A bout of insomnia last summer led me to sign up for a free trial of Hulu Plus, which would let me use my iPad to catch up on episodes of Bob’s Burgers I had missed earlier in the season. When I inevitably failed to kill the subscription before the negative option billing kicked in, I decided to make the most of the month I accidentally paid for by devouring the entire combined run of the classic Canadian series Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. Hulu Plus’s subscription model offers more content and access on more devices (such as mobile devices and set-top boxes), but the same amount of advertising as experienced by those with free accounts, which varies from about three to five minutes for a standard twenty-one- to twenty-two-minute episode of a TV show. This might be bearable with a wide assortment of ads, but Hulu’s ad model is not about variety. So for each of Degrassi’s seventy episodes, I was treated to multiple pleas to buy car insurance from Geico. If you haven’t had the experience yourself, just imagine a litany of thirty-second visits from the least funny standup comedian in existence (to put it very, very kindly).
By Hulu’s own count, I have used it to watch nearly 1,100 videos of various shapes and sizes in the last four and a half years. I’m pretty sure each and every one of them came with at least one Geico commercial. Which means that in this age of unavoidably intrusive and sophisticated audience targeting (including an “Is this ad relevant to you?” option whose “No” button gets a lot of love from me), Hulu is still somehow unaware that I don’t even own a car. This is not only a missed opportunity for Hulu’s advertisers hawking goods that actually interest me (if there are any), but it’s a stark portrait of the not-so-fine line between brand awareness and overexposure. If I am one day in the market for car insurance again, I promise you Geico won’t get one thin dime from me, even if the value of its service is exponentially greater than all of its competitors combined. Thanks to the deadly combination of its advertising’s timbre and saturation, my contempt for Geico is unspeakable. And yet, Geico is in no apparent danger of going bankrupt, and I imagine most advertisers crave the kind of exposure it gets from Hulu.
Nowadays, most of our media universe exists online, and most of that universe runs on advertising. It is a testament to the level of compelling content being created that we’re willing to endure being bombarded by these kinds of sales pitches just to access that content. It is also an indictment of a consumer culture eager to offer up mindshare as currency to whomever stands between us and our media. Must the future of our digital economy really be this obnoxious?