Every so often a news event comes along that seems bigger than the news it is actually making. That’s the way I feel about the news surrounding the ad-blocking features of Apple’s iOS 9. I don’t think people are reacting to the Apple news itself so much as it represents a tipping point for something that has been building for some time. The truth is that ad blockers have been around a long, long time. I would venture to say, as long as there has been advertising. But every time a new technology comes along that gives people more control over whether, why and when they are exposed to an ad, well, it’s the end of the world as we know it. Right?
Wrong. But let me make my case by first asking you to read this:
“Forty years from now when you have your grandson on your knee and he asks you, ''Grandma, how did 50 million Americans ever let themselves be talked into buying the same mouthwash?'' you will say, ''Well, you have to know how things were before Aug. 4, 1997.''
That anecdote was written 15 years ago by author Michael Lewis to explain how new ad-blocking technology -- the digital video recorder -- would essentially end the world of television as we know it. In fact, in that New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, “Boom Box,” Lewis went on to say:
“The black box obviously does not mean the end of commercial television, only of commercial television as we know it.” Fifteen years later, TV advertising is bigger than ever. And even though the media like to point out how faster-growing digital media continues to grow its advertising share, TV ad spending continues to grow.
It grows for one simple reason: TV advertising continues to work. If it didn’t, an awful lot of brands would go out of business, including some television ones.
To understand why the DVR hasn’t destroyed TV advertising as we know it, you have to understand some things about human nature that transcend technology -- and technological prognostications. People have, and always will, avoid ads when they are annoying, irrelevant or interrupt the experience they’re actually trying to have.
Some years ago, Brian Monahan, now vice president of marketing at Walmart.com, made this point in a very visceral way while speaking at a MediaPost event. Monahan, then head of Interpublic’s Magna Global unit, was presenting data on TV commercial avoidance when he turned to the audience and said: “The biggest threat to our TV commercials is not the DVR. It’s people turning their heads.”
I’ve written about that anecdote before, but I’m bringing it up again now, because I think it bears repeating now that smart people are making similar predictions about ad blockers being the demise of digital advertising as we know it.
Since Apple’s iOS announcement, I have gotten several pitches a day for stories, points of view, commentaries and data pointing how ad blockers will be the demise of the “free Internet.” My own esteemed colleague, MediaPost columnist Bob Garfield, a man whose opinion about media I respect greatly, compares iOS 9 to the media ecosystem what DDT was to planet earth’s ecosystem in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
What surprises me about these reactions is that ad blocking -- and ad blockers -- are not new. I’ve seen estimates in recent years that as much as 40% of all browsers have some sort of ad-blocking software installed on them. If so, that makes ad blockers akin to or greater than “viewability,” “non-human traffic” and outright fraud as the leading existential threat to digital media.
Look, I’m not saying technology isn’t important. It definitely augments and accelerates human behaviors. And when those behaviors are in conflict with industrial business models, well, you know, something’s going to lose. But the funny thing about existential threats is we only look at the ones we can see, not the ones that are invisible to us, because we don’t have the data to look at them. If you ask me, piracy is as big an existential threat to the digital media economy as any of the bogeys I cite above. But it’s not as emotionally charged an issue as ad blockers are right now, because no one knows how to get their arms around it.
The biggest reason to be concerned about ad blockers isn’t technology, or even the behaviors it manifests. It’s the reason why those behaviors exist. You know, human nature. People will avoid something they consider annoying, irrelevant or that interrupts an experience they actually want to have. They will do that by pushing a button, by installing software, or simply by turning their head. Unless Apple is working on a technology that will force people to look at ads when they don’t want to (oh wait, that’s right, they even own a patent for that), people have and always will ignore, block, bypass or turn their ads from ads they don’t want to see (or hear).
The job of advertising and the media industry is to figure out how to keep them from turning their heads. You do that by giving people reasons not to block ads in the first place. Now this is easier said than done, and it can take on many forms, but I’m confident that great brands, agencies and media providers will figure out how to do that. Some of it may be done by making ads that don’t look like ads, but look like content. So long as they are genuine content experiences and don’t misrepresent what they are to consumers, that could be a good thing.
Another way might be good, old-fashioned creativity: Actually making ads that people don’t want to avoid. That might seem like heresy, but at the height of the DVR, ad-zapping frenzy, MediaPost, CBS and InsightExpress collaborated on a study that asked viewers if they ever used their DVRs to pause, rewind or record TV commercials explicitly for the reason of watching the commercials. Amazingly, about 4% of consumers surveyed said they used their “black box” to look at ads, not block them. Now that might not seem like a significant percentage, but it was completely self-reported and those respondents were going against the politically correct answer we all expect to hear.
With the exception of certain control situations, no one knows what the real level of ad avoidance is in society, but 15 years after Michael Lewis’ “Boom Box,” TV is still the apex medium.I’m not saying ad blockers aren’t a threat. Anymore than I’m not saying people don’t use DVRs to skip TV commercials. But the biggest threat they represent is to ads people don’t want to see.