Online advertising is a lot like mosquitos

They block you when you’re reading, they flash rapidly trying to distract you, and they constantly interrupt your train of thought. They’re interspersed in the middle of a story you’re reading or a video you’re watching. They’re like mosquitos that you can’t get away from. Slap one down and another pops up. Go elsewhere and they follow you there. This is what online advertising has become.

The original premise of online advertising was supposed to provide us with carefully curated ads, customized to our specific interests and needs. They were intended to be based on observing our behavior and our interests, what we do online, and sometimes even offline, and then serve up ads that we’d be much more likely to respond to, compared with advertising directed in a scattershot fashion. They promised us more interesting ads, if we allowed them to track us. And they promised advertisers improved effectiveness for their ad dollars.

And some of it did work exceedingly well. Facebook ads have helped many companieswith limited budgets that wanted to direct their ads to a well-defined population: A company making pet products advertising to pet owners, hotels to travelers, etc. It makes sense only to pay for exposure to its most likely customers.

But online advertsing has degraded far past that model to a level that’s often made it more objectionable than conventional ads. Visit Zappo’s online shoe store and you’re inundated with ads for shoes every day for the next year. Check out the value of your car on Edmunds and you’re haunted with car ads for months on end. While the ad companies may identify a passing or serious buying interest we have, they continue after the interest wanes or after we’ve made the purchase. And folllowing us for so long creeps us out.

Online ads have also turned many sites into a vast wasteland of scams, click-bait articles, fake reviews, promotions of overpriced products, and outright frauds. By example, I went to the CNN site to check the headlines. The top half of the screen is a huge ad that blocks half the screen. To read the news, I needed to scroll on a window half the height of my screen. When I scrolled down to the bottom, I encountered pages of paid content that has nothing to do with the news, but is made to look the same as the news articles with similar fonts and layouts: top 30 gadgets, the best SUVs, anti-aging treatments, improve your computer performance, etc. And often if you click on one of these, you get something very different from what the headline implies. These once respectable sites should be embarrassed, because they eventually become associated with this garbage.

It used to be paying for a subscription was supposed to give us an ad-free experience. But that’s rarely the case now. The New York Times, a subscription I pay hundreds a year for, injects ads in the middle of every article. I was reading a story on Ukraine and got a huge ad for visiting Norway (at least it wasn’t for Russia). These ads degrade our reading experience that we pay for. And, of course, these ads all have the objective of stopping us from reading and getting us to do somethin else.

On-line ads were also supposed to benefit the advertisers, by providing them with analytics to determine their effectiveness, so that the ads could be tweaked for better performance. But that promise has sometimes failed as bots took over and companies such as Meta admitted to overstating their numbers.

So is it any wonder that the on-line advertising business is now suffering? I think it’s good that the industry is not continuing its rapid growth. We need them to take a pause and to rethink the original premise and treat us with a little more respect.

PS: I removed my popup ad for my book, “To Feel the Music.”

by Phil Baker