Simanaitis Says

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LIKE MOST OF US, I spend a goodly amount of time online, amidst what turns out to be a highly complex environment of advertising. I learned elements of the latter in “A Puff of Carbon Dioxide,” by Donald MacKenzie in London Review of Books, January 19, 2023. Here are tidbits on his article, together with my usual Internet sleuthing and personal observations.

A Lot of Puffs. MacKenzie considers the matter environmentally: “Generating the electricity to get just one ad to appear on your screen can produce a puff of carbon dioxide sufficiently large that, if it were cigarette smoke, you would be able to see it…. No one knows exactly how many ads are shown online across the world, but informed estimates collected by the researcher Mikko Kotila suggest as many as 400 billion a day.”

MacKenzie continues, “The carbon emissions produced by information and communication technologies (ICT) are difficult to measure, but probably account for around 2 or 3 per cent of total global emissions, perhaps as much as 4 per cent. That’s comparable to aviation’s contribution to climate change.” 

Auctioning Our Eyeballs. “If you are browsing the web, using Facebook, or searching on Google for something of commercial interest,” MacKenzie says, “the opportunities to show you ads are electronically auctioned in real time, with algorithms acting on behalf of various advertisers, all of whom are able to submit bids to show you an ad. The whole process is completed in less than a second.”

He continues, “The entrepreneur Brian O’Kelley, who was a pioneer of near instantaneous automated ad auctions, tells me that sometimes an opportunity to show a single ad can trigger as many as a thousand auctions.”


Carbon Neutrality? “Many large advertisers,” MacKenzie says, “are keen to trumpet their commitment to sustainability and the carbon neutrality of their products…. One response can be to keep puffing away and buy an equivalent amount of carbon credits associated with emissions-reduction projects elsewhere, usually in the Global South.”

“But directly cutting advertising’s emissions must be a better path,” MacKenzie notes. “There’s a lot of scope for doing this: research by O’Kelley’s carbon-measurement firm Scope3 and the consultancy Ebiquity suggests that the carbon footprint of ads varies wildly, with some nearly a hundred times bigger than others.”

Faux Eyeballs. Business waste lurks in many ads (“nobody knows quite how many”) that are never viewed by humans. MacKenzie says, “… advertisers can be duped into paying to show ads on websites that few human viewers will ever see, on which computerised bots are clicking away instead.”

Conned into Ads. MacKenzie writes, “Many ‘free’ mobile games, for example, make their users do things such as view a video ad or navigate to an external ad-bearing website before allowing them to move to the next level. This isn’t fraud, but having ads forced on you like this is unlikely to make you enthusiastic about the companies or products being advertised.”


My Response. I confess to enjoying the Internet as a world shopping center, but I honestly believe I have never made a purchase based specifically on an online ad. 

In fact, I avoid click-bait even to eschewing potentially interesting Internet sites: For example, I may peruse everything from history to geography to the arts, but avoid any of the “You won’t believe how much weight these five celebrities have gained,” as cited in MacKenzie’s article.

MacKenzie’s Conclusion: “An alternative would be for advertisers to focus their ads better and deliberately select appropriate outlets for them, create direct commercial relations with those outlets, and thus reduce the need for multiple auctions and multiple forms of tracking. There is no inherent conflict between advertising that is more effective (and less intrusive), healthy competition, and reduced emissions. They can work hand in hand.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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