Commentary

Nature

We are long past when these things were just headaches. Fraud. Non-viewability. Low CTRs. Banner blindness. For years they were treated as nuisances, transitory and manageable. Pop some Advil in Adville and soldier on.

I guess the powers that be can stop pretending now. What we face is a bona fide existential threat, and we know that because of precisely who is, loudly and in public, yelping in pain. That would be my friend Randall Rothenberg, the brilliant, thoughtful and very much besieged president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Writing in Ad Age last week, Randy howled like a man whose foot had been run over by a bus, and in a way it has been. The subject was ad blocking, its causes and effects -- all of which are agonizing for advertiser and publisher alike.

“Ad blocking disrupts this engine of competition,” Randy wrote. “I wish I were crying wolf, but I'm not. Some websites, particularly those with millennial audiences, are already losing up to 40% of their ad revenue because of ad blocking. Our own IAB research found at least 34% of U.S. adults use ad blockers.”

That percentage, of course, will spike with the proliferation of the iPhone’s blocker-friendly iOS9. It is, indeed, hard to run the engine of competition when somebody clogs the fuel line. Although that metaphor doesn’t quite obtain, because it describes a physical act of vandalism which deploying legal software on your devices isn’t, exactly. It also isn’t quite the two crimes Randy alleges, either:

“As abetted by for-profit technology companies, ad blocking is robbery, plain and simple -- an extortionist scheme that exploits consumer disaffection and risks distorting the economics of democratic capitalism. When implemented by consumers, ad blocking is a crucial wakeup call to brands and all that serve them about their abuse of consumers' good will.”

Robbery? Like splicing into the neighbor’s cable? Nope. That act is plainly theft, because it is physically tapping into a service otherwise available only for money under contract. While for centuries there has been a tacit compact between audience and publisher that putting up with advertising is part of the deal, that quid pro quo has never been explicit or contractual. It hasn’t even been a gentlemen’s agreement, because one of the gentlemen was never, ever asked to agree.

When the Internet began, despite loud warnings from those of us with common sense, publishers proceeded as if the public would be fine with business as usual. Instead, provided for the first time in history with the option of avoiding advertising, the public -- duh -- avoided advertising. That’s why advertisers literally have to block our online path, shoving the advertising between us and the content -- until we frantically locate and click on the elusive x -- in order to “engage.”

Yo, engage this. But I digress.

Extortion. It’s easy to see why Randy smells a shakedown. The largest of the software distributors, Adblock Plus, will -- in exchange for a fee from large advertisers -- “whitelist” certain ads it deems acceptable. The fee, it swears, is not a profit center but just a way to recoup the cost of hiring live human beings to evaluate individual ads as follows:

1.     Acceptable Ads are not annoying.

2.     Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we're trying to read.

3.     Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.

4.     Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.

5.     Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.

At first blush the template seems not unreasonable. Note, however, that the pure of heart over at Adblock Plus think images within the ad are generally disqualifying. Images. Their Ad-topia is a cemetery of tombstones. There’s also the question of who the hell they are to be the arbiters of acceptability? It’s like having vegans create the Food Pyramid.

But no, Randy. They aren’t extortionists. They are vigilantes roaming a vast, lawless territory, where robbers of your acquaintance do steal with impunity, where self-policing is a farce and where -- as a consequence -- the citizens are on the side of whoever is on their side. After having been abused for 20 years by advertisers, ad networks and unscrupulous and craven publishers, they are just plain fed up. And you understand that, because you said it yourself:

“IAB research shows ad-block use is caused by a general disdain for advertising and concern about the safety of user information. In our nationally representative survey, 89% of respondents who have installed ad-blocking technology reported using ad blockers to improve their experience. The ads deemed most intrusive are video ads that play automatically, screen takeovers, and blinking ads -- all ad types that directly disrupt the consumption of content.”

Yeah, Randy, you sorta have been injured by a bus, but it isn’t the Adblock Plus bus; it’s the shuttle carrying your own members, who have heaped abuse, contempt and quite often deceit on users and show no signs of stopping. As you said…

“We are mistreating our most valuable asset -- our consumers…. We can (and should) contemplate suing unethical ad-blocking profiteers out of business. But until we commit to the cause of ever-improving user experiences, advertisers and media will be at risk.”

Sue unethical ad-blockers? I’d like to know the cause of action, but go crazy -- just as long as you’re prepared to defend suits about unethical native advertising (i.e., most native advertising) that seek to drive deceptive marketers out of business. For though you see compelling native as a potential solution, it is actually just another flagrant abuse that, like autoplay and takeovers, should have been on your list.

But to get back to where I began, I feel your pain. And you are right: the wolves really are headed for the flock, and you are but one shepherd crying out. Which is sad to witness.

But Randy, as I’ve been trying to explain for years, that isn’t a crime. What is threatening the flock, my friend, is nothing more sinister than nature.

11 comments about "Nature".
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  1. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, October 12, 2015 at 10:27 a.m.

    AMEN.

  2. Mark Addison from Code Case, October 12, 2015 at 12:10 p.m.

    The 'Arbiters of Acceptability' are in fact not Adblock Plus, but an open PUBLIC forum: https://adblockplus.org/forum/viewforum.php?f=12

  3. Michael Lynn from Storandt Pann Margolis, October 12, 2015 at 12:12 p.m.

    Bob, your Chaos Theory was dead on and so is this.  I beleive that if people had the chance to block ads on TV or radio, they'd do it.  But instead, they often walk out of the room or switch stations.  The digerati created their own monster:  too many ads; too many irrelevant ads; over promise on targeting; viewability problems; bots; and now adblockers.  For whatever resasons they have done little to fix all that preceded the adblocker revolution.  And now the ones who claimed they were learning so much about human behavior with all thier tags and cookies weren't prpared for the obvious...and somethimg most traditional media folks like myself have known for a long time.  People don't really care much for ads. And given the chance, they'll turn them off.  It may hurt the smaller/long tail publishers but whoever said that all would or should survive?  And to listen to the whining from the digital folks is only a reminder that they were not prepared.  I ramble but I just had to jump in to say THNX for an insightful and thought provoking piece.  I've been able to adapt well to the digital ad wolrd (a misnomer but that's for another email) and marketplace but have been waiting for the first shoe to drop.  The next one will be proivacy issues once people begin to realize that Google is more of a problem than the NSA ;0)

    MIKE LYNN

  4. Rick waghorn from addiply, October 12, 2015 at 12:45 p.m.

    For those who have ever watched Cindy Gallop in action - at the Guardian's Changing Advertising Summit, for example - might recognise what follows.

    Her call to arms in terms of the ad industry re-inventing itself 'from the core' centred around delivering 'advertising for good' as opposed to good advertising... Wherein lies a huge world of difference.

    For the last 18-24 months, I have concentrated all my energy and efforts on working to deliver emergency alerts to a hyperlocal audience on their mobile phone with the 'Message' to be contextual to the user both by their geographical location *and* their location within that individual app experience.

    Something we let the app publisher decide.

    Now if I am sat at that bus stop on Oxford St, or Fifth Ave, taking full advantage of the metro transport system's free wifi, what ad am I likely to block? The takeover ad from DNKY - or the message that there is a terrorist incident in progress a block away?

    And if I'm Mr AdBlock-Plus, I'm going to have a hard time morally justifying why I need to block that... When its an ad that's so good, it can save your life.

    Marry local ads that are relevant, non-intrusive and non-interruptive to alerts that can keep me and mine safe, and advertising has a rich future. If you view the world from the hyperlocal bottom up and not from algorithm and brand down...

  5. Irwin Starr from Landings Eagle, October 12, 2015 at 12:46 p.m.

    Bob couldn't have been more RIGHT ON!

  6. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., October 12, 2015 at 12:57 p.m.

    Bob - thank you for another insightful and incisive piece. Mr. Rothenberg would do well to listen to people like you and Ari.

  7. Bo Sacks from Precision Media Group, October 12, 2015 at 1:09 p.m.

    Bob, as the biblical ad department expression goes, “as ye sow, so shall ye reap.”  The ad community has been deceitful and delusional for decades, Mad Men included in that statement, although in the old traditional days it was less obvious. We wonder about the public’s reaction to the abuse of intrusive ads everywhere, even in toilets. Have you no shame, Mr. Advertising Community?  In most cases the answer has been decidedly, No!  No shame, whatsoever.


    With the advent of digital processes, the abuses have hit ultra-drive and the intrusion into our private lives is constant and painful. Randall Rothenberg has no problem with that. He does have a problem with the public’s ability to prevent some, if not all, of the exploitation. Go figure.


    I think at the end of the day things will shake out and we might, just might, get back to Transactional Media, where you have content that you like and you’re willing to pay for it. Could Transactional Media include ads? Yes. But only those ads that the paying public will tolerate. We have talked about the new power of the informed public, but until now I don’t think that power has been fully understood. 

  8. Mark Silber from SILBER.nyc, October 12, 2015 at 1:19 p.m.

    Onion headline, arrived moments ago:
    WOMAN STALKED ACROSS 8 WEBSITES BY OBSESSED SHOE ADVERTISEMENT

    Translation:
    Ad-blocker damage to media-industrial complex is self-inflicted.



     

  9. Randall Tinfow from CLICK-VIDEO LLC, October 12, 2015 at 1:21 p.m.

    Bingo.

    It's inevitable that the receipt of advertising will be a consumer choice, elected when desire for information is great.  It's our job to provide irresistable ads in the appropriate context.

  10. Randall Tinfow from CLICK-VIDEO LLC replied, October 12, 2015 at 1:25 p.m.

    Mark Silber, that's the truth!

  11. barry letzer from Merging Medias, October 12, 2015 at 3:25 p.m.

    Bob, you are a very illuminated public commentator of the complex relationship between publisher and 'published to'.....whomever that may be.....and have brought to the Online Ecosystem, a well worn comprehension of the dynamics in play within that "Messaging Matrix".
    However valid the points made in this piece, you leave out the "Causation" in almost diabolical detail.....for what you cover here as response to what is now going on in protest....misses so much of the underlying reasons that this 'new' phenomenom has broken out the way it has.


    Why not simply replace the name Google instead of Ad-Block Plus and see what you come away with...for it is Google who is the #1 culprit as the SOURCE of these very vexing problems of 'ad-blocking'...for it is they and they alone who first got the body politic of 'Consumers' to abide by their RULES OF ENGAGEMENT as GATEKEEPER for how businesses are able to "Message" their intent and purpose and the public has simply never been the same.....for no where does any Google figure come to the surface to explain their reasonings for how they have now co-opted the entire Value Chain of Messaging and used their prminence to first  isolate and then compel every other entity to do their bidding their way. Nothing has ever altered the "Social Contract" more than this....and it is this that underlies the complex problem of seeking a way into the public's mind that causes 'others' to seek such drastic ways of infiltrating the "Message Stream". If Google were brought to task for everything they have done to advance "THEIR" cause of being in CONTROL of the world's information, whilst "Not Being Evil" then perhaps we would not be here now bemoaning the 'Nature' of the current incarnation of Survival of the Fittest ~!~

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