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Psychology of Technology: Ad Out!

No, I’m not talking about the U. S. Open Tennis Championships just concluded in New York. I’m talking about the invasion of Web site real estate by all manner of ads. Have you looked at your most frequently visited Web sites lately, I mean really looked at them. Go back to a few and take a really careful look. What do you see? That’s right, you may not have noticed it before because you’ve become so inured to them, but you may actually see more ads than content on any given Web page.

In researching this post, I have learned far more than I cared to about the ways in which on-line advertisers try to entice us into giving them that little bit of ‘click love’ that they so crave. Sex, money, outlandish claims, irrelevant information, nothing is out of bounds when it comes to grabbing our attention and generating the almighty dollar (or Euro or Yen).

I also learned about all of the different types of Web ads and their evolution in sophistication. Banner and sidebar ads at the top of a Web site? Gosh, I don’t even notice them anymore. Those crafty Web advertisers need to do better than that to get my attention. And they sure try. Remember pop-up ads? Boy, were those dinosaurs a nuisance. But no longer thanks to those clever pop-up blockers (though those pesky Netflix ads still seem to get through).

How about those before-you-even-get-to-the-home-page ads that you must “Skip This Ad” to even get to what you want to see. Those are beyond irritating. Now we’re getting into Web ad territory that really gets my knickers in an uproar (haven’t used that one in a few decades). Have you ever arrived at a Web page excited to read something of interest and, just as you’re about to start reading, a pull-down banner ad blocks your view? Aarrgghh! These days, you can’t move your mouse very far on the screen without some infuriating little pop-up window appearing. What do you think of interstitials? Uh?, you ask. These are the ads that appear when you transition from one page of a site to the next, forcing you to wait it out or suffer the indignity of having to click again just to get the page you wanted in the first place. I find roll-overs, those ads that look like links, but have a double underline and cause a small window to pop up when you roll over it, especially annoying. Scrolling on sites with roll-overs is like playing an obstacle-course video game trying to avoid the booby traps as you move down the page. Then there are floating ads that move across the screen and follow your scrolling movements. And unicast ads bombard us with video and sound without prompting and require effort to find the ad and turn off the darned thing off.

I accept that Web sites need to be financially self-sustaining. And Web ads allow us to access a vast universe of information and services free of charge. I can live with many Web ads; I just ignore them. My basic philosophy is that if they don’t bother me (too much), I won’t bother them. But I get really steamed when Web ads infringe on my ability to accomplish what I want on a Web site, namely, view content. When Web ads waste my time and distract me from my purpose, then they have gone too far. That’s when I stand with Howard Beale, the fictional newscaster in the film Network who, on the brink of insanity, declares, “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Has that line been crossed from necessary evil to unacceptable intrusion? Should these ads be labeled for what I think they are: spam and an unwelcome and inappropriate infringement on my Web-viewing experience? Should we be able to opt out of Web ads? We don’t boycott TV, radio, or magazines because we are in inundated with commercials and ads. We’ve just come to accept them as a part of television (though commercial-free HBO sure is a joy to watch). In fact, advertising on TV has become another form of viewing entertainment, for example, the commercials seen during the Super Bowl. Should Web advertising be any different?

And prepare yourself, this is just the beginning. Web advertising, only about a dozen or so years old now, is still in its infancy. There are some very smart people out there looking for new and more intrusive ways to get our attention and lure us into clicking on their ads. So do we accept them as we do on TV, radio, and magazines? Or do we demand legislation that gives up the power to opt out? My sense is that, at least for the foreseeable future, we’ll just have to suck it up. I don’t see Web ads going away any time soon, so if we want the wheat, we’ll have to accept the chaff, at least until other smart people find ways to block more of the irritating little intruders.

P.S. Thanks to Tyler Earman for introducing the image and the idea for this post to me.