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So let’s get this straight: online ad blocking is not new. Since the dawn of the web, people have been trying and buying a variety of ways to stop the blinking, flashing and irritation. And as more and more options like Chrome extensions and mobile plugins have become available, in recent years ad blocking has become more widespread amongst a non-tech audience. But over the last couple of months, ad blocking has begun to pop up in more and more industry forums, vendor pitches and marketing meetings. There was the widely distributed study suggesting far wider use of ad blocking than previously thought. Then there was the tale of the celebrated app developer who famously announced it ‘just doesn’t feel good’ to make ad blocking software. And of course, when Apple moves, people take note. By incorporating ad blocking features into its Safari browser in iOS9, the industry conversation has recently moved from a constant mumble into a noisey bar room public debate.
From a behavioural consumption perspective, this feels like it might just be a natural evolution from TV’s ad-skipping and time-shifting. Alternatively, ad blocking could be seen as part of the progression from listening to commercial radio to paying Spotify and others to help us avoid ads completely. But when it comes to online advertising, it’s hard not to consider that we may be going into a cycle of ‘Creative destruction’. This is a term, also know as ‘Schupmter’s Gale’, coined by economist Joseph Schumpter, that describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, destroying the old one and incessantly creating a new one”. In other words, in this case the online ad industry might well be eating itself from within, a process hastened by its own dodgy practices, like bloated code and ad assets, and its appetite for ultimate revenue at the expense of usability and privacy. Are ad blocking people the real problem?
Then there’s the ethics of ad blocking. Publishers, and all sorts of makers of online content, could have today’s types of revenue streams decimated in a world that embraces turning off ads. It will be the long tail of publishers hit hardest, those that don’t have close relationships with brands or agencies thus are not able to collaborate on bespoke content or arrangements. As consumers, many of us claim that if ad platforms behaved themselves, we wouldn’t object to ads at all. Or if we could simply pay publishers and creators for the content that we end up consuming every month, we’d be fine with that. But what we say and how we act are often two very different things. And many smaller publishers may not have the time to find out.
With fat ad creative and intrusive tracking code, it’s mobile users that get hit hardest. Getting rid of mobile ads can help reduce unwanted data collection and privacy infractions – and massively save on mobile data bills. It’s conceivable that with the move to mobile for the majority of our daily online activities, combined with the increasingly available mobile ad avoidance options, we’ll see a huge spike in ad blocking on our favourite devices. Mobiles put all issues of usability right up in your face – and there’s no bigger impediment to content consumption than bad ads.
Much of the industry is looking to native advertising to retain an embedded marketing presence in front of the ad blockers. But there are concerns that many of these native ad units may also fall foul of blocking software. The report from Adobe and Pagefair recently estimated ad blockers will cost publishers nearly $22 billion in revenue this year, and that nearly 200 million people worldwide already regularly block ads. These numbers seem on the high side compared to other estimates, but they surely suggest that the issue isn’t unsubstantial.
The IAB has now admitted we all messed up. A tidal wave of ad blocking might still only be on the horizon, but in the meantime let’s try and make better ads, use empathetic formats, let’s temper our greed, and for god’s sake, think of the children!