The end of online ads is probably coming, but it's not what you think

Google is set to start blocking ads with a proprietary filter for the Chrome web browser, but the announcement may be distracting us from the long game the tech giants are playing, writes Ramona Pringle.

Tech giants will be at a great advantage

As image recognition continues to advance, new apps that utilize your smartphone's camera will only propel this trend forward.

There's a very good likelihood that you, reading this, use some kind of ad blocker.

If that's the case, then you've managed to outsmart Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue, and can go about your Googling, Facebook browsing and YouTube viewing without having to endure relentless pop-up ads and pre-roll video commercials.

Well, for now at least.

According to recent reports, Google is set to start blocking ads with a proprietary filter for the Chrome web browser. But in some ways, the announcement is a bit of a red herring distracting us from the long game the tech giants are playing.

Many marketing experts are touting ads that are targeted to you based on the images you post on social media as the next big thing in advertising.

In her anticipated annual trends report, technology forecaster Mary Meeker noted that just as Google uses Adwords to deliver users ads based on what they type, companies such as Snap are now seeing success with ads based on what images users share.

For instance, if you post images from a beach vacation, you might be targeted with advertisements for bathing suits. If you post photos of your kitchen renovation, you might see ads for new appliances.

Just the start

As image recognition continues to advance, new apps that utilize your smartphone's camera will only propel this trend forward, by being able to recognize what you're looking at and pair you with the most relevant ads, no searching necessary.

Major tech companies such as Google are no longer just in the business of advertising to consumers — they’re also in the business of selling the actual goods. (Kim Jin-a/Associated Press)

Just as many photo apps now enable facial recognition, soon they'll also recognize other things in your images, from settings to objects. This means that before you even post your photos to social media publicly, your smartphone will know what you're looking at and be able to match you with relevant ads.

Let's say you're staying in a hotel and you like the couch in the lobby —taking a photo of it could connect you with ads for similar home furnishings. But once the technology is in place to connect users to relevant advertisements based on what they photograph, there's really no reason that companies won't be able to leapfrog ads entirely.

Imagine taking a photo of that couch and being sent to the source of similar styles or models directly. Chances are, if you take a photo, Google, Amazon or Snap will be able to track down the brand and lead you to the source to actually buy it. 

In the not-too-distant future, companies clamouring to sell us their wares won't even need ads — or rather, we won't notice them, because everything we interact with using our smartphone cameras will be selling us something, and often times, available for purchase with one simple tap or click.

Advertisements, as we currently understand them, will just be middlemen, an extra and unnecessary step between consumers and products. And this is where the tech giants have an advantage. 

This shift away from advertising as we know it will benefit the big guys and likely lead to even greater monopolies.

One-stop shopping

Giants such as Google and Amazon have powerful search engines capable of matching us with targeted ads. But these companies are no longer just in the business of advertising to us — they're also in the business of selling us the actual goods. And as they increasingly become the destination for our purchases, it will be at the peril of small businesses and bricks-and-mortar store fronts.

You can already buy groceries (and pretty much anything else you can think of) directly from Google, which is inching its way into Amazon's territory. 

Amazon started as a destination for one-stop shopping and has recently turned heads as a media company, churning out some of the most acclaimed TV series of the past few years. Their incentive for producing Emmy Award-winning shows such as Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle reflects how advertising is morphing.

Coupled with the explosive growth of voice search, it seems inevitable that soon we'll be able to buy the jeans we see on the lead character in a show, as it plays before us, with a simple swipe or voice command.

Amazon has the show, they've got the products, and they've got the infrastructure and interface that connects it all — who needs ads?

Ad blockers might be the hot issue of today, helping to save our sanity by filtering out the barrage of online ads that appear across social media and in our searches, but the way products are sold to us is set for rapid upheaval.

Ads as we know them could soon be a thing of the past — but advertisers could very well end up selling us more stuff than ever.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.