Silent Spring, The Sequel

Whose fault is it?

Whose fault is it that ad blockers are the 21st century’s version of DDT, and as indiscriminately deployed, ridding us of a pestilence (pop-ups, autoplay, slow-loads, remnant spam, malware) but also doing grave harm to useful ad species and the publishing ecosystem as a whole?

Is it advertisers’ fault? They inundate us with both highly interruptive junk of no personal relevance and creepily targeted or re-targeted pitches that are so personally relevant they give us all the heebie jeebies. They’ve all but abandoned attempts at thoughtful engagement versus various ways of getting between us and the content until we can fumble to x them out of our way.

Is it publishers’ fault? As they moved online, they put all their chips on advertising, which had made them so obscenely profitable for three centuries. They failed to reckon with a few important realities:

1)     Much of their audience scale would be "trash" audience, with no value to advertisers.



2)     The glut of online content supply would be paralleled by a glut in ad inventory, driving down prices and necessitating much more clutter.

3)     People hate ads. Hate 'em. As often mentioned in this space, despite mindless commonplaces as "The ads are better than the programming" and the occasional crossover into pop culture, ads have never been anything but what we have to put up with in order to get free and subsidized content. Essentially, all ads are spam.

4)     By going all-in on this strategy, they cemented the notion that all content deserves to be free -- giving license to the public to renounce the historical quid pro quo.

Is it the fault of frauds and criminals, who lure us constantly into rabbit holes of sleaze, interrupting us, infecting us, deceiving us, defrauding us until we are at our wits’ end and just desperate to free ourselves from their onslaught?

Is it consumers’ fault? We were not born yesterday. We know that everything we visit online had a cost to produce, and that our part of the deal is a grudging acceptance of advertising. Anyone who sets up an ad blocker -- even the ones spouting the empty-headed nonsense about content being free -- knows he’s a freeloader. But it’s like stealing cable or sharing all-you-can-eat-salad-bar items or watching a second movie at the multiplex. It’s easy, and it feels like a righteous repudiation of The Man. Plus, while perhaps evidence of poor citizenship, it is totally legal.

Is it the ad-blocker publishers? They are like gun manufacturers. They know their product is important when used judiciously by the right people in the right circumstances, but that it is ruinous to the entire society (and many innocent victims) when it is available to everybody. They may not be legally culpable for the damage, but they have blood on their hands. In fact, that’s just what Marco Arment concluded after his ad-blocking app, Peace, catapulted to the top of download charts. On his blog, Arment explained why he withdrew his adbuster blockbuster after only 36 hours:

Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.

Is it Apple? By making its new IOS 9 hospitable to blocking apps, it is fortifying its advantages over other content sellers. You’d be excused for believing this is no coincidence, that what’s bad for Facebook, Google and Yahoo is very, very good for Apple.

Is it nobody’s fault? What publishers are experiencing, after all, is the logical outcome of technological change. The steam engine changed the economics of manufacturing, destroying the livelihoods of many a cobbler and seamstress. Yes, the change unleashed some of the uglier dimensions of runaway capitalism, but who exactly is to blame?

The answer with ad blocking, I suppose, is: everybody.Everybody and nobody. We are merely seeing the convergence of technology, denial, opportunism, rationalization, strategic blunder and human frailty to further undermine an economic sector already buffeted by digital revolution.

Nobody is pure in this, but the one true culprit is inevitability.








8 comments about "Silent Spring, The Sequel".
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  1. Michael Lynn from ECD Consulting, September 21, 2015 at 8:15 a.m.

    I think the last iine says it all.

  2. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., September 21, 2015 at 10:12 a.m.

    Sharp piece as always, but I don't completely agree with your paragraph about the consumers. Using an incognito window to get around the limits on sites that count how many article you can read, would be freeloading. But installing an ad-blocker is not. Did any consumer ever sign an agreement with a publisher stating their "grudging acceptance of advertising?" I think not.

    In my opinion publishers should shoulder the bulk of the blame. Advertisers are doing what they are supposed to do: push their offerings. Consumers are doing what they are supposed to do: consuming content. Publishers on the other hand are NOT doing what they are supposed to do: generate content.

    The problem in my opinion is that, faced with uncertainty, most publishers took the low road. Rather than thinking of new positive ways to leverage the amazing technologies that exist, they threw their hands up in the air and made their properties increasingly annoying. I look forward to the day that someone does for publishing what Apple did for music: find a revolutionary model that maximizes the all-around benefits of digital, rather than fighting it.

  3. Mark Silber from, September 21, 2015 at 11:49 a.m.

    I blame advertisers and agencies for clinging to the model of advertising as an annoying interruption. When that interruption became avoidable people chose to avoid it. The future of advertising lies in the realm of native (properly identified) that respects the intelligence of the users and adds value to the user experience - and users choose whether to engage.

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, September 21, 2015 at 12:35 p.m.

    By this logic, anyone who leaves the room during a commercial break is a freeloader, no different than a cable thief. God forbid I talk to my kids during a commercial.

  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 21, 2015 at 1:17 p.m.

    Mark, your notion of the "unwanted ad" business model is not really accurate. When radio and then TV came on the scene, everyone---including the viewers and/or listeners ---understood that being able to watch the shows they enjoyed had a cost associated with it and ads were that price. Only then, there weren't so many of them. In magazines, ads are even welcomed---especially when they tie into editorial content, as has been demonstrated many times. The problem is the sheer volume of ads and the fact that most viewers are now paying out hard earned cash just to access TV shows they once got for free.

    You are also wrong about the contention---implied in your post----that just about everyone who can, now avoids commercials. Not so. Yes, some people skip ads almost all of the time and others---including myself--- do so, sometimes, but like it or not, many viewers, who could avoid TV ads, do not avoid them. There's plenty of evidence on this score also.

    As for "native advertising", which is mainly the art of tricking the audience into getting some degree of ad exposure, it remains to be seen whether this is the "future" of advertising or merely a short-lived ploy. Whether this form of advertising will evolve into somwething that, as you say, "respects the intelligence of the users", depends on a lot of factors, including the publishers' inherent hunger for ad dollars and the "integrity" of advertisers and agencies. We shall see.

  6. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates, September 21, 2015 at 3:35 p.m.

    Adblockers are a great example of a violation of Kant's categorical imperative:  "Acts are not moral if you cannot universalize them without self-contradiction."   That means that it's immoral if -- by urging everyone to do what you're doing -- you lose the benefit of the act yourself.  

    *   Telling everyone to lie means that lying will no longer work for anyone.   So I can't universalize lying (and call it moral) without contradicting the intent of the act.   If everyone lies, you'll soon find that no one believes any of the lies you come up with.   You've lost the benefit of lying when everyone does it.

    *  In the same way, it's not moral to tell everyone to drive an SUV.   If I "universalize" SUVs -- tell everyone to drive one -- I lose the benefit of being higher up than smaller vehicles and I lose the benefit of being safer in a bigger vehicle.  Driving an SUV isn't moral because if everyone did it, no one would benefit.

    *   And telling everyone to use an adblocker means that I soon won't get the benefit of the information on the web, since no one will be paying the content producers.   Thus, it's not moral to use adblockers, since the people using them want the content.

    Immanuel Kant figured this all out in 1785 or so.  That was before the Internet, I think.  

  7. Mary Hodder from dabble, September 26, 2015 at 1:25 p.m.

    200 million people boycott the Ads [ad - malware - tracking scheme] and you think that's DDT? People don't want it.. make something they want.. and they won't boycott your technology - biz model.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 10, 2015 at 6:25 p.m.

    It is not about ads; it it about the greed in the volume of ads. Cut the volume and cut the ad blocking. It really is that simple.

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