As a young, closeted transgender person growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I felt very alone. I didn’t know anyone like me, and there were no transgender narratives in mainstream media, news, or entertainment. Thankfully, I found and fell in love with the internet at an early age. It was the only place I could find people like me and express my true identity. The freely accessible online communities allowed me then—and millions of people today—to share stories, understanding, empathy, and support.
Eventually, I turned my passion for the internet into a career, helping to launch the groundbreaking Huffington Post and today supporting many publishers, including several that promote the beautiful voices of marginalized communities. I appreciate my blessings. Still, I’m disappointed by a growing misunderstanding of how media works among advocates and policymakers and their continuing calls to restrict relevant advertising.
Advertising has always financed media. Historically, “mass advertising” has promoted mainstream products to mainstream audiences. In the digital age, the advertising business model, particularly relevant advertising informed by consumer habits and preferences, has enabled personalized advertising content that generates enough revenue so diverse online communities can thrive without charging consumers a dime. One study documented that two-thirds of internet users (68%) never pay for online content. And unlike contextual advertising (for example, Super Bowl ads seen by millions and based on the expected audience demographics), relevant ads generate more revenue on each impression because they reach definitively interested customers on the websites and blogs they love to visit. It’s significant revenue for small publishers that cannot be replaced if the publishers were limited to just contextual advertising.
Without relevant advertising, it’s unlikely that anyone would have financed marginalized voices in PAPER Magazine, which tells the stories of incredible artists like Black, disabled, transgender model Aaron Rose Philip. It’s highly doubtful that PAPER’s team, which is almost entirely nonbinary, LGBTQ+, and people of color, could have raised enough patient investment capital to find a meaningful audience. What would be the fate of xoNecole and its Black women leaders, or the uplifting stories of Upworthy and the extraordinary women of Brit + Co? These four websites are clients, so I know their business models and revenue sources.
Relevant advertising supports so many diverse voices and ideas that would otherwise disappear or be available only to people who could afford to pay. If relevant advertising is limited or prohibited, the loss of revenue will hurt the creators who share their talent and stories. Their silence would hurt audiences, who would suffer alone as they might never know others are experiencing the same pain, fears, or identity struggles.
As a transgender person, I deeply understand the importance of personal privacy and safety. But I’m troubled when advocates who champion marginalized communities criticize the business models that fund and empower those communities. For example, the Consumer Federation of America, long a voice for underrepresented communities, labels relevant advertising as surveillance advertising and is critical of the mechanics that make it work so well for advertisers and publishers. And elected leaders like Rep. Anna Eshoo, a longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights, are introducing legislation that would ban relevant advertising. Even Apple, with a well-deserved reputation for treating all employees equally, touts its ad-blocking technology in the name of privacy, reducing advertising revenue to small publishers.
Every day our platform and publisher partners deliver millions of relevant ads without collecting dossiers and also while permitting people to opt out. Restricting advertising partners from collecting data that powers relevant ads would make it harder for small publishers we work with to monetize their content, harder for brands that want to support marginalized communities to connect with them, and harder for members of those communities to find each other and connect online. It would disrespect publishers, writers, and consumers. If politicians prohibit relevant advertising, the $10 billion in lost revenue would result in unemployed writers, bankrupt publishers, and less diversity online.
The ad-supported media model has never been more robust—and the world has never needed it more. Digital connections can make people happier, less scared, and more aware of life’s opportunities.
Without these opportunities for a sense of community, belonging, and truth-seeking narratives, society backpedals 50 years into the past. Advertising and relevant ads power our narratives and support our communities—and the support should be mutual.
Andrea Breanna is the founder and CEO of RebelMouse and previously was the chief technology officer of Huffington Post.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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