Sharp Words: Personal Web Site of David Sharp (Paris)


A Radical Solution to the Issue of Advertising on the Internet

by David Sharp (written in 2001)

As a communication medium that allows real people to talk to other real people anywhere in the world, the Internet has removed whatever remaining justification there ever was for the existence of modern advertising.

So why not just get rid of the wretched ads altogether? We'd all be much happier, and the vexed question of how to finance services that people really want - rather than services that large companies want us to want - would become a whole lot easier to solve.

Recent months have seen ever-more agonized debates, in the mainstream media and on online forums, about how Internet news sites, and other such services, are going to survive in the face of a sharp downturn in advertising revenues, and the collapse of the speculative bubble that built up around the so-called "New Economy" in the late 1990's.

Much of the debate has turned on earnings from advertising, seen as practically the only possible source of support in a system that has so far found no way of charging users for its main services.

The one question that I haven't seen discussed, however, is why there are ads there in the first place.

The argument in favour of using advertising to finance services on the Internet depends on two assumptions which I believe are false. They are:

What's Advertising For, Anyway?

Advertising has two main justifications, one of them acceptable and the other most definitely not so.

The acceptable purpose is to inform potential consumers of the existence of products and services, and to tell them where those products and services can be purchased.

The unacceptable one is to make consumers want to buy products and services, independently of whether they actually need them, and in preference to other, competing products and services.

It's screamingly obvious that almost all modern advertising is based on the second, and not the first, justification.

Such advertising is inherently insulting to consumers, and is the main reason why many people find modern ads both intrusive and annoying. It is also, in very many of its manifestations, degrading, notably to women.

The intrusiveness of advertising has taken on a new dimension on the Internet, which has been transformed in the past few years from an amiable zone of freedom funded mainly by individuals and the public sector into a cut-throat battlefield for huge commercial interests.

Now that the so-called "business models" touted by those interests have in large part failed abysmally, we are threatened not only with ever bigger and more intrusive ads, but also by the disappearance of services which have been extremely useful, and would have been perfectly viable if only their users had been allowed to pay for them normally in the first place.

This is particularly true in western Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people have been persuaded to sign up with "free" Internet service providers.

Not to speak of the fact that commercial interests have burdened Internet users, and the network as a whole, with a complete new sector of intrusive advertising in the form of unsolicited e-mail, or "spam".

Why the Internet Makes Advertising Obsolete

If one rejects the validity of intrusive and manipulative ads, the argument in favour of advertising on the Internet has to rest on the need to simply inform consumers of the existence of products and services, and where they can be obtained.

When one considers the nature of the Internet, which is the most powerful tool for publishing, indexing and disseminating information ever invented, the absurdity of having ads all over the place immediately becomes obvious.

Whatever product or service I wish to buy, all that is necessary is for there to be a single set of documents available on the Internet which will provide me with all the information I need in my language.

That function is performed perfectly satisfactorily by the web, and will no doubt be performed even more efficiently in the future, if structured-data systems such as XML really get off the ground.

Getting to the full set of information about competing products or services is a simple matter of typing a few words into a search engine.

If I, as a reasonably intelligent consumer also wish to get opinions on which of several products is the best, what better mechanism than a newsgroup, mailing list or chat service?

Via such mechanisms, the potential consumer can get opinions from real human beings, and can usually arrive quite quickly at a purchasing decision based on valid, verifiable criteria.

[This of course may cease to be true, or become less true, in a situation in which the forums and meeting-places required to obtain such opinions had been taken over by private interests, which themselves had a stake in pushing certain products or services. Which is precisely where the advertising-intensive version of the Internet is pushing us].

All of which adds up to one logical conclusion:

The Internet, far from needing support from advertising, has in fact removed what justification remained for the survival of most modern advertising as a valid branch of economic activity.

The only types of advertisements that Internet-connected consumers require are factual ones, located at easily identifiable sites - typically, web sites and data repositories run by the manufacturers themselves.

In such a system, e-mail spam and banner ads on third-party web sites would quite simply disappear. And wouldn't that be nice?

So Who's Going to Pay, Then?

That question can be best answered by asking another one: Who really gains from the provision of "free" services?

It is precisely because a certain number of services have been provided "free" that the vexed question of how they can be financed is being asked - and that ever-increasing doses of advertising are being proposed as the solution.

It should be borne in mind that the idea that consumers in some way gain from being given "free" services is to a very great extent a creation of the advertising industry, and of companies which misguidedly believed that if they could build up a base of non-paying users, they could make money by pushing ads and e-commerce services at them.

From the consumer's viewpoint, the proposition rests on the at first sight seductive idea that the lower the price one pays for something, the better it is. And of course you can't get any lower than zero.

However this assumption can easily be shown to be not only false, but extremely dangerous, not only for the providers of such services but also for the consumers themselves.

Most economic activity, with the major exceptions of work carried out in the home, and so-called "charitable" work, is based on the notion of exchange, involving money.

By paying for a product or service, the customer ensures that the company or individual providing it has an interest in going on doing so, and that a certain level of quality will be provided.

If someone offers to install your bathroom for free, and then the floor caves in, there's not much you can do about it. Your insurer might also not be too keen to pay out for the damage.

The same is true of "free" services on the Internet. Even if most Internet-based services are not so far as vital for life and health as home plumbing, many of them have become pretty indispensable, and none more so than the provision of connection and hosting services.

The company that has tried to build an advertising-funded empire by "giving away" vital services is not likely to stick around long once it realizes that the empire just isn't going to appear.

Which leads one to the conclusion that it would have been a whole lot better for consumers to simply have paid in the first place, and forget about the advertising.

Should Advertising Be Banned Then?

In the present context, such a question may seem absurd, and whatever answer one gives to it, it doesn't seem likely to happen anywhere in the near future.

But if more people were to object to the present model, and simply demand to pay the real price for their services, rather than being taken in by manipulative and ultimately unreliable "free" offers, we might start getting somewhere.

Because by far the best outcome would be for manipulative, intrusive advertising to cease simply because nobody would accept it any longer.

In other words, if it was booed, or even laughed, off the stage.

Apart from freeing us from the dreary hassle of receiving all those spam e-mails, waiting for irrelevant sales propaganda to download and closing wretched "pop-up" windows so that we can simply get at the web information we've asked for, such an outcome would leave us less worried that the whole thing is about to collapse like a pack of cards.

We don't need to worry that plumbers, electricians, midwives or schoolteachers are about to disappear, because whatever its faults, the system has provided for mechanisms to ensure that people have an interest in continuing to provide such services.

Why can't it be the same for the Internet?