How Treating Consumers Like Partners Will Rescue Advertising From Itself

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Ad Blocking will cease if respect is established

Unsubscribe is our favorite toggle in our inbox. Skip, our favorite prompt when viewing online videos. Block, our go-to option for internet browsing. Why? Because advertising's relationship with the consumer is fundamentally broken.



Evidence of this is everywhere. We can see it in the frustration of consumers who feel barraged with meaningless content, their privacy under siege. We see it in the epidemic of ad blocking—the use of ad blocking software has more than doubled since 2014, and 92 percent of internet users said that they'd consider using an ad blocker. What's worse is there's been a breach of trust between advertisers and the public. In a poll recently commissioned by Consumer Watchdog, 80 percent of Americans wanted to opt out of online tracking altogether and even wanted a "do-not-track-me" list for online companies that would be administered by the FTC. So why aren't we offering consumers privacy protection?

As an industry we're struggling to keep up with consumers who are continually adopting new technologies, devices and communication expectations. We now live in a world where we have gone from communicating in 140 characters or less, to only communicating in pictures and in 10-second videos that disappear. TV is being ousted by streaming content. Computers are being replaced by the Internet of Things.

But if advertising is broken, how do we fix it? I don't have all the answers, but I know we have to start thinking differently about the problem. So, let's just think about the possibilities that all these devices offer, and let's step back for a moment and reimagine this morning.

You reach for your phone to turn off your alarm and that action triggers your coffee machine to start brewing. Your coffee machine pings your phone, alerting you that you're almost out of your favorite specialty coffee. You swipe yes to start a real-time comparison of retailers that presents you with several options—sponsored by Cuisinart. You can get it from Whole Foods for $7.50, but it's going to take two days to arrive. From Walmart for $6, and it'll arrive tomorrow. Or from Amazon for $8.75, and you'll get it in an hour. You select the one-hour option and continue with your day.

Now let me ask you this: Is that advertising or is that information?

You review a list of the top news stories on your smart TV based on topics you preselected. Your TV knows you're a huge sports fan and a gadget geek. So it curates the top Olympics headlines from NBC, the latest breakthrough with the Internet of Things from Adweek, and a list of your friends' birthdays from Facebook. Is that advertising or is that information?

It's time for your morning workout. You grab your phone, which automatically charts the most scenic run in the neighborhood powered by Happy Maps. After you've finished your run, your phone alerts you that you've run 390 miles this year. Good for you! You are reminded by your phone that you need to buy new running shoes every 400 miles—and this reminder comes to you from Zappos. An alert pops up that enables you to purchase a new pair of your favorite Nike sneakers. Click. Bought. Done. Is that advertising or is that information?

What is so remarkable about the world I just described is it all revolves around the "silent" participant in advertising. Can you guess who that is? You … the consumer.

A consumer who is protected. Who is respected. Whose privacy isn't under siege. Who only sees ads she or he chooses because advertising is an informative service. In the reimagining of this morning, all of the information that was presented to you, you chose to see. Not an advertiser, or a content creator or developer. You. You as the consumer were in control of your experience, information and privacy. I have a feeling if we treated consumers with this level of respect, like partners, the epidemic of ad blocking would cease. Brands and content creators would be able to achieve some level of trust with the consumer.

This is a refreshing vision. But it's only a start. There are more solutions and versions of this vision. And as an industry, we're responsible for bringing them to fruition. Otherwise, we fail. We fail ourselves as well as the consumer because the consumer will pay the price for that shortcoming.

Without advertising, there would be no free or open internet. To search flights on TripIt, there would be a price. To read articles in The Wall Street Journal, there would be a price. To watch a video on YouTube, you pay a price. To simply search for birthday presents for your kids … there would be a price. You get my point.

So here is the challenge I leave you with today. Answer this for yourself: If advertising, as we know it, is broken, how do we fix it?

Twentieth-century London advertiser Thomas Barratt, hailed as the "father of modern advertising," saw the need for a change even in 1907 when he said, "Tastes change, fashions change, and the advertiser has to change with them." If Barratt were around today, I'm sure he would agree—the time has come for advertising to change.

Not only change, but reinvent itself. Because, quite frankly, advertising as we know it is broken. And the solution is to put the consumer first.

Frank Addante (@FrankAddante) is CEO and founder of Rubicon Project.

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