What is Free Information Costing You?

Ad-based content isn’t “free.” It’s costs just aren’t transparent. While I’ll agree that the Volkswagen Star Wars ads are the most interesting things to happen to the franchise since 1983, I think it’s time we started asking ourselves: what is advertising really costing us?

Advertising isn’t a “hobby” of big business – it’s a highly effective form of persuasion. We wouldn’t have our business and political leaders spending billions of dollars on something that doesn’t provide any returns: Presidents are elected with advertising. Companies are made with advertising. Mad Men is an award-winning television show that fetishizes the people who make advertising in order to have us watch, well, more advertising.

If you scratch the surface a bit and think about the intent of advertising, it’s usually to persuade you to do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do: order a pizza instead of cooking dinner, or buy a new car to replace your perfectly good old one. Apple ads tell you to get the new iPad because with it, your life will finally become meaningful. All of those messages are crafted to persuade us to open our wallets and hand over our money.

Combine that with the fact that we don’t have complete control over how our information intake affects us, and the conclusion is that while advertising based content may be “free,” it certainly comes with a cost. To those who say “advertising never affects me” – you’re deluding yourself. Of course it does. You wouldn’t know that Coca-Cola or Disney World or Pizza Hut exists without advertising. Ad-based content might be delivered to you for free, but I suspect that its cost is quite high.

I’m convinced that Apple’s long-term battle with Google isn’t over cell-phones but how we get our content: will it be ad-based and free, or fee-based. Will you get your television from the iTunes store for $1.99, or will you get it via the many free, ad-based methods you get it now. Will your content come from the ad-driven web, or from the fee-based app store? The new iBook Author tool even allows me to self-publish content via Apple’s iBookstore and make money that way rather than selling advertising space on this very blog. Apple is enabling an ad-free lifestyle.

Whether or not that’s good for the web: I don’t know. On one hand, universal access to information is a great thing. On the other: a purely ad-driven model for content makes it so content farms like AOL and Demand Media create haystacks of junk content to compete with the high-quality stuff. But I do know that we need to think critically about advertising and its true cost – it’s not just as simple as saying that “information wants to be free.” Information always comes with a cost.

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