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Digital Advertising Today: The 800 (million) Pound Squid in the Room

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A funny thing happened on the way to the freedom, transparency and ubiquity that the Internet promised us.  We ended up in Doomworld.

But that’s not as bad as it sounds.  If you’re Victor Von Doom, that is.  Or, in our case, the advertising technologies that control our digital lives.  In exchange for an illusion of free digital will, we give up our privacy and ownership of our personal data.  For those who aren’t familiar with graphic literature, let me first tell you of a trend among the comic based villains.

1986 was a historic year for the comic book industry.  In that year, Frank Miller’sThe Dark Knight Returns” (of which the recent movie trilogy was influenced) and Alan Moore’sWatchmen” were first published in serialized form.  Those two mini-series changed the face of comics forever as they brought the medium into a mature, adult-themed (adult meaning ‘intelligent, well-crafted and complex’, not adult meaning ‘porn’) place among seemingly more erudite forms of literature.

In the climactic final chapters of “Watchmen” (DC Comics), Ozymandias, being among the world’s most intelligent people, plans on preventing an impending apocalyptic nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia by teleporting an alien squid from another dimension that would end up killing millions.   His prescience calculates that the fractured countries would unite together in brotherhood when faced with a potential common threat from the stars.  The godlike Dr. Manhattan has a chance to stop Ozymandias, but, in the end, agrees with the conclusion that it is the only way to save the people on the planet from destroying themselves.  Is it acceptable to let millions of innocent people die?  To save billions?

This moral ‘means-to-an-end’ quandary arises here: Sacrifice millions for the ostensible safety of billions.  Forget the magnitude of innocents in these tales, or that these stories revolve around life and death (While there are studies shown that say advertising disrupts and frustrates lives, I’m not suggesting viewing them is akin to worldwide destruction).  I bring up such extreme illustrations because they illuminate trends that we may be seeing in our digital lives.  While our real lives are not at stake, our online personas are.  Our personal data is.  Our illusion of privacy is.

These ideas have been more recently explored in “Doomwar” (Marvel Comics, 2010).  In an effort to realize his ‘Pinky and the Brain’-like monolithic endeavor of planet-wide domination by taking control of the world’s supply of Vibranium, Doom must submit himself to the spiritual challenge of the Panther God, Bast: “Only by purity unencumbered by pretense may you pass.”  As a sorcerer, Victor Von Doom has seen countless futures and every one leads to ruin except for the one in which he rules with an iron fist.  The only hope for the human race is by his rule. While he will give the world freedom from disease, hunger, poverty and war, the price is the cost of freedom of individuals, of choice and of freewill. And of course, millions will die in his conquest.  As surprised and disturbed as she is by the pathos of Doom, Bast must acquiesce and relinquish access to the materials that will eventually be used to enslave the world.  For its greater good.

We know when we post things on the Internet, particularly social media, our privacy is lost. But why does it have to be that way?  Why can’t we share news with friends and not the rest of the world? Why can’t we make a purchase on our credit cards without advertisers using that information to target us? Why can’t we visit a site without having that site retargeted to us for the next six months everywhere we go online?

Why can’t we be in control of our experience?

What I would like to see is a digital world in which I am in control.  In which I can opt-in to the brands and items I like and am in market for (and similarly, opt out if I made a recent purchase).  I would like to replace most of the ads & deals I see, with what I want, when I want it, based on preferences to the extent that I am willing to share as much or as little as I choose.  I want the world to stop guessing and trying (wrongly) to figure me out.  I want to be in control.

We shouldn’t have to live in Doomworld.  Instead of exchanging freedom for safety as in the comic world, we have given up control of our data in exchange for free information.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  It shouldn’t. It’s our personal data.  We should have the ability to be in control.

I understand that advertising supports the Internet, without which we wouldn’t have had many of the advances and improvements we’ve enjoyed in the last 15 or so years.  I’m not suggesting that the brand-supported content and services environment that has been built should be eliminated.  Over the next ten years, on average, we will each see over a million digital ads.  As long as we want a relatively free Internet, there is no changing how much we see.  But what should be changed is what we see.  I, for one, would like to see ads that are relevant to me and that sometimes add value to my experience.  People say they hate ads and that they ignore ads.  The truth is what people really hate is irrelevant ads.  The time for change is now.  Personalized advertising through opt-in preference centers delivered cross-site, cross-platform, cross-device. That is the world I want to live in.

 Marc Baskin is the co-founder of inControl Ads, a technology platform that puts consumers in control of their advertising experiences across all devices and screens. He has helped several start-ups go from just a few people, to public companies. Marc frequently writes pieces regarding the industry, as well as culture, history, and science.

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