I haven't had a good rant on this blog for a long while. At least, not one that isn't part of tearing apart a terrible game in a review. But I have something that's been really grinding my gears throughout all of 2016, and I need to say something about it: I really dislike advertising. I have an especially intense dislike of internet advertising practices. It's not the ads themselves that get on my nerves; it's the ways in which websites and advertisers chose to deliver them. So many websites are crammed full of ugly, intrusive, and obnoxious ads that really hurt the experience of the user trying to actually view and navigate the website.
Streaming services like Comedy Central insist on crashing the video in the event that there's even the remotest hiccup in loading one of the five advertisements that it must play during the four advertising breaks that it includes in its half-hour episodes. I routinely run into issues in which the pre-episode ads fail to load, and so the whole episode refuses to load, and I have to ctrl-F5 to reload the page until it selects a set of five advertisements that actually work. But then it gets to one of the mid-episode commercial breaks, and even if the advertisements do load and play, the actual episode refuses to continue. Sometimes, I can hit the "rewind 10 seconds" button to fix the problem. Other times, I once again have to ctrl-F5 to reload the page, sit through the pre-episode ads again (hoping they don't cause yet another failure), then skip past the ad break in the timeline, watch the mid-episode ads (and hope that they don't also fail), and then maybe I can continue watching the content. This is why I haven't seen an episode of The Daily Show in a couple months and have no idea if new host Trevor Noah has finally hit a stride yet. I have similar issues with CBS steaming, which is why I also haven't been able to watch much of Stephen Colbert's new late night talk show. Sorry Stephen, I love you, but CBS apparently doesn't want me to watch you.
Issues with Comedy Central's ad-delivery abound: ads play over the actual content, their failure to load
prevents the content from playing, they have multiple ad breaks and not enough unique ads to fill them, etc.
To make matters worse, Comedy Central and CBS often doesn't even have enough distinct ads to fill up all these advertising breaks. I often see the same three or four ads in every ad break. Sometimes, the same exact ad will play back-to-back during the same advertising break!
Is this supposed to be punishment for not watching the show on cable TV? I actually do (at the time of this writing) have an active cable subscription, and that subscription does include Comedy Central and CBS. I could easily just DVR episodes of The Daily Show or Late Show with Stephen Colbert and watch them at home, but I prefer to watch them during my sit-in lunch breaks at work because it's just a more efficient use of time. Or at least, it would be, if it ever actually worked. Heck, on the DVR, I can just skip past the damned ads. I can't do that when streaming on the internet.
Comedy Central is far from unique in this regard. I've already pointed a finger at CBS as well, and this is one of the reasons that I'm not happy about Star Trek: Discovery being exclusive to CBS All-Access. I really don't want to pay for a streaming service to watch one show! Especially if it's still going to contain content-breaking advertisements that prevent me from even watching the show that I'm paying to watch. I used to watch a couple video series that had their archives on Blip TV (which isn't even associated with a cable television network), and that site was another major offender when it came to intrusive and obstructive ads. That provider also had numerous other problems that eventually lead to its shut down in 2015. Good riddance.
Heck, even trying to watch a highlight of a Bears game can be a chore, as ESPN and the NFL's websites (especially their video players) are often loaded down with obnoxious ads. I really hate sitting through a minute-long ad to watch a 10-second football highlight! And that's assuming that the highlight video ever actually loads to begin with. Though, admittedly, I haven't had as many problems with football highlights so far this preseason. Perhaps the NFL is settling on some better advertising practices? Or maybe they just save all the bullshit for after the regular season starts and average consumers start to actually care about football?
Ugh. Why do I have to sit through over a minute of ads to watch a 6-second football highlight?!
AdBlock work-arounds exacerbate the problem
So is there anything that can be done about these annoying ads? I could install and use AdBlock Plus, but that opens up some new problems. Certain content providers, including Comedy Central and others, will just outright refuse to serve content if ad-blocking software is being used, or if an ad fails to load for whatever reason. This seems fair at a superficial level: if the service is dependent on advertising in order to afford to operate, then they should require that the consumer be exposed to that advertising. The problem is that this sort of approach fails to take into account that the advertisement's provider can also fail. If the advertiser's server fails to serve the ad, then the content provider may also decide to fail, through no fault of the end user.
The Escapist's Zero Punctuation videos always crash on me because they fail to load ads.
Ironically, I have actually started coming across sites whose advertising frameworks are so buggy that they only work if AdBlock is installed and enabled. This has been a problem (at the time of this writing) with The Escapist - specifically, their Zero Punctuation reviews by Yahtzee. Without any ad blockers, the site properly serves a pre-content ad. Then it begins playing the requested content (in my case, a Zero Punctuation video). But before it can even finish the intro title sequence, the video freezes due to a "network error". This error is apparently associated with the loading of an advertisement, since enabling AdBlock Plus allows the ad to be skipped, and the video successfully plays in its entirety! I'm guessing that the site is maybe trying to load a second advertisement and fails, or the client actually fails to set some flag to indicate that the video loaded successfully. I tried it in Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, on different machines, and none of the browsers served the content correctly for me.
If I have AdBlock enabled, Zero Punctuation videos play without a problem.
And then there's also websites that include advertisements that basically hijack the entire browser as if they were viruses. This includes those "modal" ads that fill up the entire screen unless you hit the "close" button. Depending on your screen resolution, these may render the website underneath completely inaccessible. Take a look at the below ad for Disneyland's new "Star Wars" land. And as if blocking me from reading the article I was trying to read weren't bad enough, closing the Star Wars ad only revealed another full-screen modal ad underneath for a new "Frozen" attraction at Disneyland! Is this an advertisement, or did I just get infected with adware or a Trojan?! Honestly, what marketing executive thinks that it's a good idea for advertisements of your brand to be indistinguishable from a computer virus?!
After closing this modal Disneyland ad, there was yet another modal ad (again for Disneyland) waiting underneath it.
This can also include other obnoxious ads like the videos that load up in side panels and start playing loud audio. I'm pretty sure that this was the impetus for Google to add the ability to mute an entire browser tab, since these particular videos can be difficult to find and stop, and they get very annoying. Navigating the website can also become a chore if these ads are the kinds that expand when they're rolled over with the mouse.
I've also started to see a lot of web pages that embed video ads directly into the middle of their content or at the top of the page. This often takes the form of a dynamically-sized embedded video player that suddenly loads and forces the entire web page to resize and adjust around it. I'm in the middle of reading an article, and then suddenly the video loads and all the content below it is pushed down out of screen. If you're going to embed an advertisement in your webpage, then put it in a pre-sized div or something that's not going to interfere with the formatting or rendering of the rest of the page! You know what a standard video player size should be, so design your web page around it!
Embedding ad players in the middle of content interfere with the browser's ability to format the page.
Do these intrusive, obstructive ads actually work?!
And I haven't even talked about those obnoxious "from around the web" click-bait links that show up everywhere, or the native ads that are camouflaged as supposedly-reputable, legitimate publications. Though, admittedly, clicking on those in order to see just how much of a train-wreck of bollocks they are is one of my guilty pleasures...
Do these advertising practices actually work? I, for one, tend to immediately close websites that have particularly obstructive ads, and I'll often add a filter to google to remove them from searches and my news feed. I'll also usually make a mental note of the product or services being advertised so that I can remember not to purchase its products.
I don't think that government regulation is necessarily the right answer to this problem. I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of the government regulating the content of web sites - even advertisements. Instead, I'd much prefer that industries and web designers come up with a set of conventions that both allow the advertisers to promote themselves, but for the web pages themselves to feel unobstructed by these ads. Unfortunately, the trend that I'm seeing now seems to be going in the opposite direction.
I have no problem with advertising in general. It may be a necessary evil. Personally, I hope that the development of crowd-funding services such as Patreon and Kickstarter might one day render this sort of advertising obsolete. But in the meantime, advertising remains the only way for many content providers to be able to afford to keep their services running. Maintaining a server is difficult and expensive. I know, because I have to pay for one to host this site. I do it out of my own pocket, without inundating my readers with intrusive advertising, and without pandering for donations.
The closest that I get to advertising is the little Amazon referral widgets that you may see in many of my posts. These are referrals to relevant products that I specifically discuss in the article, and so far, I've yet to pass the threshold of Amazon traffic that would give me any money from the Amazon Associates program. But I continue to do it mostly for the benefit of my readers. If there's a product that I highly recommend (like, say, a book that I like or a game I'm reviewing), then I'll put a referral for the reader to easily purchase it from Amazon.
So I don't write this blog in order to make money. I do it because I enjoy it, and I hope that I can continue to be able to share my thoughts on this site without having to ask for money. If other providers of content want or need to use advertising or crowd-funding to support their sites, then that's fine. But for the consumer's sake, there is no need to make your advertisements so bloody intrusive!