Why We Hate Ads

If you are aware that you want to find something, you search for it. There was a time when searching wasn’t easy, so you had to rely on your memory cache of known things. You could argue that ads were useful in filling that cache, particularly for things that you had not needed or experienced up to that point. Now that we have instant online search, that problem is no more.

Sometimes you’re unaware that you want to find something, but you’d be pleasantly surprised if a genie told you “here’s what you didn’t realize you wanted.” That’s what predictive search is about. A perfect predictive search agent would either shut up (perhaps most of the time) or give you extremely relevant results in anticipation of a query that you haven’t articulated yet. Unfortunately, online ads are not that genie. If that were their purpose, we could say that irrelevant ads are a poor implementation of predictive search.

Some argue that with better ad technologies there will be fewer mismatched ads: it will become easier to match products to consumers at the right time. That assumes that every product for sale can be matched to a consumer at a given point in time. Why should that be true? One of the uses of advertising is discovering whether people are interested in a product or service. Suppose a chef from a different galaxy came to our planet and opened a restaurant. Not being sure of the tastes of humans, he starts with his three favorite items on the menu: fish, steak, and uranium. It won’t take our alien restaurateur very long to figure out which item he should stop offering. There may be large numbers of things advertised that nobody cares for; a product genie would immediately tell the advertiser “don’t waste your money, I’ve analyzed humanity and nobody in their right mind wants this.”

Because that product genie does not exist, advertising will continue to be a mechanism for (in)validation of products for the foreseeable future. As a result, we will continue to see ads that we’ll perceive as annoying or irrelevant. No product-consumer matching technology should try to find hungry people interested in ingesting uranium.

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