Advertising and accessibility

In an older article I already pointed out that script and flash blockers are indispensable for a pleasant surfing experience also for blind persons. Beyond all concerns about privacy and security, I want to extend this idea even further. I argue that advertisements in themselves are one of the great barriers on the web today.

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The big mess

I came up with this thought when my Firefox started messing around and I had to turn off all extensions and thus also the AdBlock. On a page where I had previously found a download link without any problems, I suddenly saw nothing but cabbage and turnips.

To be more precise: a colourful mixture of Google ads, affiliates and other things that I couldn't classify at all. Somewhere in between was the download link.

Are the site operators hoping that persons will accidentally click on one of these links out of sheer panic so that they can earn a few more cents? Or do they think we can perform cognitive feats by taking in a dozen ads at once. Or is it not the case that after years of surfing experience we automatically tune out such things because we already suspect that there is nothing interesting on offer?

The lost focus

Be that as it may: sighted and mouse users may not be able to completely escape this flood of advertising, but they are able to find hidden elements in this visual chaos.

Keyboard users, on the other hand, have to walk through a page in a linear fashion. On many websites, the first advertising block is already found above the actual article in front of or behind the navigation. The second block - usually a gif or flash animation is in the middle of the text. The third block is then between the end of the article and the comments or whatever follows the article. Further advertising is then scattered around the rest of the page. For keyboard users, this means that they have to somehow navigate around these obstacles.

For blind persons, this disturbs the flow of reading. Unrelated elements appear in the middle of an article, confusing the reader and robbing him of his concentration. For the visually impaired or persons with cognitive impairments, the variety of different colourful, flickering elements that do not fit into the concept of the page can be confusing, and in the worst case the page is unusable.

Whether all of this is still aesthetically pleasing seems secondary at first. But in fact, usability and visual appeal are cornerstones of web design. persons make a real effort to design a site attractively according to the company's own style guides and corporate design, and then allow advertisements that do not fit the concept in terms of colour and aesthetics to destroy their layout.

Advertising for the visually impaired and blind

persons with visual impairments are usually ignored in advertising campaigns. This may also be true for persons with hearing impairment, but I cannot judge that. All the fanfare of posters, advertising pillars, shop windows, advertising brochures, banner ads and flash animations on the net, but often also TV commercials pass us by without a trace. The exception is advertising on the radio.

I don't own a television myself. The advertising on the internet got on my nerves so much with its permanent flickering that I had to turn it off. But even without an ad blocker, I didn't know what was being advertised. If I were interested, I couldn't find out, because the colourful flickering of GIF and Flash animations does without alternative text or textual messages in general. So we usually don't know which brand is being advertised or what the product is.

One exception is the Google text ads, which, unlike the sighted, we cannot simply skip. Although Google is supposed to work with very clever algorithms, the ads rarely match the content of the website. It's hard to imagine that anyone actually clicks on them on purpose. Television advertising is similar: it works mainly with picture messages. Try to find out which product or brand is being advertised without looking. Often neither the name of the brand nor the product is mentioned. Apart from that, every viewer develops his or her own strategies to bridge the commercial breaks: going to the toilet, getting snacks from the kitchen, zapping...

I can well remember the debates about the "Du bist Deutschland" campaign in Germany, where I was and am perhaps the only person who did not see or hear any such commercial and did not see any of the posters. That didn't bother me personally, I just want to make it clear that many persons like me are not even reached by advertising today. The number of blind and poorly sighted persons in Germany is definitely so high that companies are missing out on a target group here.

Of course, no one has yet launched a campaign for accessible advertising, that would probably be a bit cynical. But a situation in which we are completely ignored cannot leave us cold. Because the same errors in thinking might have led to the fact that many shopping and auction sites are not accessible either.

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