What always interests me about this observation is the implication that offline advertising is similarly worthless. There are certain types of advertising that get treated as content: People scan the newspaper for department-store sales, for instance. But an ad for Tide? Or Intel? You notice it, but you don’t care about it. But everyone placed those ads so everyone kept placing those ads. And hey, having your brand noticed was worth something.
Online, however, that “not caring” has become too undeniable. The tiny handful of click-throughs, most of them accidental, are almost an insult to the advertiser. The right comparison here is old medical techniques that were widely used until information arrived showing them worthless. Advertising worked for everyone so long as the limited supply made it look really high-value to advertisers and the absence of information let them fool themselves into believing it really effective. But at least with online advertising, there’s so much supply, and so much proof that it’s not very effective, that the prices paid by advertisers are coming into line with the amount of attention people pay to their advertisements. And that’s grim news for industries that rely on advertising.
Maybe! But I also think it’s possible that advertisers are just irrationally underrating online advertising. After all, when Ford buys ads for the Ford F-150 during NFL games surely they already knew that only a tiny number of people would see that ad and then go “maybe I should buy a Ford F-150.” Obviously at any given time most people aren’t in the market for a new vehicle, and most people who are in the market for a new vehicle don’t want a truck. The point of Ford F-150 ads has always been to just generate awareness of the brand in some general sense. Clickthrough rate just doesn’t seem like a meaningful measure of the thing most advertising is meant to accomplish.