Should I feel bad about blocking ads?

As Internet ad-blockers have grown more popular, online publishers have gotten aggressive—even passive-aggressive—about fighting back.

Frequently, after following a Twitter link, I’m greeted by a pre-content pop-up, explaining how the publication’s ad-funded business model works. “Please whitelist us,” the message begs, “so that we can continue delivering great content for you.” Sometimes, this plea can be dismissed; too often, it prevents viewing the content until I manually disable my ad-blocking extension.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to journalism’s plight. As the newspaper business has collapsed, online revenue hasn’t closed the gap. Ad blockers represent a real threat, since a blocked ad will never get clicked. Fewer clicks leads to lower ad rates—and fewer well-paid creatives.

But despite the publishers’ predicament, and despite their interstitial pleas, I don’t feel guilty enough to voluntarily view ads. I’ll keep running ad blockers as long as they work, for two reasons:

  • I never click on ads, anyways. As far as I know, I have literally never clicked on a web ad—at least not intentionally. If these sites and advertisers are using clicks as their metric, my ad-blocker shouldn’t affect them (right?).
  • If web marketers are measuring views (instead of clicks), my ad blocker could have an impact. But I don’t feel obligated to surrender my attention just because I clicked a link. Ads undermine my focus and squat in my imagination long after I navigate away from a page. As I’ve written before, I consider that headspace to be sacred. Whatever responsibility I have to “pay” for articles with my attention is outweighed by my obligation to be present for those around me.

Of course, somebody’s got to pay for good content. As the ad-blocking arms race continues, I may eventually be forced to either a) buy premium, paywall-bypassing memberships or b) accept the degraded attention caused by overexposure to advertising.

Given these two options, I know which I’d choose. Heck, I’d pay anything to never see this on the web:

  1. Eyeball artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

culture tech

Stealing back the attention that tech stole from me

Justin Rosenstein, who helped invent the now-ubiquitous Facebook “Like” button, writes this:

“These are our lives — our precious, finite, mortal lives. If we’re not vigilant, TVs, computers, and mobile devices will guide us to spend our time and attention in ways that don’t align with our deepest desires.”

Here, Rosenstein succinctly captures what I was feeling when I picked this site’s name. “Careful tech” is about approaching our devices with more clarity, more mindfulness, and, yes, more caution. The risk is real: we’re in danger of wasting our lives.

We may even be losing our souls—those things that make us human. Tech distraction suppresses our agency, deadens our compassion, dulls our consciousness, and drowns out our sense of purpose. When we’re held captive by our gadgets, we stop pursuing noble causes and instead squirrel away our hours, chasing red badges and refreshed timelines.

Rosenstein continues:

“Businesses that depend on demand-generation advertising… are incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to stare at them, from sensationalist journalism, to outrage-baiting discourse, to addictive software. That’s why they sometimes bring out the worst in humanity: they turn people into a product for advertisers to buy…. I’m hopeful we can move onto other business models—in the way that HBO & Netflix have shown is possible for television—in which content producers’ and consumers’ interests are economically aligned.”

“Free” ain’t free

A corollary to all this? “Free” software isn’t free. I’m bartering something for that $0 price tag; in many cases, I’m giving up my attention. Ad-supported software attacks my focus; over time, it makes me shallower, more anxious, and less present. This barrage makes me unhappy.

That’s one reason paid software still matters, even in 2017. In buying great software, I incentivize developers to build apps that help me feel better—instead of ones that steal my focus. I’m helping align the app ecosystem with my best interests. So maybe money can buy happiness, after all. Or, at least, it can fend away unhappiness.

Owning my attention

But I can’t wait around for the software industry to align its financial model with my best intentions. I’m on the Internet all day, every day, which gives my monkey mind plenty of opportunities to get distracted. So here are some changes I’m making now to guard my attention:

  • I’ve locked down my phone notifications. Those buzzes and alerts aren’t doing me any favors. One example: until today, my podcast client pinged me every time a new episode was available. That’s pointless; very rarely do I drop what I’m doing to listen to a show. There are too many apps I let interrupt me for no good reason. You might find it helpful to scroll back through your phone’s notification center, so that you can remember which apps are constantly sending reminders.
  • This feels scary, but I’ve even turned off Twitter notifications. I’ll no longer instantly be aware when someone retweets or replies to me, unless I’m actively using the app. This not only protects my attention, it also prevents me from obsessing about how much (or more often, how little) interest my posts drum up.
  • If a phone app has a reasonably-priced upgrade that disables in-app ads, I’m going to spring for it. For example, I check Weather Underground, my weather app of choice, multiple times each day. That app lets you obliterate ads for $1.99 a year. That’s a good buy.
  • If an app has advertising or distracting media that can’t be turned off, I’m going to delete it. I’ve already dumped Facebook, the preeminent offender here. I’ve also killed the Weather Channel app, which offers a $3.99 “no ads” option but doesn’t (as far as I know) let you turn off its ridiculous ‘video’ and ‘news’ features.
  • First and second pages of my home screen
    First and second pages of my home screen

    I’ve rearranged my home screen (yet again) to make productivity and focus my priorities. My most productive apps (OmniFocus, Calendar, and Drafts) get pride-of-place in the bottom dock. The first page is completely empty, as a reminder to be intentional about what apps I open. On the second page, everything gets buried into folders. And within those folders, the first folder page is dedicated only to favorite apps that improve my focus. Check out the screenshots at right.

These are small gestures, but hopefully they give me just a little bit more headspace. ■

internet Uncategorized

Online contests: stop selling your followers.

Savvy companies know the value of a meme. Viral advertising pays for itself, so marketers employ a variety of techniques to get their brands trending. The perfect celebrity endorsement. The quirky video. The well-managed controversy. Another sure-fire way to kick-start some buzz? Contests. Offer a sparkly prize, and require your fans to share your message in order to enter.

It’s not hard to find examples of this strategy in the wild:

Of course, businesses sponsored contests long before the advent of social media. The difference? Social networks give marketers a direct line to customers’ eager eyeballs—through their Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds.

Stated plainly: when you pass along these companies’ “advert-contests,” you’re selling your friends. You’re bartering your followers’ attention for a raffle ticket. You’re exchanging your friends’ time for the chance to win a vacation (or a PlayStation, or a car). You’re saying to them, “I value even the possibility of free stuff more than I value you.”

Would you sell your friends’ phone numbers to a telemarketer? Or give their home addresses to a door-to-door salesperson for cash? Would you slip ad brochures under your friends’ windshield wipers, if it meant you might win the lottery? Chances are, these exchanges would make you queasy. Yet we enter online contests without a second thought. We don’t ask, “Is this appropriate? Do I want to leverage my friendships into a chance to win a toaster?”

Your social graph is an asset, and you’re free to spend it as you see fit. You can sell your friends to marketers. But don’t be surprised if that friend count takes a hit. For many (including me!), it’s an automatic unfollow.

sports Uncategorized

Stadium sponsors, virtual ads, and the future of sports marketing

All professional sports leagues plaster their arenas with ads. Baseball parks mount billboards behind home plate. The NFL sells its sidelines to Gatorade. Basketball arenas paint logos on the parquet. Of all the “Big Four” pro leagues, the NHL is crassest; corporate logos crowd the ice surface, and LED screens have even been mounted on the sideboards, blinding fans and players alike.

What’s the problem?

Such commercialism makes sense, at least superficially. Pro sports franchises exist to make money. If a team can sell the ad space, why not? Why not squeeze a little more “free money” out of the fan experience?

Because it’s not “free money”. Every added advert has invisible costs that undermine both your fans’ good will and your franchise’s public image:

First, ad bloat disrespects your best customers. The fans attending the game have already spent hundreds of dollars to visit the arena in person. You owe them the best experience possible. Instead, you auction off their eyeballs to the highest corporate bidder. Fans may not register this transaction consciously, but the flashing lights and constant promotions irritate and overwhelm them. Some may start to wonder what, exactly, they’re paying for.

Second, ad oversaturation cheapens the sport. It’s a constant, visual reminder that even the finest athletic drama is manufactured. Rather than selling the game or the athletes, you’re selling them shitty hamburgers or scammy life insurance policies.

How to fix it

So how should pro sports handle sponsorships? What are some alternatives to the current heavy-handed approach?

If there must be ads, teams should try to negotiate for a single arena sponsor. This would eliminate the “corporate wallpaper” effect fans currently endure. Displaying a single brand’s logo would pull together the aesthetics of the space and help fans concentrate on the game itself. It’s good for the sponsor, too; they get pride of place and no longer have to jockey for position with fifty other companies.

But what’s better than a single sponsor? No sponsors. What if a venue eliminated all physical, in-arena ads?

“Stripping down the altar” in this way would reward those fans who pay to see the game in-person. They get the real fan experience: an ad-free shrine to the team: its banners, its logos, its players, its history. After all, isn’t that the actual product the teams are trying to sell (not ketchup or lottery tickets or lawnmowers)?

Those watching at home (i.e., those who refuse to pay up) would miss out on this “authentic” experience. Unlike the live audience, which bought tickets, TV viewers would continue to “pay” for the game by watching ads.

Invisible ads

In fact, TV broadcasts might double down on ads. In addition to the regular commercial breaks interrupting the action, broadcasts could bump up the in-game advertising as well. These days, ads can be digitally composited into a live video shot. So, go ahead; digitally paint logos on the baseball diamond (subtly shaded to look like artistic mowing). Lay ads under the hockey ice. Frost the backboard with a sponsor every time you replay that nasty dunk.

Moving to all-digital advertising has practical advantages. For example, switching out sponsors on the fly becomes easy. If a major scandal about a sponsor breaks twenty minutes before game time, there’s no need to pull down an in-house billboard. Simply scrub the sponsor from the ad roll.

When appropriate, broadcasts could even excise ads altogetherWhen you’re raising a championship banner or marking a former coach’s tragic death, you don’t want a Burger King logo in the background. At those key moments, keep the audience’s focus where it belongs.

In-game drama might merit cutting the ads, too. When the stress level runs high and a postseason bid is on the line, let your viewers focus on the action. Or, more likely, take advantage of those prime moments. Charge your sponsors more when more fans tune in. During a close game, the price scales up. In overtime, the price skyrockets. When a pitcher closes in a perfect game, ad prices go through the roof. Conversely, during halftime replays (when viewers visit the kitchen or hit the loo), ad costs could drop dramatically.

Push back the line

Teams already know there’s a fine line between tasteful sponsorship and crass commercialism. After all, why don’t players wear Pepsi patches on their shorts, or GEICO logos on their helmets? Because it looks ridiculous.

I’d simply argue that franchises need to redraw that line—to reweigh the costs and benefits of in-arena sponsorship. Digital advertisements may make that reconsideration possible. They offers teams (and their broadcasting partners) an opportunity to improve the fan experience and to create new revenue streams.

marketing Uncategorized

Retroactive ads.

As commercial breaks become less and less effective (thanks to TiVo), embedded advertising will take over.

Films and television are overrun by this covert advertising. In fact, almost any logo or brand mention on modern shows has almost certainly been purchased by a multinational conglomerate and placed according to a strict marketing contract.

What’s the problem?

On the one hand, we might celebrate these developments. The two minute commercial break is hardly beloved by the TV-viewing public, and preroll ads at the movie theater are almost universally despised. Moving to an embedded advertising model eliminates the interruptions and lets the medium tell its story unhindered.

Rebuffed by consumer technology, advertisers have invaded previous sacrosanct areas. Without ‘commercials’ in the traditional sense, we’ve lost the border between artistic content and purchased advertising. The consumer can no longer be sure a plot point or visual represents the creator’s intention, a corporation’s insertion, or some amalgam. Such marketing is scarily subliminal, often passing underneath a viewer’s radar altogether.

Not only have advertisers invaded our present, they’re surreptitiously hijacked our past, as well. Reruns now included retroactively-inserted ads, purchased long after the original content creators surrendered creative control. Your favorite Friends episode inserts a box of Oreos next to Chandler, that lovable doofus. Don’t you want to be lovable like Chandler? Such marketing capitalizes on our sense of nostalgia, embedding corporate brands into our collective memory.


Where will such digital rewrites end?

What if broadcasters catered its in-broadcast product placement to appeal to you, specifically? Google and Facebook know what you click on the web–what if Jerry Seinfeld’s shelf showed Golden Grahams for my wife and Cracklin’ Oat Bran for me?

Where would we draw the line? If a viewer preferred brunettes to blondes, why not make the change on-the-fly, to keep them glued to the program? Why not prolong the relevance of a sitcom by retroactively updating the hairstyles, cell phones, or computers of the characters?

stepping back

Of course, these are television programs. These are sham worlds, inventions of the ad-driven media conglomerates. They aren’t classics or sacred art; How I Met Your Mother isn’t Casablanca. And if your memories are so media-saturated that altering TV shows upsets you, you may need to build some real relationships and make some worthwhile memories.

But these may not be safe, either. What happens when advertisers purchase rights to alter our more personal images? What if Nabisco could add a box of Oreos to photos from your summer vacation? Lest you scoff, consider this:

Changing pictures on Facebook to include product placement will create false memories. We will have memories of things we never did with brands we never did. Our past actions are the best predictor of our future decisions, so now all of a sudden, our future decisions are in the hands of people who want to make money off of us. That makes me very, very scared. I can see this happening and I can see it happening very soon.

—Aza Raskin, keynote speech, University of Michigan School of Information. Via readwriteweb.

Get ready for Nostalgia(tm), brought to you by Starbucks.

technology Uncategorized

A kink in the fire hose: Twitter search and ‘top tweets’

Twitter is real-time. It’s news on-the-ground, right now–before the cable 24–7s, online news outlets, or bloggers run with the story. By searching Twitter for a topic, you gain instant access to primary sources–raw data–before it’s digested and regurgitated by main stream media. No filters. No spindoctors.

Last week, however, introduced a subtle change to search. Queries no longer return the ‘fire hose’–i.e., every tweet that matches your search string. Instead, by default, only ‘top’ results show up. As Twitter explains here, top tweets are “popular Tweets that have caught the attention of other Twitter users.” In other words, Twitter’s search algorithm surfaces only the content that is already generating conversation.

No big deal, right? Isn’t this good for users? In some ways, it is. Twitter explains, “We think that showing the Tweets that other users have retweeted, shared, and interacted with can help you find new and helpful information more easily.” Popular content is popular for a reason. And those who want the fire hose can still enable it with just a few extra clicks.

But the ‘top tweets’ feature undermines one of Twitter’s greatest strengths: disintermediated public access to primary sources. Making ‘top’ the default view re-intermediates the content. Once again, news belongs to the elites–this time, the Twitterati. It’s a de-democratization of Twitter, muting the masses and amplifying the celebrated few.

If this change really does undermine Twitter’s core competency, why make it at all? Why default to top tweets? Here’s a (cynical) hypothesis: it might be about money.

Twitter must eventually capitalize on its cultural cache. But the company’s monetization efforts have been marked by bungled roll-outs and miniscule returns. Consider February’s Quick Bar fiasco. Twitter’s official iPhone app slapped a panel of trending topics on top of users’ timelines. The ‘feature’ could not be disabled, and many ‘trends’ were sponsored, thinly veiled advertisements. The Twittersphere erupted, condemning the obtrusive “Dick Bar.” Complaints continued unabated until Twitter finally backed down.

Whatever prompted the ‘top tweets’ change, it’s far less brazen than the despised Dick Bar. In fact, this subtlety may be strategic. Rebuffed by the earlier blunder, perhaps Twitter is tip-toeing into ad integration this time around. Will the ‘top tweets’ feature (like the Dick Bar before it) eventually integrate more ‘sponsored results’? How else might ‘top tweets’ pave the way for a more ad-friendly Twitter?

internet Uncategorized

Embracing the Cheese

This commercial is so full of win, I can hardly stand it. Let’s talk about why.

Locally-produced commercials are infamously cheesy. Low-quality video sources, inadequate audio equipment, tasteless subtitles, and tragically unhip jingles mark the genre. Unfortunately, it takes cash to do a whiz-bang, slick ad–and cash is exactly what a small local business lacks. So… what to do? Claw and scratch your way out of mediocrity? Blow the budget on some marketing firm? Stick with old fashioned word of mouth?

Cullman Liquidation has a better idea: don’t hate the cheese; embrace it. This north-central Alabaman business doesn’t hide its low budget or amateur star power. And yet the ad works.

For example, the commercial’s cornball sound effects fit, somehow. The whip-crack tightens up the hard cut to the business’ dilapidated billboard. The cougar roar ensures that we don’t take the seductive, smoking salesgirl too seriously. The eagle scream? Well… it’s just bad-ass.

The antagonistic tone is spot on, too. Robert Lee doesn’t give a damn about getting your business. He doesn’t care whether you like his commercial or not. He and his crew even Braveheart-charge the camera near the ad’s end, as if to say, “Either buy a trailer, get out, or prepare to be liquidated, Cullman-style.”

Then there’s the closing shot, the odd mix of unrelated elements so common in local ads. We get both the American and the Alabaman flags (in case we forget where Cullman Liquidation is located?). We see the Cullman sign again, though it’s been oddly cropped into an off-angled sign shape–gloriously amateurish. And the screaming eagle makes an appearance–not as a sound effect but as a poorly-positioned piece of clip art, complete with unsightly transparency artifacts (click the image to zoom in). This shot is so bad, it’s good. It’s almost as if someone wanted to dump as many local ad clichés on the screen as he could.

And, for all the ad’s corniness and simplicity, there are other signs that this is well-crafted work. Desaturating the video and washing it in sepia fits the mock-serious tone. Creative angles and juicy close-ups mark the shots. Slow-mo and hard cuts are carefully selected and effectively used.

So what’s the deal? Is someone at Cullman Liquidation a closet filmmaker? Are they connoisseurs of the local ad genre? Not quite. Did you notice that two of Lee’s workmen seem somewhat out of place? The hipsters standing in the back row don’t work for Cullman. They’re internet entertainers (“Intertainers,” to use their term), who specialize in producing stereotypically cheesy (but self-consciously hip) commercials for real local businesses.

Does knowing this make the Cullman Liquidation spot less awesome? Yeah, a little. But I have to admit: I wish I could do what these “intertainers” do for a living.

marketing Uncategorized

Urinal logos: flushing your brand down the drain

Conventional wisdom says that you want to get your brand out there, no matter what. Sloan Valves, manufacturer of my school’s waterless urinals, has apparently taken that to heart.


The drain canister on a Sloan waterless urinal. Photo credit: TSOMPITM.

Any press is good press, right? After all, by printing their company name here, Sloan enjoys near-constant exposure to potential clients. People will stare at their brand for 10–20 seconds, non-stop, multiple times per day. That’s a blessed eternity in the marketing world. And these customers-to-be wouldn’t dare look away, or they risk a mortifyingly public stain. Guaranteed brand exposure for Sloan!

But did anyone at the company stop to think this through? Yes, your potential clients know your company’s name… but at what cost? Might the eyeballs advantage be offset by the fact that people are literally peeing all over your brand? Every time I empty my bladder, I fortify unfortunate subconscious associations. Through sheer repetition, I’ve established a Pavlovian response: when I see the Sloan logo, I’m hit with this overwhelming urge to give it a golden shower.

In addition, consider the unpleasant sense experiences to which Sloan binds itself:

That sickly unmistakable, ammonial stench.


“Yeah, let’s sink our brand right into that mess! Great idea, Jenkins! Photo credit: What grinds my gears.

Another disagreeable association: like any plumbing fixture, Sloan’s waterless urinals get backed up. When they do, a pool of pure, undiluted urine collects in the bowl. Eventually, it “mellows” and develops that golden-brown hue that marks well-ripened waste. Sloan sinks its logo right into the middle of that unhappy puddle.

One last unsavory connotation: the urinal session is one marked by territoriality and self-consciousness for many men. We space ourselves out carefully at the urinal wall, determined not to unwittingly ‘show our hand’ to our fellow evacuees. We concentrate on maintaining a stolid poker face–one that says, “Ha. I’m completely comfortable with whipping out my equipment here.” With all that anxiety floating through our heads, is this really the time you want to burn your brand into our brains? You risk tying your product to every experience of male inadequacy.

In the end, though, Sloan took that risk. And who can blame them? When your business is building toilet parts, maybe you want customers to associate you with human waste. Along these lines, look out for Sloan’s newest campaign slogan: “Sloan Valves. Making shit happen since 1906.”