Why advertising companies should care about media education

“What information consumes is the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” – Herbert Simon, Nobel winner, Economics (1978)

According to the research conducted by Microsoft Canada, three types of human attention exist: sustained, selective and alternating attention. Among them, human’s sustained attention span has been dwindled due to the increased usage of digital devices such as laptop, smartphone or PDA (Microsoft, 2015). Reduced sustained attention span posed challenges to advertisers because they should maintain the message simple and easy to understand corresponding to consumers with weak concentration. Also, companies try to produce more advertisements to receive enough attention from consumers and the messages become inappropriate and provocative to achieve that. The problem is that if more advertising messages are produced because of the fierce competition among companies, consumers’ attention span becomes weaker responding to that. The vicious cycle would not stop unless companies cooperate each other to send less and more effective messages.

In order to reduce the quantity of ads and mitigate this tragedy of vicious cycle, online behavior advertising(OBA) strategy was developed. By analyzing big data of people’s Internet usage pattern and location information, companies can figure out people who would be interested in their products. Then, they can send personalized ads tailored to each consumer by utilizing mobile applications or online banner on the Internet. One male subject in the Microsoft Canada research mentioned that “Offering an ad I don’t like is SPAM. An ad that I can use and like is a service (Microsoft, 2015)”. It shows the positive effect of reducing the intentional ignorance from customers.

However, this OBA strategy created another issue regarding misuse of personal information without consent because producing tailored ads starts from gathering personal information of each user. According to the PageFair and Adobe’s 2015 Ad blocking report, among subjects using an ad blocking plug-in, 50 percent of them started because they felt that “their personal data is being misused to personalize ads”. Moreover, “Globally, usage of ad blockers grew 41% YoY (Q2 2014 – Q2 2015)” and “As of June 2015, there were 198 million monthly active users for the major browser extensions that block ads.” (PageFair & Adobe, 2015) It indicates that people’s concern for the misuse of personal profile and information has been increasing rapidly and severely.

In response to this issue, online ads blocking programs were invented by several companies and industry groups: DAA (Digital Advertising Alliance), Evidon (a company which help advertisers to comply the advertising regulations), PrivacyMark. These programs help consumers opt out advertising companies which track their internet use tendency or location information. Ad blocking tools not only assure that users can protect themselves from collection of information without consents, but also provide the personal freedom to select the companies from which they want to receive information by opting in and out.

However, companies providing ad blocking programs need to improve its limitation from many aspects. According to the usability evaluation report conducted by Leon et al, users experience many difficulties in utilizing the opt-out tools.

First, users are not capable of distinguishing the online advertising companies. Even though the main service of these tools is setting opt-out or blocking preferences, users not having information of advertisers cannot set up the settings as they want to.

Second, tools provide the inappropriate default settings. Most users expect that they would not be tracked or receive fewer ads when they install this software, and they also expect the effect of blocking will start as soon as they finish installing. However, trackers were not blocked in the default setting of many tools: Ghostery, TACO, DAA and Evidon.

Third, communicating the goals and instruction of configuration was ineffective to educate the users. Tools used either too simple words which do not convey the information properly or too technical words which users cannot understand. Furthermore, participants had misconception that they are safe against tracking, when in the truth, they just see no more personalized ads and continue to be tracked.

Fourth, tools provided insufficient feedback to users. Participants were uncertain of what the function of opt-out means and whether it is working or not. However, Ghostery and TACO provided users with the feedback on all websites they visited and they could understand the actual role of tools.

Fifth, tools sometimes break the parts of websites, and participants thought the internet connection is the main problem of that.

In the conclusion, the researchers explained that “There are significant challenges in providing easy-to-use tools that give users meaningful control without interfering with their use of the web”. (Leon et al, 2011) If we failed to overcome this challenge, users will notice that they actually could not set up the mode to stop trackers and they will continue receiving the personalize ads from the companies they thought they blocked. Since people will feel unsafe of being tracked and losing their personal right, the vicious cycle of weaker concentration span and more advertisements will continue.

The main problem of ad blocking software is not able to communicate its purposes and functions properly. Giving proper feedback to help users to check their own decision was insufficient, and the usage instruction was full of technical jargons which normal people do not use in their daily lives. In order to solve this problem, media educator can cooperate with the software developer to adopt the understandable terms when they produce the tools. Media education emphasizes the lifelong learning and the understanding of ad blocking software and the tragedy of advertising commons can become an important subject for adults.

The system of providing proper feedback to each movement of users can be advised by media educators as well. In the education discipline, providing students with proper feedback to reinforce their right decision or behavior was researched throughout the history. It is nearly impossible to figure out the problem which the future users will face, but software providers still manage to provide the right feedback at the right time with the help of media educators and teachers.

The author, Woojung Park, is a student of the Master’s Degree Program in Media Education



  • Microsoft Canada (2015) “Attention spans”
  • PageFair & Adobe (2015) “The cost of ad blocking”
  • Leon & Ur & Balebako & Cranor & Shay & Wang (2011) “Why Johnny Can’t Opt Out: A Usability Evaluation of Tools to Limit Online Behavioral Advertising”



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