Commentary

Ad Assassin: The Mobile Game

Shhh! Be vewy vewy quiet. I’m hunting adwewtising. He, he, he, he, he, he, he.

Bam! Got you, you scwewy intewstitial.

I have to admit I felt a bit like the wiseass Bugs Bunny walking through the business plan of the Ad Hunter model for mobile.

I will give its creator Oz Nakash credit for being bold and imaginative. At CES this week, even though he wasn’t there, he spoke with me from HQ in Israel. Ad Hunter announced itself as a “social game” that allows mobile users to gain golden coins and recruit friends to hunt and disable ads in their apps.  

Releasing this week for IOS, he promises, the app is supposed to let you tap and hold on ads in third-party apps to make them “magically gone.” And you get a bounty for finding and dismissing the ad.

Oz’s vision is that this is one way to allow for subscription-based access to ad-free or ad-limited apps that would benefit both consumer and publisher. The idea is to build a content ecosystem where users pay one monthly fee. He is talking between $1 and $5 a month based, perhaps, on different levels of ad exposure. Part of the idea is that the system does not necessarily eliminate all ads so much as add a better layer of personal preference and crowdsourced profiling to an ad filter. Users would only see ads that their own preferences and others’ behaviors determine is of interest to that user. Of course the ad exchanges and nets would argue that they already do this through their own targeting, which is believable only if you never used a smartphone app. And rather than just making freedom from ads a main lure for subscribers, Oz is urging publishers to give subscribers more premium features or content as well.

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Oz plans to split the subscription revenue with apps based on that user’s share of time spent among the member apps. Publishers would get credit for use by installing a small SDK in their app to detect usage. Oz promises that shortly after launch there will be an A/B test of apps with and without Ad Hunter’s impact and rev share. If the paid model can’t provide a 30% lift in revenue for the publisher over standard ad revenue, then he admits it won’t be worth doing.

Even without considering the technical hurdles here, the basic plan goes against much of what we have learned about digital content users. In fact, people complain about ads but are not much willing to pay to eliminate them. Their acceptance of an ad supported ecosystem for most kinds of content may be grudging, but it is unassailable. Netflix, HBO, cable are exceptions, but they are high-value smorgasbord subscription services of a wholly different kind from Ad Hunter.  

But beyond that, there is the technical hurdle. I have to admit more than a little skepticism that Ad Hunter actually will be able to operate in other people’s apps without permission in order to snipe ads. Oz assures me the technology works and that is based on establishing a VPN that is able to monitor all network traffic to capture ad networks.

I won’t profess to understand OSes on that molecular level, but I will wait to actually see any single app control traffic to a phone at that high a level. More to the point, I find it hard to believe Apple would let the app stand, given that it both toys with other apps without permission and undermines Apple’s own ad network model.

Oz insists that Ad Hunter did live briefly in the App Store to conduct “under the radar” tests that proved the concept would work. And he argues that the technology stays within Apple development guidelines.

I will wait for the actual launch of Ad Hunter before passing judgment, despite skepticism. I identify with any project aimed at neutralizing mobile display ads. I have argued for years that we should be able to do a lot better than that on this platform. Browser-like ad blocking in apps? I am not so sure that is the right route to a food end. Best case scenario, schemes like Ad Hunter press publishers to think harder about what advertising/marketing really should look like on an intimate device.

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