September 11, 2023

Ads are everywhere, and it's only going to get worse

More. More. More. Not so quietly, we’ve found ourselves in a rapidly escalating battle with ads. Like sand after coming home from the beach, ads have found their way into everything – including some spaces that we’d really rather not have them.

We’ve entered a new frontier of ad creep, and it’s only going to get worse from here.

First, a guilty plea. For ten years, I ran a marketing agency that put out millions of dollars of these ads. I’ve contributed to the noise. But it’s a different ballgame today than it was when I sold that company even just a couple of years ago.

Every company that has eyeballs has turned into a media company.

Last year, Uber started putting ads inside its ride-hailing app. Gas stations that fill up those Ubers have blaring ads on “Gas Station TV,” a service that boasts 116 million monthly unique viewers. You can’t escape it by taking to the sky either, as nearly every major airline now pushes commercials on their seat back sets.

Retailers, where you may be taking that ride to, are opening media networks for advertisers left and right. Even Dollar General has one. And all these brands are taking inspiration from the biggest player in the space (and nearly every space), Amazon.

Amazon made $37.7 billion from ads on its own platform last year, and analysts predict that total will nearly double by 2027. If it feels like Amazon’s search has become more and more cluttered with ads over recent years, you’re right: Just five years ago, the company only pulled in $4.7 billion in ads.

Why, all of a sudden, are there ads everywhere? There are a few reasons.

One, particularly relevant in Uber’s case, is that in 2020, Apple changed a small but influential policy. They allowed ads in push notifications. Previously reserved for alerts and updates, these little buzzes could now be used for marketing, opening up a whole new channel for media players. (Apple tends to talk a big game about privacy and limits on advertisers, but they’re playing both sides: they make $4 billion a year on ads within their own App Store.)

Then, of course, there’s always a demand for profits in our system. But ever since the decade-long deluge of cheap money that powered many of these firms has dried up over the past two years, businesses are desperately pivoting towards monetization. In a low-interest rate environment, it’s easier to invest in expansion and worry about profitability later. Well, now it’s the later.

Instacart made a third of its revenue last year through advertising inside the app, a haul of $740 million, which accounts for all of the company’s profit and then some. Netflix, which was born under the banner of no ads, now offers an ad-supported plan, which has been chosen by more than 5 million subscribers.

Even the New York Yankees, who wear arguably the most iconic uniform in all of sports, succumbed to the same pressure this year when they added an arm patch bearing the logo of Starr Insurance. $25 million a year was too sweet of an offer to let tradition stand in the way.

There’s a long-circulated truism in tech and media that if you’re not paying, then you’re the product. And we’ve all kind of played along with this, implicitly understanding it at some level when we watch TV or listen to the radio for free, broadcast over the airwaves, that the ads are part of the deal. The difference now is that ads have escaped those confines and spread into every crevice where our attention dwells, even for just a moment while waiting for our ride to arrive.

John Herrman writes in New York Magazine about this constant poke-poke-poke of ads finding their way into every corner of our consciousness:

“Your attention is being sold, with consent that you didn’t so much grant as exhaustedly relinquish, with the consequence of making your life microscopically more annoying, your choices a bit less certain, and your sense of consumerist suckerhood ever so slightly elevated.”

In many ways, this is part of the reason I wrote my new book: the world is noisier, and the only way to break through that din is to embrace simplicity. But that’s still treating the symptom and not the disease. Clawing back our attention will be a defining part of tech’s – and society’s – next chapter.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just released his first book – Simply Put, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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