title: Why did you think they would work?
by: Scott Bradner
I may be strange but I don't much like most advertising I see on the Internet. Actually, that is not quite right. Since I studiously ignore the ads on the web sites I visit I'm not sure if I would like the ads or not. I do know that I do not like the ads that manage to break through my attempts at ignoring them. Thus I may not be an ideal person to talk about the long-term viability of ad-based Internet sites. But I do find it hard to see a reason to be hopeful about most of the sires I've seen.
Clearly advertising can work. Multi-billion dollar broadcast TV, newspaper and magazine businesses prove that there is something there. Some alternatives to advertising-supported media such as government financial aid and its too often associated, content control, are less than attractive. Others, like the subscription-based access used by premium channels on cable TV or some web sites such as the Wall Street Journal, can work quite well but they do require that the user be identified which can be a pain and presents a privacy worry.
Internet ads have the potential to be different than most non-Internet ads in that the advertiser can find out if they work. This is harder to do in most current advertising arenas because advertisers do not normally only do one kind of advertising at a time. The normal mode of operation seems to be advertising campaigns with coordinated ads in multiple forms, from bus wrappers and subway placards to TV and newspapers. The advertiser can not easily find out the effectiveness of each individual form. But on the Internet it can be a lot easier to find out if the ads work. This is particularly true now considering the move to ad fees based on click-through counts rather than just the number of eyeballs that see the ad. It is hard to imagine something more terrifying to an ad agency than to have their success be measured on a per ad basis based on actual results.
Ad companies are publicly salivating over the prospect of being able to produce ads targeted to the individual users based on the user's individual tastes or current location. But these same companies do not seem to get it that Internet users are concerned about random 3rd parties knowing too much about them. DoubleClick's almost 2500 word privacy statement is an example of how little the ad industry understands the privacy concerns. It would only take a hundred words to tell me what I need to know.
It seems so obvious to me that Internet advertising has too many problems to be able to support things like "free" PCs or Internet access that I can not understand why anyone would have ever thought that it could. But it seems that many investors did. I do not envy the returns they are getting on their investment.
disclaimer: "Harvard" and "free" are not normally associated terms and the University has not expressed a view on this topic.