On the Moral Superiority of (Web) Advertising

Advertiser-supported search engines represent a transfer of wealth from the world’s rich to the world’s poor – without onerous taxation.
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“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” according to an old American idiom.

What that means is that when something is called “free,” it’s really paid for in other ways or by other people.

The saying may have originated with the advertisement of “free lunch” to 19th Century saloon customers. That lunch was usually salty -- ham, cheese and crackers -- which made people want to order more beer. And, of course, it was the beer money that really paid for the “free” lunch. (Some bars do a version of this by serving “free” salty nuts or other snacks.)

Today, we’re awash in “free” stuff. The big social networks are “free.” The search engines, cloud-based email services are “free” and thousands of mobile phone apps are “free.” And many other things are not free. For the most part, hardware isn’t free. And many software and services cost a price of admission. Most people pay a lot for Internet access on their mobile devices.

Most of the free stuff we have access to is advertiser supported. Tracing the money trail back, the company provides the “free” service to users but are paid by advertisers, who get their money from the stuff they sell to people who respond to their ads.

Why People Hate Advertising

Advertising has a bad public image in some quarters, and I believe there are three reasons for this.

The first is that we often see advertising in places that don’t give us anything in return -- we pay a “tab,” but don’t get the “free lunch,” so to speak.

For example, if we see a billboard blighting scenic views on the side of a highway, that company isn’t paying for anything we’re using. If we don’t buy the product advertised, our own experience of driving is diminished somewhat so that other people can communicate about some potential purchase.

The second source of displeasure with ads comes from the one-to-many media of the past. The ultimate example of this is TV. Before cable, there were only a few stations and everybody watched them. Because people don’t all have the same interests, wants and needs -- because they could not tailor ads to everyone’s individual desires -- they had to “manufacture” desire.

In other words, the purpose of advertising was not to find out what you want and offer it to you. The purpose was to convince you to want something, so advertising has served as a constant source of pushiness, always telling us what we should want.

And the third reason people hate ads is that advertisers are constantly looking for new places and new ways to advertise.

Advertisers compete with each other for our attention by showing us ads that we’re not used to, either by making them different or placing them in different locations. So it seems like public surfaces that used to be ad-free get ads.

Our long history with advertising has felt like an imposition, rather than something that was benefiting people.

Why People Should Love Advertising

The world has changed -- and the world of advertising is changing. It’s time to change our opinions about advertising, too.

The biggest change is globalization combined with the growing importance of Internet-based services.

Let’s take a fundamental example: Internet search. Google is the biggest by far, but Microsoft Bing and Yahoo Search are also big.

These services clearly provide an incredibly valuable service to people all over the world. They bring information, education, insight and knowledge about extremely valuable local services. Sometimes they can even help save lives. And they’re paid for with advertising.

But here’s the thing: Only a minority of Internet Search users actually buy stuff advertised on Search engines. Some people pay for it. Everybody uses it.

If people couldn’t use search engines unless they paid for it directly, say with a subscription fee, then most of the world would be cut off from this vital resource because they couldn’t afford it. The rich would literally get richer because they would have the economic advantage of search engines and the rest would be left out.

Fortunately, thanks to the advertising monetization model, this isn’t the case.

Advertiser-supported search engines generally represent a transfer of wealth from the world’s rich to the world’s poor. And this takes place without onerous taxation.

It’s true, however, that in order to gain access to search engines and other advertiser supported resources, people need Internet connectivity, which can be costly.

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Tags: Bing, online advertising, Google search

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