What if we don’t need advertising at all?

advertisinggraveI’m serious.

Answer this question: Would you pay for any publication that is only advertising? If not, Do you believe advertising adds or subtracts value from the media it funds?

It depends, right? Ads add value to The New Yorker, Vogue, Brides, Guns & Ammo and the Super Bowl. Readers and viewers actually like the ads that show up in those places. In some others, well, kinda. As for the rest? No.

The rest rounds to everything. The italicized items in the paragraph above are exceptions to a  rule that is yucky in the extreme, especially on the Web and (increasingly) on our mobile devices.

So let’s say we normalize supply and demand to the Internet, which puts a giant zero — no distance — between everybody and everything.  All that should stand between any two entities on the Net are manners, permission and convenience. Any company and any customer should be able to connect with any other, without an intermediary, any time and in any way they both want — provided agreements and methods for doing that are worked out.

So far they aren’t, and that’s the reason we have so much icky advertising on the Web and on our phones: most of the pushers have no manners, and there are no mutually accepted ways to allow or deny permission for being bothered, so those being bothered have responded with ad and tracking blockers. In other words, in the absence of manners, we’ve created an inconvenience.

Naturally, publishers, agencies and ad industry associations are crying foul, but too bad. Blocking  that shit reduces friction and  feels good. (Thank you, Bob Garfield, for both of those.)

What we need next are better ways for demand and supply to inform and connect. Not just better ways to pay for media. (That would be nice, but media have mostly been a one-way channel for informing, and at best a secondary way to connect.)

Think about what will happen to markets when any one of us can intentcast our needs for products or services, and do so easily and in standard ways that any supplier can understand. Then think about what will happen when any company can inform existing or potential customers directly, without the intermediation of the media we know today — and with clear and well-understood permissions for doing that on both sides.

The result will be the intention economy, which will work far better for demand and supply than the attention economy we have today, simply because there will be so many more and better ways to inform and connect, in both directions.

Asking today’s media to give us the intention economy is like asking AM radio to give us cellular telephony.

They can’t, and they won’t. At best they’ll serve the remaining needs of the attention economy: namely, old-fashioned Madison Avenue type branding, like we get from the best ads in the Super Bowl and in your better print magazines. This is the wheat I talk about in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, and that Don Marti calls “signalful” advertising. Maybe that stuff will be with us forever. For the sake of the good things they fund, I hope so.

But I don’t know, because I’m sure if we zero-base the intention economy in our new all-digital world, it is unlikely that we’ll invent any of the media we have today.

It would be easy to call the intention economy utopian hogwash, and I expect some comments to say as much. But one could have said the same thing about personal computing in 1973, the Internet in 1983 and smartphones in 1993. All of those were unthinkable at those points in history, yet inevitable in retrospect.

The fact is, we are now in a digital world as well as an analog one. That alone rewrites the future in a huge way. Digital itself is the only medium, and the whole environment. It’s also us, whether we like it or not. We are digital as well as cellular.

In the past we put up with being annoyed and yelled at by advertising. And now we’re putting up with being spied on and guessed at, personally, as well. But we don’t have to put up with any of it any more. That’s another thing digital life makes possible, even if we haven’t taken the measures yet. The limits of invention are a lot farther out on the Giant Zero than they ever were in the old analog world where today’s media — including  digital ones following analog models — were born.

Advertising is an analog thing. The arguments for its survival in the digital world need to be ones that start with demand. Is it something we want? Because we’ll get what we want. Sooner or later, we’ll have the digital versions of clothing and shelter (aka privacy), of terms and permissions, of ways to signal our intentions. If advertising fits in there somewhere, great. If not, R.I.P.












  1. Hanan Cohen

    I will write in points hoping I will be understood.

    Content is signals.
    Signals are like sugar.
    As with sugar, evolution makes us want to consume as much signals as possible.
    We need a signals diet.
    We don’t need an intention economy – we need an attention economy.

    Advertising feed the content/signals industry.
    If we will consume less ads, there will be less money to produce content and we will have less signals to consume, which is a Good Thing.

  2. Doc Searls

    Hi Hanan.

    I respectfully disagree.

    There are many kinds of signals, and in economies they go between demand and supply, up and down supply and demand chains.

    Advertising isn’t the only thing that feeds content industries. And content industries don’t need to stand still, doing what they’ve always done.

    I’m also not sure what we do with content is “consume.” We read. We listen. We watch. Some of what we read, listen to or watch enlarges us. Most doesn’t. And we have choices about whether or not to let advertising do the same.

    In the magazines I listed above, the ads are substantive. Even if I don’t care about Guess, Gucci, Clinique and Ralph Loren, I appreciate that they sponsor Vanity Fair. Looking away from the magazine right now, I can’t recall what any of them were about. So I haven’t “consumed” them so much as I’ve received this clear economic signal: they can afford to advertise. They matter as companies.

    I don’t expect this kind of advertising ever to go away, though perhaps I didn’t make that point clear enough in this piece. But hey, it might. And I’m betting that the kind of advertising that’s based on tracking or annoying us (or both) will go away in a world where we can control how much or little they intrude on our lives.

    My advice to advertising-supported “content providers” is to make the content worth sponsoring by companies who flatter the content, and vice versa.

  3. Michael Elling

    Doc, if you only knew what you didn’t know what you are talking about. But I love it. Because settlements as price signals for incentives and disincentives to clear supply and demand in the “informational stack” EX ANTE, both north-south (app to infrastructure) and east-west (between actors/networks/publishers/users, etc…), don’t exist!

    Net neutrality, and the ad-network monetization model of the interwebs, is built on foundations of sand. Everything is silo-ed and balkanized in a winner takes all model. There is no efficient cost and value sharing and sustainable ecosystem building based on a true understanding of “inter-network effect.” We need informed analysis and debate on the role of settlements along with network interconnection out to the edge. I have some related comments on AVC’s ad-blocker blog today: http://bit.ly/1Qj8uPG

  4. David Chavern

    Digital advertising is really still in its infancy and really hasn’t yet had time to evolve into its own form — particularly with the constant evolution of consumption platforms (desktop to laptop to all kinds of mobile). I guess that advertising could disappear, but anyone who thinks that information — at least good, important information — will then be truly free should read this piece from the Washington Monthy about the rise of the trade press:
    The fact of the matter is that paywalls can go very high indeed, and the number of people who then get access to information (and who are willing to share it with others) gets very small indeed. Why people glorify ad-blockers and the (supposed) death of digital advertising is beyond me. Lots of digital ads may suck, but the alternative business model exists and it is one you might not be able to afford.

  5. Liam A. Shannon

    I should divulge that I have spent my entire adult life in the advertising world working on the big brands that make what you call Signalful advertising.

    I heard that you said this kind of advertising may be with us for the long run and I think you are right.

    Advertising at its most basic level does inform consumers of the availability of a consumable. But in the modern world, that is really the least of what it does. In many ways and in most categories, it often adds real, measurable and consequential value to the products it sells. If Porsche advertising didn’t tell everyone that a Porsche was a super neato car, you wouldn’t feel so good shelling out $100 grand for one or feel so damn self-confident pulling into your high school reunion behind the wheel of one. You can poo poo this as vanity but humans are vain beings who have sought status for as long as we have been human beings. And advertising helps people meet that need.

    What’s more, advertising and the brand building it supports also serves the function of simplifying consumer choices in an increasingly complex world. If I offered you a bicycle sight-unseen and told you it was made by Rolls Royce, you would “know” a lot about it. Its probably very nice, somewhat conservative and chances are, very expensive. On the other hand, if I told you this bike was from Ikea you would assume it was affordable, stylish, and required assembly. All of that intuition about a bike you’ve never seen (and from two companies that don’t even make bikes). That intuition is of real value to consumers in a world where new products and services are offered practically every minute.

    And so too is brand advertising.

    Now, this is not to say that the kind of annoying, intrusive digital banner, text and email “advertising” that says nothing and only interrupts your day is of much value. It isn’t. And you are right, it should go away.

    And it will. Not because you don’t like it. Or because people block it. But because if the overall sum of its value (short-term sales value plus or minus longer-term brand equity) is not positive, no body will pay to create and distribute it.

  6. deny

    without advertisements like dying ..
    I think the ad was a necessity ..
    if the ad is removed as life without air. 🙂

  7. Howard Owens

    People want to know when the shop around the corner is having a sale. They want to know when that cool new item is being stocked or restocked. They want to know if a vendor offers the service they might want someday, if not today. They want to know when new businesses open. Sometimes people don’t know what their intentions are until a business shows them what the opportunities are. Think of Steve Jobs and his refusal to do focus groups and the idea people don’t know what they want until the see it. Advertising has a purpose and a need. It may change and evolve, but it will never go away. So long as this or that information outlet has a significant audience, marketers will want to reach that audience and the publisher that aggregates that audience will be willing to sell access. Advertising will never die. It’s innate to a free market.

  8. Doc Searls

    Michael, there are 205 comments under Fred Wilson’s post. Can you link to yours and save me the trouble of plowing through the whole list. Thanks!

  9. Mark Ray

    As an aside, I find it incredibly ironic that the early purveyors of the ad-free future, the digital utopians (not assigning that to the author) from the late nineties and early aughts, the developers and ‘gurus’ who decried analog advertising, are exactly the ones who’ve made the internet such a wasteland of ad pollution. By overestimating adoption of the subscription model, they’ve allowed the grifters to count the clicks, build data, put tracking devices on our behavior, and layer crappy ad upon ad over the content we desire. These grifters have always been the great underbelly of marketing. Many of us who’ve spent the last twenty years in the advertising industry have tirelessly tried to reform advertising to be intentional, interconnected, and two-way. We have spent years convincing marketers to value the consumer’s needs over their own. Yet here we are, with the noisiest, ugliest channel yet: the internet.

    You are wrong that all of the advertising industry has cried foul over adblocking. It’s the best thing to happen, because it reignites an idea many of us in advertising have been saying for many years: stop yelling, stop demanding attention, stop interrupting. Get to know your audience and entertain them, educate them, or provide utility.

    You might think, as an industry veteran, than hoping for the intentional economy would be against my best interests. But you’d be wrong. It’s what I’ve been hoping for my entire career. Because nothing will eliminate the need for mass communication, and that’s ultimately what we should be good at, not selling.

    • Doc Searls

      Mark, I appreciate correction of any implication I may have made that the whole advertising industry “has cried foul over ad blocking.” I know plenty of people in the industry who have been fighting bad acting all along, who think ad blocking is a valuable form of feedback, and who want their industry to return to best practices that have long since been proven offline and on. Alas, we both also know plenty more who don’t.

      I also appreciate your yearning for The Intention Economy.

      Just one disagreement: I can’t think of a single “digital utopian” (myself included), who “purveyed” an “ad-free future,” or even any who “decried analog advertising” more than any ad-skipper with a DVR. Ethan Zuckerman, one of my many utopian-ish colleagues, even wrote a long piece in The Atlantic that caused a stir: not because of its ample wisdom, based on long experience and deep reflection, but because he apologized for creating the pop-up ad.

      I’m also not sure that any of utopians are “exactly the ones who’ve made the internet such a wasteland of ad pollution,” unless you count Ethan, who has inveighed against the corruption of advertising on the Net through the many years since he did the pop-up thing. But maybe I’m missing something. Can you name any?

  10. Mihai Pintilie

    Advertising is necessary. It’s not from today or yesterday, advertising was put in place since hundreds of years ago. Maybe more. Advertising is communicating to potential customers where they are. Of course, if we would only be served advertising when we really need it.. it would be to good to be true. Ad spaces are there, implemented on all kind on websites and applications and most of the times they are filled with crap. Let’s not talk about the publishers exaggerating with ad spaces leaving you no room to accept such a behavior. I’m not for filling our lives with ads but I’m not for giving them up.

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