I don’t like being told what to do.
In an article by Wired’s Lily Hay Newman last month, we’re told to “do it”, when our freshly updated iPhone asks if we’d like to stop a particular app from implementing ad tracking.
I’m sorry to report that I did the exact opposite, Lily. Yes, that’s right, when both Facebook and Instagram asked if they could circumnavigate iOS 14.5’s latest privacy feature in order to keep serving me relevant ads, I clicked ‘Allow’.
Silly, careless me, right?
Have a read of that Wired headline again:
The New iOS Update Lets You Stop Ads From Tracking You—So Do It
That suggests I have no choice in the matter. Worse, it suggests that I’m either incompetent or negligent if I ignore her instruction.
I despise this kind of holier-than-thou reporting. And, ironically, it sits at the top of a page that is chock-full of Google Ads; you know, those little promotional boxes that ensure Lily and her colleagues get paid each month.
There are some deeply concerning issues related to data privacy these days. I’m not making light of that at all, but I don’t believe advertising numbers among them.
Here’s why I tapped ‘Allow’ on iOS 14.5.
We’ve lived with ads for decades
It’s impossible to sell a product or service without advertising it in some way. In doing so, the brand behind the campaign isn’t being sneaky, and they rarely have an ulterior motive. They just want you to buy their stuff. You can choose to look away and move on, if you wish.
TV advertising, billboards and radio spots have been with us for decades. They’re part and parcel of everyday life. Sometimes, they’re wonderful, funny and even moving. Often, they’re irritating, poorly timed or desperate.
But they’re never malicious. They’re not akin to cold-calling, either. They appear in front of you, and it’s entirely up to you whether or not you choose to pay attention.
More importantly, they’ll often reveal something which fills a genuine need or want. What’s wrong with that?
Ads have been misused
I’ve been trying to work out why ads get such a bad rap these days, and I think the reason is pretty obvious.
Head to virtually any online news outlet and you’ll probably be bombarded with in-line ads, pop-ups and drop-downs. Indeed, you’ll have encountered a couple of similar ads on this article if you’re reading it on my website (let me know if it’s too much, please).
When you put cookie-based banner advertising into the wrong hands, it all gets a bit silly.
In fact, it turns websites into barely-usable monstrosities. It’s why people turn on ad-blockers; they just want to read the damn article. The fact that there may actually be one or two ads among that sea of images and calls-to-action is lost entirely when the website owner pays so little attention to the user experience.
The reason those ads are on there, of course, is to fund the writing you’re reading. But the copious, unintelligent use of them is usually the result of a business caught entirely off guard by the rise of online content distribution. They used to make their money from print editions whose sales are either falling off a cliff or are entirely non-existent. They’ve simply panicked and slapped a load of ads on the page instead, and we’re the victims.
If only they thought a little more strategically about ad placement and just chilled the hell out, maybe we’d receive a less obtrusive, more beneficial ad experience. Perhaps, in that alternate world, online ads wouldn’t be viewed as the devil of the internet.
However, one of the worst examples of digital advertising being misused lies, ironically, with Apple.
Opening the Settings app on my iPhone and being greeted with a suggestion that I really should check out Apple Arcade for a free trial is dreadfully opportunistic advertising. That form of obtrusive service promotion makes a mockery of Apple’s firm stance on tracked ads. It’s far worse than a cookie-based advert for a washing machine appearing on my Instagram feed.
Why are you trying to force people into a paid gaming service when all they want to do is turn off Bluetooth, Tim?
That’s right – Apple are in the ad game, too, and they’re one of the worst at it.
I like ad tracking (when it works)
I’ll freely admit that I’m a big fan of tracked ads when they work properly. I’ve made some of my best, most useful purchases thanks to adverts which have conveniently appeared in front of me at just the right time.
When implemented correctly, ad tracking is a brilliant use of everyone’s time.
Instagram is a great example of this. Despite Facebook holding the reins, it has remained a fantastic user experience. The interface is clean and focused on the content, and while there are ads, they’re relatively infrequent. Most importantly, when they do appear, they’re usually interesting.
I have no issue with cookies taking note of my browsing and search history. I’m relentlessly boring; if Facebook picks up on the fact that I’ve spent far too long researching which camera lens to buy, then fill your boots, Zuckerberg. If you decide to throw an advert for the 50mm prime I didn’t realise I needed in-between Aunt Sally’s interminably dull spring cleaning photos, why would I be anything but delighted?
Solving this isn’t easy
Instagram really is the model for integrated advertising. They’ve got it right. It’s a free service, therefore I’m willing to be hit with the occasional ad during each session if it ensures I never have to pay for the platform. And I’ll remain happy if those ads continue to be relevant.
There’s no easy answer to this conundrum, but I think Apple’s introduction of the ad tracking option is a misstep. It’ll only serve to confuse users and result in people inadvertently opting out of something which has never truly bothered them (worse, it might have benefitted their purchasing habits previously).
I’d also love to see less of the “all ads are evil” rhetoric from the press. As noted from the outset of this article, I’m acutely aware that we’re living in a world where personal data is misused. That’s wrong. However, brands attempting to increase their reach, revenue and ability to grow via targeted advertising isn’t wrong or evil. I’ll decide whether to turn that stuff off, thanks very much, Lily.
The advertising industry is colossal and it’s what puts food on the table for millions of very talented, skilled people. Pull the plug on their ability to serve relevant ads at just the right time, and you’re effectively killing an industry for nothing more than a collective inflated sense of one’s own importance.
According to a report by Flurry Analytics, 96% of users have tapped the ‘Ask App not to Track’ button on iOS 14.5. This bothers me. How many of those people knew the implications of that action? Did they really know that it could potentially remove their ability to spot relevant products and promotions in the future?
Shoehorning features like this into operating systems isn’t the way to go. A much wider discussion about ethical advertising is required if we’re to educate everyone about both its relevancy as an industry and how personalised, timely ads can be better used by those who rely on the revenue to grow their businesses.
Ads aren’t evil. And no, Tim, I still don’t fancy trying out Apple Arcade – give it a rest, mate.