Economist Robert H. Frank coined the term Darwin’s Wedge to describe situations where stuff evolves to benefit the individual but actually is bad for the species overall.
Look for instance at the elephant seal. Bull elephant seals are huge. They can weigh as much as 6 thousand pounds. They’re 5 times bigger than female seals. They’re twice as heavy as the average car. During the mating season this is to the individual’s advantage. Mature bulls battle each other for hours. The victorious bull claims exclusive access to the female harem of as many as 100 cows.
As a species this is a disadvantage.
As a species it makes them far more vulnerable to sharks.
The bull elk is another case in point. Similarly the bull elk must battle against all other bull elks in his tribe to gain access to lady elks. In the battle the size of the antler is key. The bigger the better. Furthermore, since the winning bull elk will be most likely to have bigger antlers, his descendants will acquire the big antler gene. There’s a generational antler race (like an arms race). The largest antlers of the North American bull elk measure over 4 feet and weigh more than 40 pounds. Again, this is terrific for an individual, sex starved elk. Not so terrific for the species because it makes it much harder to run away from wolves, especially through woods.
This situation is Frank’s Darwin’s Wedge.
If you judge success for online ads in a short term way then the better your ad is at generating clicks the better it is for you. It doesn’t matter much that you’re annoying people. You couldn’t care less if people are clicking on your ad by mistake when they really just wanted to check the weather, and end up instead on flappybird. You’re counting clicks not sales and anyway a .0001% conversion might be your business model.
What’s great for the individual (the specific ad) is not so great for the species (ads in general). Because if you get really annoyed with your inability to avoid ads on your mobile (because they’ve got better at tricking you into interacting with them whether you intended to or not), you might start to consider installing an adblocker.
Stats abound about how big the threat is from adblockers. Deloitte’s TMT 2016 report is relatively relaxed about it. Deloitte Global predict just 0.3% of all mobile device owners will use an ad-blocker this year. At the recent Guardian conference on the other hand stats were quoted that over 80% of German millennial men used adblockers (provoking a huge gasp from the audience). Many publishers are furious about the situation.
Most people may well not bother with adblockers. But the better the algorithm performs or if you like in Darwinian terms evolves to deliver a short term metric like click through, the more annoying the website will seem. Whilst few consumers ever openly admit to loving ads (though I still know loads of people who get to the cinema in time for the ads), most people don’t go out of their way to avoid them actively all the time. They just don’t have the energy. But point out to them that with an adblocker the page they want to read will load 5 times faster, or how much they’re paying for data that ads are eating……
Robert H. Frank’s solution to Darwin’s wedge problems in business is tax. Tax annoying adverts? Imposed perhaps by the IAB? Can’t see that happening anytime soon, but the IAB’s LEAN initiative is to be encouraged.