When internet connections went mass-market 20 years ago, some bright spark in a media company somewhere decided that their content should be freely available. I have no idea who that was, but they started a trend which continues to this day. Now consumers seem to equate 'online' and 'free' in the same way they confuse 'the Kardashians' and 'people with talent'.
That bright spark's strategy (or 'hope' as it's often known) seems to have been a broad and disastrous miscalculation which normalised piracy and forced some firms to put up paywalls years later. Without such paywalls, many 'free' sites have had to rely on ads to fund them. So it's little wonder that, as ad technology has become more sophisticated, the ads themselves have become ever-more dominant, creepy and eye-grabbing.
That in turn has led millions of people to block them altogether. The equivalent of fast-forwarding the cotton wool between recorded programmes, ad-blockers are more popular than ever, and are costing publishers and advertisers millions of pounds every day in lost revenue. Some call this common sense, while others call it theft.
Thinking about this recently, I decided to turn my ad blocker off for a few hours - just to remind myself what the internet looks like in all its commercialised finery. And boy was it an ugly sight. With the incredibly rare exception, there was nothing cute or funny or noteworthy or interesting or relevant or useful or remotely what I wanted to see.
As I browsed the net, which now seemed to be more ads than content, I thought about how to square the circle between 'free' content and annoying people with ads. And I came up with an idea. If ads were more useful, if they were less annoying, if they were essentially less profoundly crap, not only would I tolerate them, I'd probably actually welcome them as part of the internet ecosystem.
So I came up with three rules which, if advertisers followed, would make me happily turn off my ad-blocker.
1. Make them less distracting
Auto-playing videos (with sound), banners that appear in front of the content you're trying to consume, stuff that follows you down the screen as you scroll, videos within videos - stop it all and stop it now. Just because I'm scrolling through these hilarious cat videos doesn't mean I'm in the market to buy a cruise. Your ad is the equivalent of a desperate toothpaste salesman plucking at my sleeve when I've already said no. I can't believe anyone is more likely to buy your product just because it's pushed in their face with more force - if anything, the opposite is true.
2. Make them less intrusive
Obviously the internet is an advertiser's dream in the sense that eyeballs can -literally these days- be tracked. But you publishers seem to have forgotten how creepy it is to your average person. 'We know that you looked at these trainers 30 minutes ago - sure you don't want them?' is like someone following you round all afternoon with a personalised sandwich board. In other words, anything that would get you a police caution in real life is a definite no-no.
3. Make them less moronic
Nobody, but nobody, gets excited about buying house insurance. Ditto comparing hotel prices. Ditto buying cat litter. Trying to be cute or making an occasion of things that are dull in real life is a terrible idea. I just ended up looking into the dead eyes of the unemployed actors in these ads and empathising with their desperation. Please, please, just remember that just because you think your product is the best thing since the white and sliced doesn't mean your average punter will.
So what instead? I for one genuinely wouldn't mind a simple box or two of static, non-video ads vaguely tailored to my location and possibly my broad interests. I might even click on one once in a while. I know that the (annoying, creepy) genie is out of the bottle, and it'd be incredibly hard for advertisers and publishers to stuff it back in.
But either they're going to have to ban the blockers like me, and suffer the subsequent fall in traffic, or realise that, the more they push their products, they're also pushing away the customer. For now, my blocker is staying firmly on, so it's the the advertisers' move. Damn that bright spark.