Commentary

A Seven-Year-Old Could Predict The Consequences Of Ad Blockers

“Your Aunt Trudi is coming over today,” said my mom. “And she always brings you chocolates. But I don’t want you to eat them. Give them to me instead. If you eat them, I won’t let you compete in the gymnastics tournament.”

“No problem!” I replied cheerfully. I was seven.

Aunt Trudi arrived, and handed me the chocolate box. I promptly took it to my room, ate half of it, and hid the rest in my drawer.

I was stunned when my mother discovered my deception almost immediately. What is she, some kind of magic ninja? I was even more stunned when she didn’t let me compete in the gymnastics tournament. Sure, she’d said it, but I couldn’t fathom that she meant it!

This is the nature of seven-year-olds: surprised by the obvious. Stunned by easily anticipated outcomes. Confused by the exact thing we all knew was going to happen.

Grown-ups, as it happens, are not much better.

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The newspaper industry is falling apart. Independent journalism is in crisis all over the world. Online advertising is both broken and bubbled.

And readers are installing ad blockers at unprecedented rates.

Give us the chocolates, they say. Do not eat them yourselves. We hold the power here.

Others agree. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, the World Federation of Advertisers, and "South Park” have all issued dire warnings about the consequences if the ad industry doesn’t manage to think of the people on the other end of the ads as, well, people.

To far too many publishers and advertisers, we are not people. We are less than human. We are not customers. We are a Cost of Goods Sold that happens to be free, mere inputs to be packaged and monetized.

Since we aren’t customers, we don’t need a customer experience. Since we are less than human, we don’t need a human interface. If there is a problem, the blame can only lie with us: for not knowing our place, for not participating in the manner that others decided we should.

This is what publishers are really saying when they berate the blockers (“We oppose ad blocking,” says New York Times CEO Mark Thompson), or when they block the blockers (the UK’s City AM shows blurry text to those who attempt to visit the page with ad blocking activated).

And -- without suggesting this was malicious or intentional -- it lends a certain irony when they infect the blockers with malware. A recent breach at Pagefair, which The Economist and 500 other publishers use to block ad blockers, meant visitors to those sites were exposed to a malicious remote-access tool.

With every new installation of an ad blocker, with every new survey or study, with every new industry exec (like Google’s top ad salesman) confirming the dire nature of the situation, publishers and advertisers are being warned: Give us the chocolates or you will not be going to the gymnastics championships. Except it’s not the gymnastics championships, is it? It’s their entire business model, collapsing.

There are some industry bright spots. Gawker Media head of programmatic Eyal Ebel has said ad blocking makes sense to him from the perspective of consumers and that Gawker will not fight ad blockers head-on. A Belgian ad agency, Boondoggle, is using ad blocker detection software to recruit creatives who understand how miserable the typical ad experience is. Around the world, people are applying effort and sensitivity to finding creative ways to make online publishing sustainable.

For the sake of the industry, we can only hope that other publishers follow in their footsteps -- that they are better at predicting eminently predictable consequences than a seven-year old is. I’m not so sure they are.

3 comments about "A Seven-Year-Old Could Predict The Consequences Of Ad Blockers ".
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  1. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, December 11, 2015 at 1:18 p.m.

    Kaila, ad blocking is not shocking -- the publishing non-reaction is truly unbelievable.  Mobile is even worse than desktop if you can fathom that.

    Thanks for putting it all into perspective, as you awlays do Kaila. 

  2. Nicholas Fiekowsky from (personal opinion), December 11, 2015 at 3:04 p.m.

    Same thing with TV. At 9:15 PM my wife thought we had a dilemma. One of her favorite PBS programs would start at 10:00, and we also wanted to watch the latest DVRed episode of a network show.

    I assured her there was no problem. We skipped the ads on the DVRed program, catching every second of the show. At closing credits we had more than enough time for a bio break before her PBS program started. Unfortunately, the network program is less engrossing as the writers attempt to squeeze a plausible "1 hour" episode into 40 minutes or less.

    "We're not making enough money on our soup (show)!"

    "I've got a great idea - we'll add more water (ads). Then we'll be more profitable!"

    "Fewer people are buying (watching) our soup (show)!"

    Lather, rinse & repeat.

  3. Michael Strassman from WGBH, December 16, 2015 at 12:50 p.m.

    Ya know, here's the problem...the media/ad industry is divided into two camps: those combatting ad blockers and those claiming (like the author) claiming that we need to make better ads to engage consumers, but hardly anyone is willing to state what is probably the case; there is NO way to make the majority of ads creative/engaging enough for the majority of consumers to want to watch. Until the Internet age, advertising had a very reasonable contract with people--you watch/listen to an occasional ad, and we'll provide content you like. It is still a reasonable exchange of value, except that consumers now have the power to eliminate the ads. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can create wildly engaging ads for the majority of products the majority of the time, such that consumers CHOOSE to watch them. Truth is, advertising doesn't have to be that good to be effective, which is a good thing because there's a limit on how many ads for mundane products can be as amusing as Old Spice. Unfortunately, we need to sieze back control of the viewing/listening experience (at least in regards to keeping the ads in) if advertising spots (as opposed to more involved, interactive campaigns) are to remain a viable marketing tactic. I suspect that there is no answer and that ad spots will cease to be effective, EXCEPT when they are compelling enough to stand on their own and be sought after on Youtube and social networks. As far as content producers are concerned, at the risk of being derided as backwards, I think they need to find a way to put the genie back in the bottle to an extent and make a pay-for-content model work. They're between a rock and a hard place...consumers block ads, but then say they think all content should be free. We can't win the technology race, but if people can't get the content they want, they will be forced to admit it's worth something...either their attention or a modest subscription fee.

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