Friday 14 September 2012

Where's H. G. Wells when you need him?

Is advertising really legalised lying? In cyberspace, it seems, the answer is still yes.

Bad and wrong. But is this coming to YouTube?
Okay, I’m back. Sorry about my long period of absence from this blog. Much as I enjoy a blog on software testing, actual software testing got in the way and I’ve been super-busy for the best part of two months. But this work has finally come to a close so I can now get back to this. And the thing that I’ve wanted to get off my chest for the last two months is a pet hate to many people: internet advertising. Yes, I can hear you all now going "Oh God, I hate those things".

I’ll start with an obvious defence: if we want an internet, we need ads. Some websites, such as this one, are done by people in their spare time (which can be sporadic, as this one has just shown), whilst others, such as BBC News, are funded by other means. But for many sites, somebody has to be paid to create the content, and the only source of revenue is from the website itself. Even ad-free sites can depend on adverts. This blog, for instance, has no adverts, and I want to keep it that way, but I’ll admit that Blogger would never have developed the blogging tools and hosted the blog for free without the cut Google gets from adverts on other blogs they host. There are some interesting suggestions for online micro-payments as an alternative to ads or subscriptions, but there is little interest in making this a reality. Like it or not, adverts are just as much a part of the internet as they are to ITV.

And the obvious complaint? Internet ads are an absolute pain in the backside. At least on ITV they leave you alone when you’re watching the programme. Web adverts, on the other hand, seem hell-bent on grabbing your attention when you’re trying to read something else. All too often they rely on big flashing boxes, garish animations, and the ad itself leaping out of the box and covering the rest of the page. As well is being immensely irritating, it also makes a lot of pages inaccessible to people with disabilties that would otherwise have been fine. It’s little wonder people are turning in droves to products like AdBlock Plus. [1]

But strange as it may seem, annoying the hell out of people isn't the biggest problem with internet advertising. The worst problem is how misleading some of these adverts are - if not outright lies, the sort that H. G. Wells was on about when he said "Advertising is legalised lying". We've all seen the adverts for "London/Middlesbrough/Carlisle/Bristol/wherever Mum looks 20 years younger". Do these vendors of these products really have a Mum who looks 20 years older in each local area of the UK? I think not. You would never get away with this in any other media (indeed, adverts get banned over relatively minor issues, such as this BT broadband one), but in cyberspace this seems accepted as fair game. And it shouldn't be, because it's been two years since the Advertising Standards Authority gained a remit over internet adverts.

This isn't a dig at the ASA for not doing their job. As far as I've seen, they're doing their best and they are very fair in their decisions. The problem is what they're up against. I can understand why small-time bloggers might subscribe to an ad feed without thinking about it, but some of the worst practices are on sites of big companies that should know better. Take Google's "Sponsored Links" for example. Yes, Google couldn't provide its service without these, but the background shading they use to distinguish sponsored results from real results is so faint it's easy to miss completely. This problem has gone on for years and Google has done nothing about it.

This is a huge problem in IT, especially software installation, because users search for a program, mistake the top sponsored link for the top real link, and end up installing something completely different. Or, worse still, AVG - an anti-virus vendor of all things - allows banner ads at the top of the download page using the same lettering and colours as the AVG page, tricking users into downloading a different program (SRO2012). (This has now changed and the banner is at the bottom of the page, but the fact AVG allowed this to happen in the first place is very disappointing.) Reputable sites such as Lycos allowed adverts being used as Scareware.

Then there's the trick of pretending it's not really an advert. Recently a TOWIE star was hauled up for trying to pass off promotional endorsements on Twitter as her own opinions. Great that the ASA showed some teeth here, but who else is doing this and hasn't been caught yet? There are suspicions that tobacco companies - hardly a shining example of ethics in advertising - are using supposedly user-uploaded videos on YouTube as their way of dodging the ban on tobacco advertising and showing how cool and anti-establishment it is to smoke.

With such rich players determined to ignore the rules and such high-profile players tolerating this behaviour, the ASA have a mammoth task ahead of them. It's not clear which way this will go. It might be that more powers will have to be considered in the future, but with more powers always comes more scope for abuse. It would be a lot easier if the internet-using public simply wised up to these practices. The more people who spot these tricks a mile off and ignore the ads, the less money there is to be made. Better still, if people stop buying these company's other products, and tell the company why they're doing so, as well as complain to the websites hosting these ads, they might think twice before pulling these stunts.

Action from the grassroots against vested interests is always a wildly optimistic idea, but, hey, this is a good time to believe in optimism.

[1] Unsurprisingly, some people aren’t too happy with this. AdBlock plus sparked a minor anti-Firefox crusade (which in turn sparked a whole load of derision). However, one legitimate point made during this furore was whether this would put websites out of business. Personally, I think there's nothing to worry about. The people who go through the trouble of installing this extension are the least likely people to actually click on any of these adverts, let alone buy something. Suffice to say that AdBlock blocks adverts on blogs such as this one, and yet Google is still happy to sponsor Firefox. If Google - which gets almost all its revenue from ads - doesn't have a problem with this, that's saying something.

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