Pervasive Advertising Online: Is It Still Effective?

We can’t go a day without being exposed to advertising. Whether it is on TV, billboards or pop-ups on our phones, ads are everywhere. According to The Irish Times, online advertising rose by 31% last year. Mobile ad spend was at €231 million, which was an increase of 63%, according to an IAB/PwC online ad spend study.

Years ago, it was thought that online advertising was not nearly as effective as TV advertising. This has clearly changed considering the explosion of ads on social media. When Twitter first launched in 2006, it wasn’t powerful enough to host ads. Now every time we log on, we are bombarded with a slew of “promoted tweets”, which usually have very little relevance to our own tastes or interests. You can choose to close off the ads, and then you have to explain to Twitter why it isn’t relevant to you. This all feeds into the advertising algorithm. A similar system is used on Facebook. We are presented with products or pages that are in keeping with our ideas and interests. This strategy makes us less annoyed by ads and more likely to buy whatever product is being flogged or connect with whatever company is being shown to us.

Many people aren’t even aware that we are being specifically targeted by brands who are using these algorithms. Cookies is another online pop-up most people simply accept to get to whatever page they are trying to load on their browser. However, these little files store our user data, and can be used by advertising companies to see what types of websites we have visited and what our interests are. For example, I am not interested in sports and have never clicked on to Sky Sports. I have never been shown an ad for sporting gear or have had sports articles promoted to me. My boyfriend, however, who is really interested in sports and often checks scores on the Sky Sports website, often has the likes of Paddy Power advertised to him. Another time, I googled how long bacon could be kept after it had been defrosted. An hour later, an advertisement for a recipe containing bacon appeared on my newsfeed.

Online advertising isn’t all plain-sailing however. In Spring 2017 Google-owned YouTube came under fire because it was putting advertisement on videos containing hate speech, with the video’s creators receiving payment for this. Many powerful brands were appalled and pulled their advertisements from the platform. According to The Guardian, YouTube lost millions in sponsorship.

YouTube and Instagram are similarly saturated with “social media influencers”, who are paid to professionally advertise products on their social media accounts. Many of these advertisements are well-crafted and only recognisable as an ad after stricter regulations made it a requirement to tag these posts with #ad and #spon. Make-up and clothes discount codes are also handed out on Instagram, with the influencer receiving some of the funds generated from people using this code. This unique way of generating an income is a very recent phenomenon and will certainly only become stronger as the years go on.

While it is clear that advertising has become an integral part of surfing the web and social media, all is not lost. You can install web-browser ad-ons to block some ads, however some clever sites require you to turn this feature off to access their content. I think that we are becoming smarter in recognising product placement and ads however, and that they will gradually lose our effect on us over time, much like we tune out tv and billboard advertising nowadays.