Close to Berlin’s central Alexanderplatz stands the headquarter of one of the city’s largest media houses. It is a grey, nondescript office that blends in nicely with the rest of the nondescript architecture surrounding it: buildings reminiscent of East Berlin’s Communist past. I have never been inside of the building, but the view from the top floor must be impressive. If only it was possible to look out.
For a few weeks, the entire side of the building has been covered with larger-than-life advertisements. Posters so massive that one can spot them from hundreds of meters away. The first poster went up for the World Cup, advertising a large German sports brand. Ever since, it has periodically been replaced with equally large posters advertising a whole array of things, diminishing all hopes that the end of the tournament would signal the end of the huge poster. Seeing it for a few minutes on the way to work always makes me wonder how it must feel like to work there, to have one’s window obstructed for an entire workday.
The poster is also a metaphor for the state of the news industry: A publishing house in need of extra income rents out its real estate, inadvertently blocking its journalists’ view of the world. The question is: Should a business become that dependent on advertising revenue to finance their product?
I believe that advertisement crosses a line when it destroys the utility of a product it is supposedly supporting. When flashy banners render a website unreadable. When an entire town is painted blue to celebrate a beer brand. And yes, when a news outlet publishes paid content that is virtually indistinguishable from their independent journalism.
But the publishing industry isn’t the only one struggling with the question of how to balance ads and content. For a few years, businesses on the Internet have almost solely been relying on advertisements to support their offerings. Products are free and ad-supported. Very few of them offer the option to avoid wading through countless ads by actually paying for the product.
Couple that with the logic of the ad business and you arrive at the situation we face today. Contemporary advertisement values eyes over minds, clicks over remembrance. This “show me the numbers” approach to advertisement has led to ads that are either intrusive (like the banner on Alexanderplatz) or plain sneaky like “native ads” masquerading as content. There is a reason why the iconic and evocative ads on display in any episode of the TV show “Mad Men” would not the possible today: Their narrative is much too slow. And they probably wouldn’t be clicked.
The author Ethan Zuckermann goes so far as to call ads the internet’s original sin: Since we took advertisements for granted, we have accepted a world where browser cookies track our every click on the internet.
There is an undeniable irony in being repulsed by revelations of intelligence services that track our personal communication and browsing behavior but have largely accepted that private corporations do the same. We may be voluntarily using their services but what they do with our data remains as opaque and clandestine as it does with government agencies.
The question we need to ask ourselves: It is worth it? Are we willing to let advertisements permeate our lives, both in public and in private? Is surrendering our data to advertisers a worthy price of admission for free email and music streaming? Or has our view on the world already been obstructed by a large poster hanging before our eyes?