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.