they have traditionally had access to, like publications. In a very real sense Apple has been a contributor to the broken internet ad problem.


          3. I probably should have said that marketing is a data game. But I think my original comment is still valid in that if you want to refute a data game, then you have to bring along your own data.

            I think your idea is interesting. If I’m not mistaken, I think you are saying that if you have higher quality data about your users, you won’t have to rely on a huge number of obtrusive ads.

            Taking your thesis to the extreme, you seem to be suggesting a trade-off between ad obtrusiveness and privacy intrusion. That is to say, if the ad broker knows more about you, then they can be effective without obtrusive ads. On the other hand, if the ad brokers are denied private data about you, then they have no choice to put up obtrusive ads.

            I agree. That’s why I’m hoping that somehow public awareness grows to the point that legislation is called for.

          4. So in other words, just throw it all up against the wall and see what sticks. No targeting, no research, just NUMBERS NUMBERS NUMBERS!!!!

  7. Every now and then, When I am bored I do a search for asbestosis or mesothelioma. I then click on the paid ads at the top. Personal injury lawyers pay $60 per click.

    Clearly a character flaw on my part.

  8. You’re writing a tech column?

    Not only are you not using something like uBlock, but you actually click on ads?!

  9. I can’t believe the author didn’t mention what I consider to be the modern plague of the interent – LIGHTBOX MODALS. You’ve seen em. You visit a website and BOOM – instead of seeing the content you came to see – the entire window is greyed out and you’re presented with a box, begging for your email address. These have become so pervasive, it’s sickening. So far, I haven’t found an ad blocker to defeat it. The only way is to turn off javascript which will pretty much cripple everything else. Now, I either close the tab (punish the website by leaving) or I disable javascript for that website.

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