Who’s really to blame for online ad-blocking? (Hint: It’s not the users)

Who’s really to blame for online ad-blocking? (Hint: It’s not the users)

September 15, 2015

Last week I came across one of the more extreme commentaries on advertising I’ve ever encountered. Appearing on MediaPost, it was a diatribe about ad-blocking aimed squarely at Randall Rothenberg, the head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, who is allegedly responsible for letting this scourge grow to its current malignant state. But what really got my attention was this passage, near the top:

Ad-blockers have given consumers a voice in the online ad world — and that voice is loud, it is clear and it is filled with venom.

Track our behavior without our consent and serve “targeted” ads that make us feel stalked. —Block you.

Serve us ads that cover up the inferior content we read mostly to kill time. —Block you.

Force auto-play video ads down our throats, so we have to race to find our mute button. —Block you.

Serve us flashy ads that slow down the page load. —Block you.

Allow anyone to buy ads through exchanges, so our computers get infected with malware. —Block you.

Serve us too many damn ads on a single page of content. —Block you.

In fact, the IAB has a de­tailed code of con­duct for its mem­bers, though that obvi­ously hasn’t fixed the prob­lem. But Ran­dy—whom (full dis­clo­sure) I’ve known for years, and who gave me a lovel­y blurb for my most re­cent book—does­n’t really need me to de­fend him. The point is that the sins list­ed here—online stalk­ing, auto-play vid­eos, mal­ware in­fes­tations, ram­pant clut­ter, and so on—have be­come ubiq­ui­tous, and they’re al­most guar­an­teed to make con­sum­ers ven­omous. They cer­tainly make me feel ven­omous. And as the au­thor of this post was try­ing to point out, they make a ter­rific case for ad-block­ing.

According to a report that was cited over the weekend in Tech­Crunch, the use of ad-blocking soft­ware globally is up more than 40 per cent over the past 12 months. Already the growth curve is starting to look like a hockey stick, and it’s bound to get steeper now that iOS 9, which launches tomorrow, will be support­ing it.

That same report, from Adobe and an anti-ad-blocking firm called Page­Fair, maintains that ad-blocking is going to cost the world’s Web pub­lishers nearly $22 billion this year. And this is happening just as the Internet is becoming the leading ad medium: In 2013, online advertising in the US approached $43 billion, passing broadcast television for the first time. The question is, what to do?

The first thing might be to check out the comments on the announcement of that Adobe/Page­Fair report. One user writes, “someone leaching (sic) off me to sell my brows­ing behavior without my per­mis­sion is morally bank­rupt. The model needs to die.” Another writes, “Maybe if the ads weren’t so bloated, annoy­ing, difficult to distin­guish from content all the time, and didn’t spread infec­tions through ad servers that are poorly main­tained they wouldn’t be blocked as much.” It goes on.

Jeff Jarvis argues that adver­tisers and publishers need to think in terms of building rela­tionships with users, offering services to help would-be consumers rather than just trying to sell stuff. I’ve long main­tained—most recently in an interview at Conta­gious—that adver­tisers need to stop interrupting people and start enter­tain­ing them. We both agree that the indus­try needs to adopt new measures of success that reflect the world as it is today.

Like TiVo with television, like piracy with the music business, ad-blocking is a wake-up call. Industry figures talk about a tacit “social contract” between online publishers and users of ad-supported media. But it’s a con­tract users don’t have any say in—and when people feel ex­ploited, and digital tech­nology gives them the means to do so, they’re going to tear that contract right up. Adver­tisers and pub­lish­ers love to revel in the data possibil­ities that digital pro­vides. But they treat their audiences as if we’re still living in the world of analog TV, when the only thing you could do about obnox­ious and intrus­ive ads was to get up and change the channel. Viewers are users now—and that means they’re going to write their own contract. Whether ads will have a place in it depends largely on how ad­vertisers behave.

The Sea We Swim In

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— Brian Boyd, author of "On the Origin of Stories" and emeritus professor of English at the University of Auckland


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