The advertising industry is receiving pushback like never before.

Ad detractors (those who despise all forms of advertising) bite the hand that feeds as they embrace ad blockers and “private” browsers, neglecting the fact that advertising is the benefactor of the internet they know and love.

The concept of eliminating ads and data tracking is overly-simplistic, inequitable, and downright childish.

Let me explain with an anecdotal example.

Meet Marcus

Marcus is a 35-year old writer with a propensity for provocative philosophical thought.

Marcus, along with his colleagues, is responsible for the majority of the content that gives you a reason to open your browser every day: articles, news, and videos.

Wise beyond his years, Marcus shares his stimulating philosophies on a personal blog that is free to the public. Eventually, Marcus decides that he’d like to monetize his efforts so that he may be compensated (even if underpaid) for the time spent comprising modern-day philosophical masterpieces. He spends a few hours per post, so it’s only fair right?

In the current online environment, Marcus has two basic options:

  1. Place Banner Ads on His Site – While simple to setup, these ads are somewhat intrusive and may distract from the deep messaging of Marcus’ work.
  2. Promote Affiliate Deals and Sponsorships – Marcus could disguise his advertising through affiliate links and sponsored content, but this is somewhat disingenuous (a trait Marcus despises).

So, this leaves Marcus with two options of which we will explore in more depth.

1. Marcus Can Remain Unpaid

Marcus, disinclined to traditional advertising, has the option to provide his work for free. He can spend hours a week (comparable to a part-time job) writing compelling content without the expectation of compensation.

In this case, readers would have access to Marcus’ content without any distracting ads or disingenuous sponsorships.

The only downside? Marcus wouldn’t be paid.

Marcus may be passionate enough about writing to pursue this option, but it certainly isn’t an equitable arrangement. The reader gets everything for free and Marcus gets nothing in return.

If you believe this is fair, you’d have to argue that authors, professors, and videographers should go unpaid as well. We’d have to collectively agree that the skills use to create online content (research, writing, filming, editing, etc.) hold no monetary value and those partaking in these activities should act as public servants.

If you disagree with this sentiment, we can agree that Option #1 is an inequitable arrangement and leaves us with the following issue:

  1. Marcus should be compensated for his work
  2. Marcus would prefer not to monetize his writings with traditional advertising (a sentiment shared by the ad detractors)

That leaves one logical alternative.

2. Readers Can Pay for Marcus’ Content

If Marcus’ readers find value in his insights, they certainly wouldn’t mind paying for them, right? It’s not uncommon to pay for content. We still pay for books, movies, and courses – the same content we consume for free online in a different form.

If Marcus had 1000 loyal readers, and each of them opted to pay $2/month, Marcus could make a respectable $24,000/year. While not an extravagant sum, Marcus is a humble man and believes this salary justifies the 20 hours he spends writing every week ($25/hr).

Alas! We’ve solved the dilemma! Marcus gets paid and the ad detractors get distraction-free content.

But wait….

Can Marcus actually get 1000 readers to cough up $2/month? The chances are slim. Sure, services like Patreon make this model more accessible, and a handful of loyal readers may serve as patrons for Marcus’ work, but he’s unlikely to reach his goal of $2,000/month by relying on the generosity of his readers.

Let’s explore why this would be so difficult.

Are Internet Users Willing to Pay for Content?

The above example begs the question of why the majority of internet users are unwilling to pay for content.

If you don’t believe the thesis that the majority of internet users are unwilling to pay for content, consider the following:

YouTube Premium – It’s not uncommon to hear people complain about YouTube Ads. Quite frankly, they’re annoying. Google presented an obvious solution: YouTube Premium. Pay $10/month and get access to videos without ads. The response? One year after launch, YouTube Premium (previously YouTube Red) had only 1.5 million users. Compare that to YouTube’s 1.8 billion Monthly Active Users and you’ll realize that only 0.08% of YouTube users are willing to pay to get rid of the ads they vehemently despise.

Hulu – Hulu, the digital streaming service, offers two plans: limited ads and no ads. Opting for an ad-free experience costs an extra $4/month. Only 40% of users are willing to pay the extra $4/month to remove ads (and they’re already willing to shell out the cash for the service).

Medium – Medium is an online platform that attempts to rethink the “ads for free content” model. The site offers quality content with a clean design and charges readers $5/month instead of plastering articles with banner ads. In December 2018, only 9.3% of writers earned over $100. Some authors made a respectable income, but the majority did not.

Note: I actually like this model and this isn’t a critique of Medium; it’s an observation on the efficacy of the model in practice (aka internet users’ unwillingness to pay for content).

Anecdotal – Think about every app or game you’ve downloaded that has annoying ads every 5 minutes. Most of them give you the opportunity to remove these ads for a few bucks. Do you take them up on it? Unlikely.

So, even if you find yourself in the 0.08% of YouTube Premium users, or 40% of Hulu Commercial-Free users, you represent the minority.

Why Are Internet Users Unwilling to Pay For Content?

There are a few arguments to be made here.

First, there are the obvious financial restraints of internet users. Some people are unable to afford the extra $10/month for YouTube Premium or $4/month for Hulu Commercial-Free. Expenses like these can add up quickly.

Financial constraints aside, I’d argue that a more likely culprit is the abundance of free content on the internet (thanks to, you guessed it – advertising).

Let’s jump back to the example of Marcus for a second. Readers love Marcus’ content and read it religiously until, all of a sudden, Marcus wants to charge $2/month. At that point, readers are faced with a difficult decision. Is Marcus’ content really that much better than everything I can get for free?

Notice that “free content” is used for comparison. It has to be. It’s a viable alternative. Even if the reader is willing to pay for Marcus’ content, are they willing to pay for content from the hundreds of other Marcus’s out there? After all, this would be the only way to eliminate pesky ads once and for all.

Chances are, you’ve consumed the content of hundreds-to-thousands of creators and you haven’t paid any of them a dime.

The “free content comparison” (aka basic evaluation of alternative options) leads to what I call “The Vicious Cycle of Ads and Ad Detractors.”

The Vicious Cycle of Ads and Ad Detractors

Here’s what “The Vicious Cycle of Ads and Ad Detractors” looks like:

  1. Content is free and abundant due to advertising
  2. Internet users (including Ad Detractors) are unwilling to pay for content
  3. Repeat

It’s a basic feedback loop that can be disrupted by Ad Detractors putting their money where their mouths are – but that ain’t gonna happen.

Some Ad Detractors will go so far as to say, “I’m okay with advertising, but I want to see the ads I want to see” as if that’s a concept that has escaped the advertising industry. The goals are aligned. Chevrolet doesn’t want to show their truck ads to the diva who swears by her hot pink Mini Cooper. The advertising industry has been moving in this direction through the use of improved data collection, yet these Ad Detractors will mutter in the same breath, “I don’t want these companies tracking me.

Ad Detractors are an unappeasable crowd whose unbudging “fixed pie” mentalities feed the “Vicious Cycle of Ads and Ad Detractors.” This group is focused on the “what do I get?” part of the equation while neglecting the “what do I give?

I’d liken this mentality to wanting roads and education without paying taxes, free car repair without insurance, or a free luncheon without the preceding Church service.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and revolution won’t come in the form of blocking advertising; it will require a shift in mentality as both content creators and internet users strive for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Tell Me Where I Missed the Point

If you find yourself in the group of Ad Detractors, tell me where I missed the point. Where are the cracks in this logic and what does the ideal, equitable version of the internet look like to you?