One day I had this amazing idea: I would buy YouTube pre-roll ads. They'd be very short, just a video of myself saying "hey!" They'd be highly targeted. Male, late 20s, New York City, interested in video games and technology, makes so many dollars a year.
I wanted to advertise to myself.
Because I hate ads. And YouTube ads are the worst. It's like a patience-testing lottery. The whole world wide web is formulated around clicking on links that take you to a thing you want. YouTube breaks that. Half the time you click a YouTube link you get 30 seconds of advertisement. You sit there, seething, waiting for the "skip this horrible ad I never asked to see" timer to count down. But if I could buy YouTube ads, then at least there's a chance that I could watch a five second clip of expensive irony and then skip straight to my destination.
You sit there, seething, waiting for the "skip this horrible ad I never asked to see" timer to count down.
My plan never worked. But a few months later I got my wish, kind of. I started working at Karma, and I started seeing Karma ads everywhere.
I quickly learned about "retargeting," an apparently ubiquitous practice in the world of online marketing and ecommerce. The idea is simple: a little snippet of code on the Karma site checks for anonymous cookies stored in visitor web browsers, placed there by advertising networks. The network is notified that anonymous user X visited Karma's site, and is asked kindly to show anonymous user X more Karma ads elsewhere on the internet. It's to make sure people who were interested in Karma, but failed to buy Karma during that visit, don't ever forget it. Because it's anonymous, the system is dumb, and has no idea if you've actually purchased Karma, or work for Karma, or if you think Karma is a terrible idea and the ads are making you literally nauseous.
If you don't want websites to do this to you, your browser probably has a setting to turn it off. You'll still see ads, they just won't be so smart. I don't mind the tracking much, I just hate ads.
But, like, why do I hate ads so much? I thought a lot about it, and it's not just the patience they require, or the space they take up, or the visual noise they contribute to the world, or what's being sold. It's something deeper, somehow.
Buying the product doesn't fix the advertiser's desperation, just validates it.
For instance, I recently saw an ad with Taylor Swift, a kitten, and Diet Coke. Taylor Swift is one of my favorite musical artists in the whole world, and I've pre-ordered her next album. I do love puppies, am unable to have my own kitten, and therefore am disposed to looking at puppies on the internet. And Diet Coke is my soft drink of choice — I have at least a can a day. The ad was funny, and not too long, and it even had a preview of a previously unheard Taylor Swift song in it. Seemingly, all the ingredients were present for an enjoyable ad experience for me, Paul Miller. But I still hated it.
My problem with advertising, if I really had to boil it down, is something almost like empathy. I feel really bad for the advertiser! It's like they're prostrating themselves, desperate for me to like them, desperate for me to like their product, desperate for me to buy their product or they'll go out of business and their feelings will be hurt and it'll be all my fault. Not all ads do this, some are just full of lies or badly made, but not even the best ad can make me feel good about a company or a thing. I might buy the product, sure, but it's like giving money to a homeless person with the knowledge he's just going to turn around and ask the next guy. Buying the product doesn't fix the advertiser's desperation, just validates it.
And I know how insane this sounds because for roughly the last decade of my life, ads have paid the bills. Engadget and The Verge, the two publications I worked for before Karma, were both entirely funded by display advertisements, which ran right next to the articles I wrote. Before that, I worked in graphic design, designing ads. Before that, I worked at a print company, printing ads. Now my job is to write a blog about Karma as a sort of long-form, wordy advertisement. I love my job, and I love writing, and I even love writing positively about this company that pays me, but I still hate ads.
It's more like, "If you build it, and they hear about it, they will come," as a best case scenario.
This hypocrisy is why I could never use something like AdBlock. As much as I'd love to avoid ads everywhere on the internet, I'd feel bad about circumventing the profit motive behind most of the content and services I enjoy. One of my co-workers uses AdBlock and then donates directly to creators to absolve himself. It's a pretty cool idea, but it sounds like a lot of work, and there's no way to support the "big" sites that don't take donations and rely entirely on advertising to millions of eyeballs to stay alive.
I don't have a solution or anything, I'm just complaining. For a company like Karma, ads are a vital element to our continued success. "If you build it they will come" is not a whole truth. It's more like, "If you build it, and they hear about it, they will come," as a best case scenario. And on the flip side, ads have enabled all sorts of amazing modern, "free," conveniences like Google and Gmail and Facebook and Twitter and The Verge.
Hopefully, in the future, we'll find more ways to monetize internet services, and better ways to find products relevant to us. For creative projects, I love the patronage model enabled by things like Kickstarter. Sites like Product Hunt are a surprisingly effective way to tell people about a new thing without plastering the world with ads, although Product Hunt has yet to be monetized, so it might not be a utopia forever.
If it's worth 10 cents for someone to show me an ad, maybe it's worth 11 cents to me to avoid it?
I'd also still love to be able to buy my own ads to advertise to myself, or, stated another way, to purchase the right to not be advertised to by others on a case-by-case basis. I call it "bidding on my eyeballs." Currently there's an open market for companies to get pre-roll and banner ads in front of me. I'd like in on the action. If it's worth 10 cents for someone to show me an ad, maybe it's worth 11 cents to me to avoid it? If I ever have kids, I'm going to feel even more strongly about this.
But let's not end on a positive note. I still hate ads, and if I never see another ad again in my life I'll be happy.
Also, in other news: please buy Karma Go! It's so great and you'll love it so much and it will make your life wonderful and your family will finally accept you for who you are. Please. I'm desperate.