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Ads, Attribution, and the Digital Interface

Ads, Attribution, and the Digital Interface

Web and print advertising models and their vastly different infrastructures are somewhat determined by their respective interfaces.  To me, digital ads are so interesting because the interest in tracking and storing as much data minutiae as possible coincides with the digital’s ability to facilitate instantaneous deletion of content, and the support of content that doesn’t look like traditional online ads (e.g. sponsored content, advertorials, et al.).

Ultimately, “Advertisers at this point just really want to be associated with something that is considered cool.  It’s not about the numbers anymore, it’s all about association”– yet there is still a broader societal impulse to track and quantify as much analog and digital data as possible.  In some sense, the only reason why print media is hanging on monetarily, even if readership of printed periodicals is down, is a purposeful impulse to move beyond or simply ignore this numerical data.

Each printed ad costs such a large sum to commission, that it can only be justified as a viable expense if there is a collective belief in the emotional, cultural cachet of certain printed outlets.  Furthermore, with printed publications it is very easy to distinguish the ads from the editorial content, unlike how content is structured on the web.  But even with this distinction, print ads are curiously enough a positive part of the sensory media experience, adding to the sensation of reading a printed magazine (why else would magazines boast about having such large September issues?) - whereas digital ads, spam, and sponsored content are a nuisance, visibly disrupting the digital user interface and impeding one’s ability to interact with the intended content.  Various sources have also reported that the people who actually click on online ads are not actually the ones who will become potential customers for the advertised product– but it is these non-customers whose behaviors are the most trackable and quantifiable in the realm of big data.

Additionally, the instability of the screen is inherent to its nature, as exemplified below by Lev Manovich:

If Manovich states that “the interface shapes how the computer user conceives of the computer itself”, then why do digital ads seem purposely created to disrupt the interface and frustrate digital users?  One way companies have tried to subvert this system has been to commission sponsored content ‘advertorials’ that vary in their degree of overt product pushing.  With the online interface, because everything looks the same and follows the same formatting, it becomes more difficult to distinguish pay-to-play, ‘advertorial’ content from purely editorial writing and images.  Even with laws mandating attribution for this sort of paid content, especially in the realm of blogging, the new question becomes why the public can’t hold large companies accountable in a similar way, and whether these citations need to be more overtly stated upfront.  While established media outlets are less beholden to rules about explicitly noting when content has been sponsored, why is this the case?  Shouldn’t they be more inclined to follow these rules about attribution?


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