2015's Constant Bummers: Viewability And Ad Blockers

One of the most remarkable--but unremarked-upon-- occurrences of 2015 was the admission by the IAB that the business screwed up. 

Except for extraordinary mistakes, like Volkswagen’s pollution control deception, it's not often we get that kind of blunt talk .

So in October, when Scott Cunningham, IAB’s vice president of technology and ad operations more or less apologized for the basic trajectory of Internet advertising  that was kind of a big deal. 

“We messed up,” he wrote on the IAB’s blog.

“The fast, scalable systems of targeting users with ever-heftier advertisements have slowed down the public Internet and drained more than a few batteries. We were so clever and so good at it that we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves,” Cunningham wrote. “This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience. . .The rise of ad blocking poses a threat to the Internet and could potentially drive users to an enclosed platform world dominated by a few companies. We have let the fine equilibrium of content, commerce, and technology get out of balance in the open Web. . . We lost sight of our social and ethical responsibility to provide a safe, usable experience for anyone and everyone wanting to consume the content of their choice.”

Cunningham’s comments, and the IABs proposal for a path toward solutions, came amid increased concern about the twin threats of viewability scammers and ad blocking technology. In the circular way a lot of media problems evolve, ad blockers exist to blot out a glut of advertising, and bots and hidden frames exist because there’s such a glut of advertising out there it’s easy to dupe the market. They’re kind of a tag team.

There are various estimates out there, but possibly as many as half the ads served online are non-viewable, even now. (As a corollary, competing measurements of viewable ads is its own business, which has its own Alice in Wonderland quality). The outdoor advertising industry even launched its You Are Real campaign (“You are consuming an advertisement. You are real,”  one of the campaign’s billboards reads) to highlight the online madness.

Throwing ads everywhere angered users. They turned, increasingly, to blockers. Until this year, using ad blockers on a smartphone was difficult but the new ability to do so latest model iOS systems seemed to capture everybody’s interest and attention, because unwanted advertising is a really lame way to exceed monthly data caps.

And on desktops, young adults are the most likely to use ad blockers---as many as 35% of users 18-24 in the U.S. use them, and about 30% of users 25-34.

Digital boosters excitedly point out that young people are turning off TV and are more accustomed, now, to streaming alternatives. But if the big growing cluster of the population is racing toward ad-free pay models or using ad blockers, they seem to be very willfully choosing to avoid ads. It’s not just consumers who are missing the messages. It’s also the messengers.

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