Monday, May 10, 2010

The advertising social contract vs malvertisements: how can online advertisers earn your eyes?

I'd like to draw three related things to your attention.

First: Avast released a study on malicious advertisements in February, and the media's had some fun reporting on "malvertising" while seasoned professionals tried not to roll their eyes at yet another buzzword. (Tired of malvertising? Try "badvertisements!") Malvertising is one way legit sites get hosed: estimates say 75% of sites with malicious code are legit sites that got compromised.

Second: Back in March, Ars Technica posted a rant, "Why Ad Blocking is devastating to the sites you love." That they felt ad blocking was impacting revenue and asked people not to do it. (Note that this argument spawned rebuttals.)

Third: I went to a talk by Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant, as part of their book tour for The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture. (I recommend their radio show.) Among the things they talked about the advertising social contract: In exchange for your attention, advertisers give you something in return. TV advertisements subsidize programming, so they're honouring the contract. Billboards don't really give anything back to the consumer, so they're breaking it.


So here's where we put it all together:

Using ad blockers breaks a social contract with advertisers: namely, you get free stuff (content) in exchange for those eyes. If you're taking without exposure to the advertisements, you're "stealing."

But advertisers are breaking the contract in even worse ways with malvertising. They're basically stealing from viewers. It might not be intentional, but it's probably the equivalent of having advertisements on the TV that blare so loud that they cause hearing damage. Could you blame people for turning those off?

Ad blockers do more than keep you from seeing advertisements: they may actually make you safer.

So what to do? The advertisers can try to woo people away from ad blockers by giving more. Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant talked about how they like to make their ads funny: so you're giving more in terms of entertainment. What can advertisers do to give back when it comes to security and privacy?

One answer I've seen on that front comes from a surprising source: Facebook. Although Facebook isn't known for getting privacy right at all, but they are doing their darnedest to put a nice spin on their privacy violations. Sure, maybe you didn't want to share with those Facebook connect apps... but isn't is awfully convenient how other sites already know your preferences?

Unfortunately, I (and many others) don't WANT creepy customization. So in the end what they're trying to do doesn't really help with their end of the social contract at all. It may even hurt for many people. Let's just hope that later attempts are a little more generous on their side of the bargain.

You know who did it better? Burger King. Their Whopper Sacrifice where you defriended 10 people for a whopper was quite the hit. In exchange for ditching your friends and giving up some privacy, you could get a free burger. And lots of people did.

I'm not sure I'd give up more privacy and security for a burger, but I'm curious to see how the more creative advertising folk handle this challenge. If users become more aware of malicious advertising, will it even be possible to overcome this challenge and still use banner advertisements, or will we be seeing advertising in new ways?

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