Advertising and entertainment go way back. Ovaltine sponsored the Little Orphan Annie radio show, which if you don’t remember directly, you probably learned from watching A Christmas Story 83 times every December. Philip Morris sponsored I Love Lucy, and soap operas got their name from the products typically advertised there.
Ads are part of the deal whenever we get something for free, whether it’s a television show, an article on the Web, a downloaded app, or even this very paper. Even things we pay for — cable TV, daily newspapers — use advertising to defray the costs that subscribers could never hope to cover.
But what exactly is the deal?
It’s bizarre that it even occurs to me to call this bizarre, but we never have to sign an agreement or click OK to watch a show or pick up a paper. Websites usually have a “Terms of Service” page that no one reads and rarely mentions anything about the ads; the same goes for software programs’ End User License Agreements (EULAs).
Dish Network just announced a commercial-skipping feature for its Hopper DVR. Unlike fast-forwarding or 30-second skip features, its Auto Hop precisely cuts out entire commercial breaks. It only works on some shows on the major networks, and it only starts working at 1 a.m. the next morning, so I suspect there are humans manually marking the beginnings and ends of breaks and transmitting that info to all the Hoppers.
Is Auto Hop a violation of the implicit agreement by which we get our TV shows? “Here, have 23 minutes of sitcom; in exchange, watch seven minutes of commercials.” Is fast-forwarding? What about going to the bathroom or, and this is purely theoretical, talking to other people in the room?
Network executives would love for our eyes to stay glued to the screen; what they sell to their sponsors are our “eyeballs,” after all, the estimated number of people watching the ads. But there’s no way to enforce it, so they just hope we keep watching — and occasionally sue DVR companies that implement skipping features, like they did when ReplayTV introduced Commercial Advance way back in 2001.
What about online advertising? The kind that emulates newspaper ads, just sitting quietly beside the content you really want, is easy enough to ignore. When it starts animating or popping up or making noise, it’s a bit harder to stomach. But hey, that’s part of the deal, right?
Not so fast! All the major Web browsers implemented pop-up blocking years ago. That doesn’t fight ads so much as a particularly annoying method of delivering ads, so fine, whatever. But you can also install ad-blocking extensions that work by forbidding content from certain ad-serving domains from loading inside the page you’re actually visiting. When I use them, I never feel quite right about it. My motives are usually about speeding up page loads rather than keeping my innocent eyes protected from advertising, but the effect is the same: I get content without ads.
What if the deal includes not only viewing, but clicking the ads? Many ad networks only pay for clicks, not page impressions. If you’re getting value from a site, don’t you owe it to them to click their ads? And what about mobile apps, which typically have a free ad-supported version and a paid ad-free version? Is it OK to block those ads?
I don’t really have answers this week, just ponderings. Let me know what you think.
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