There are two main business models that edge providers, like Google and Netflix, use to enable consumers to access information online. The first is through use of paywalls or a subscription-based model. For example, consumers pay a monthly or annual fee to a media outlet, like a The New York Times, or a video content provider, like Netflix, and receive unlimited access to that website’s content. The other more prevalent business model is through use of advertising. Edge providers will sell advertising space on their website, allowing consumers to access the content without paying a monetary fee. Edge providers need to generate revenue in order to have the incentive to create more content or, for example, report on important current events. Some people may find online advertising to be annoying, but others may see it as the only way to access information online.
In an August 2016 Perspectives from FSF Scholars, I discussed the importance of the advertising business model and showed how it benefits all consumers because they can access information without having to pay a subscription fee. For low-income consumers who cannot afford subscriptions, the advertising business model creates an opportunity for upward mobility by increasing their access to human capital and entertainment and raising their standard of living. For middle and high-income consumers who can afford subscriptions, advertising frees up income that would have been spent on subscriptions but now can be spent on other goods and services.
However, some consumers may find advertisements to be inconvenient or just simply annoying. Some websites have the option where consumers can choose the business model they prefer. Giving consumers a choice is the ideal scenario because consumers have different preferences toward advertising and subscriptions. There is nothing wrong with preferring one option over the other, but to say that consumers should be forced to use one option over the other ignores the fundamentals of economics.
Advertising often has been criticized for attempting to manipulate consumers into buying certain products, believe certain information, or vote for certain politicians. Vance Packard made this argument in his 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders. I might argue that “manipulate” is a harsh word, but I cannot argue that advertising does not influence consumer behavior. After all, companies would not advertise if it did not have an impact on consumer behavior and studies have shown that advertising works. But even though advertising influences consumers, it also creates an opportunity for consumers to access information without having to pay a subscription fee, freeing up money that would have been spent on subscriptions and encouraging additional economic activity.
In October 2016, Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu published a book called The Attention Merchants, which discusses the history of advertising. The book also attempts to influence consumers into adopting subscription-based models to slow the wave of advertising throughout the Internet. In an interview entitled “Does Advertising Ruin Everything?” Tim Wu said:
We have to get over our addiction to free stuff. Suck it up and pay. A lot of people say, “I hate ads, I’m sick of ads, I’m sick of clickbait, I’m sick of this race to the bottom.” If you say that, you have to put your money where your mouth is. We have to get over our addiction to free if we’re going to save the web. That’s us, the users. We can’t expect everything to be free and to be good.
But oftentimes, consumers might think they have their preference sorted out in their head, but as soon as they are confronted with an economic choice, their decision does not represent their perceived preference. This too is not a bad thing; it is just the reality of consumers having imperfect information. A consumer may not enjoy ads and may complain about ads, but when confronted with the option to pay $10 a month, for example, advertising might be the preferred option.
As a consumer, Tim Wu may prefer subscriptions over advertisements, but his preferences should not dictate the preferences of other consumers. For example, it will be difficult for low-income consumers to simply “suck it up and pay” for subscriptions to online content. And while Tim Wu acknowledges that advertising enables many consumers to access online information who otherwise would not be able to, that point bears much more emphasis. Many consumers would not have access to the vast economic benefits of the Internet if not for the advertising business model. And for the consumers who can afford to use the subscription-based model but instead choose advertising, this action creates a consumer surplus that frees up money that can now be spent on other goods and services.In other words, the advertising business model has created access to information for low-income consumers and has created additional economic activity for middle and high-income consumers who can afford but choose not to pay for subscriptions. Advertising may be annoying to some, but considering the vast economic benefits the business model brings to consumers around the globe, it’s actually life-changing.