According to online statistics the “average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads every day” whereas the average child sees about 40,000 commercials on TV each year with an average of 4 hours of TV programming containing about 100 ads.

Whether these number are accurate or not, it is a fact that both our public and private lives are increasingly permeated with texts and images of a purely commercial nature.

We open a newspaper and see ads. We walk on the streets: ads. Turn on the radio: ads. We ride on trains and buses and are flooded with more ads. Even our smart-phones are turning into just another canvas for the “creativity” of advertising networks.

Is there no end to this?

Online Advertising: A Quick Way To Get Rich Or The Short-Cut To Sell-Out?

Every few days I get unsolicited emails by people offering me to pay money if I include links to their (client’s) homepages here on this blog, preferably directly in the articles, without revealing that these are paid links.

And I think to myself: “Sure, I’ll ruin both my reputation and the design of my website with links to stuff I don’t endorse so that you can pimp your search ranking and pay me off with a few measly dollars per year?”

Yeah, right. Many times I have resisted the urge to simply send this as a reply.

But seriously. Zuckerberg turned Facebook into a cash-cow with ads. Google did the same with their search engine.

So it must be the royal road to online success if they did it, right?

Recently, I read a reddit thread about a 16 year old kid who was supposedly making 40 dollars a days just with advertising. (It was later followed by another thread of a grown up who reportedly was getting huge amounts of traffic but was only making 5-10 cents a day)

Here’s my take on it:

When I started out a few years ago to look for ways to turn my internet addiction, er I mean fascination into a solid income, the Glorious Gospel of Online Marketers echoed and bounced off a thousand web-logs (*insert angel-choir here*): “Find a niche and add advertising and affiliate links!”

So I decided to give it a shot: building a blog is so easy. And slapping on a few Adsense banners cost me only a few minutes.

Little did I know that the hardest part was yet to come: getting people to my site and actually click those darn Adsense links.

When I told my friends about this new project, full of excitement, I had no clue that they would go home and click a few thousand times on my links in a spirit of what to them was generosity (After all, they were making me richer and richer with every click, right?) – but apparently it was a violation of Adsense’s terms so I was quickly banned from using their service and cast into advertising exile.

This was after having barely “earned” about 78 cents or so.

Publishing At The Barrel Of A Gun

Somehow I managed to reactivate the account and continued a few months later, this time making a point of not telling anyone about it.

What followed were weeks and months of little traffic and even less clicks on “my” ads. I was spending a lot of time on forums and reading from other people that apparently “the good times” were over, that clicks used to pay more, that the endless content-farms were making it nearly impossible to get decent search-engine traffic, etc.

And my life was turning into a perpetual dead-end of hitting refresh on my earning and traffic statistics.

I learned that certain articles with certain headlines got more search engine traffic and others less. So I actually tried to publish only stuff that people and the search-engines would want to click in the first place (next best thing to selling one’s soul) – and it did ramp up the traffic a bit.

But I wasn’t earning more than a few cents per day.

And then the ads started getting more and more questionable, hailing certain quasi-religious cults, ever desperate dating sites and more and more mindless browser-games.

I found out how to block certain ads from displaying on my site and started by asking myself:”Ok, so which of these sites would you actually recommend to anyone (who’s not your worst enemy) in real life?”

The answer came slowly but eventually fully downloaded into recognition: None. Nada. Zilch!

I couldn’t possibly care less about these ads and the companies behind them.

So why was I allowing them to advertise on my site then?

The truth had shown its teeth and sank its fangs into my conscience.

I deleted my blog, began to curse the Holy Gospel Of Internet Marketers and swore never to sail these waters again.

Understanding The Dark Side From Another Vantage Point

About two years after this somewhat humbling experience, I started building this blog which you are currently reading.

This was going to be new, this was going to be different. No more soul-selling, no more ads.

And like anyone else who has ever built a website from scratch I suffered the pangs of obscurity. I was all on fire with a new project but noone seemed to care.

Traffic stats were idling between 0-5 visitors per day.

This time I was not shooting for low-hanging fruit but still my new project needed exposure.

Incidentally, at the same time I received a coupon for Google Adwords (that’s the other side of AdSense, the place where you pay to have others host your ads).

So, I said: “Neat. 80 euros of free advertising money. Let’s give it a shot!”

Little did I know that I was already again with one foot in the same quagmire I barely merely months before. For, in order to actually use these advertising euros I had to feed the hungry AdWords mouth with my own monies.

So I wrote Adwords a check with the minimum amount and waited for approval which came a few days later.

I had about 200 dollars worth of potential traffic now.

So I started learning about the Adwords platform, its nasty navigation apparently built without the recognition that people are actually going to have to use this mess. (Or maybe the mess is deliberate so that advertising funds drop quickly and need to be renewed?)

Here’s what happened in a nutshell:

The euros were gone quicker than I could say “Pay Per Click”.

Yes, I did receive traffic and – yes – some of this traffic even translated into paying customers for language tutoring services while advertising two of my first independently published books did near to nothing. (I spoke to a seasoned AdWords expert, later and he told me that it was getting harder and harder to make cold sales through Adwords ads because all of the ads were doing it and people were getting tired of it. Banner Blindness was on the surge.)

Throughout this time it felt like I was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Lots of time (and money) spent on Adwords – and the results were meager for everything that went into it. Plus: The moment you stopped running the campaigns, the traffic stopped.

And again I was ripe for a reality check:

Did I ever click the advertising in Google results? No.

Did I ever click any kinds of banners and advertising links on other websites? No. I wasn’t even seeing them because I constantly browse with Adblock.

So why was I expecting others to click on my ads then?

*ouch*

Now, a common response to this is that the average Joe doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know so we can happily exploit their ignorance.

But first of all this is less and less true as people are becoming more and more sensivitized to advertising and secondly not everyone targets the average Joe as a primary audience.

Taking A Step Back And Connecting Individual Actions To Cumulative Influence

Big companies and start-ups greased with investor-money are happily investing in advertising.

I’ve worked for a non-profit organization once that burned hundreds of advertising dollars every day and thus managed to grow its new social network user-base literally over night.

But what does it really prove except that they have the money to do this?

All over the world people are currently protesting against the monarchy of money, how banks and the 1% make a mockery of human decency in the name of democracy.

But, seriously…

If you’re a young kid trying to collect a few dollars by letting those richer than you paste ugly ads all over your site or if you’re building a start-up with the money (and implicit governance) of the 1% – how can you possibly complain against the way things are going in our world?

It’s hard to admit, but it’s behavior like this that lead us to this point.

When masses of individuals go through their days seeking only their own benefit regardless of larger contexts, it has cumulative effects in the real world just as in the example of the traffic jam: hundreds of people individually slowing down leads to the phenomenon of the traffic jam. No-one single-handedly “created” it. So no-one in particular feels responsible for it.

And yet we all created it together.

In other words: It’s easy to protest against “The Rich”.

But it’s us (the 99%) who made these people rich by our cumulative individual actions.

It’s the same with advertising. Each time you click an ad, someone makes a profit.

Each time you pay a huge advertising network in the hope of getting exposure, they get richer and richer.

The Googles and Facebooks of our time may be more popular than the Goldman Sachs and Wallstreets. But they’re all in bed with each other.

And it’s up to us to choose alternatives by supporting people instead of monopolies.

img: AttributionShare Alike CC by x-ray delta one via flickr / thumbnail: AttributionNoncommercial CC by Pink Ponk via flickr