Ad-blockers and vested interests

Anyone would think that ad-blocking had only just been invented, and that Apple had built it into iOS 9 and OS X 10.11. The hue and cry being raised, particularly from journalists who only a few weeks ago were writing about how so many companies (particularly in the advertising industry) were not protecting our privacy, is curious.

adblockers1One of the latest impassioned pleas against ad-blocking is from The Verge’s Editor-in-Chief, Nilay Patel. As you can see from the screenshot of his article, The Verge carries advertising. Indeed, founded in 2011, The Verge appears to have been built on a business model in which its income is primarily derived from advertising revenue. It is no small wonder that its co-founder and Editor-in-Chief should be a bit miffed when something comes along which might threaten that revenue, and the same can be said of many of the commentators who are criticising Apple’s move on ad-blocking.

It is disappointing, therefore, that none of these commentators has had the guts to stand back, put themselves in the position of the user or customer, and consider their interests.

What is wrong with online ads

There is a growing feeling of resentment, amounting at times to barefaced hatred, of online advertising among many users. This not because we don’t like advertising, although I confess that I would much prefer a world in which it did not seem needed. It is because the advertising industry has gone too far.

Current advertising is too pervasive, obtrusive, and intrusive. With the notable exception of Wikipedia, there are remarkably few websites which do not include some form of advertising (one reason why I will not have ads here: we need the break!).

adblockers2The UK Met Office, a Government-funded agency, even puts ads on its National Severe Weather Warnings page, and on many of its other pages. So there you are, floodwaters rising, no power, and you manage to get your iPhone to connect to the rainfall radar page to see whether the rain is easing off. And you have to wait for some banner trying to sell you suntan cream.

Although the eye-popping days of conventional popups are mercifully long past, advertisers still force you to wait five, ten seconds or more before you can choose to go to the page that you wanted, whilst you studiously ignore some tedious ad of theirs. They may even try to be deceptive, and trick you into clicking on their ad: CNET’s is a good example of that. Interestingly, CNET has started blocking access to those who are using ad-blockers, according to Dave Mark at Loop Insight.

Most online ads, even if they are tracker-based, are also horribly non-contextual. When I bought a Mac magazine, I expected the great majority of ads to be Mac-related. So why are online adverts almost entirely unrelated to the site which you are trying to browse? I have lost count of the number of times that, whilst visiting a Mac website, I keep getting offered Windows products. At first it is just irritating, but day after day it infuriates.

Tracking is of course based upon information gathered about you, often stolen unawares from your browser and its history. Although there are options now to monitor such tracking, and to turn it off, these do not address the continuing concerns about privacy. As I remarked above, it is peculiar that so many of those today attacking ad-blocking also present themselves as being concerned to protect our privacy. Most people also find tracking extremely spooky and discomforting.

Who pays for online ads?

Then there are issues relating to cost and value. Ads are paid for by the companies whose products are being advertised, and thus part of the cost of those products which we have to pay. Ultimately the consumer pays for the advertising: I have yet to discover an ad company which does not charge its clients, or a company which only uses charitable donations to fund its advertising budget. There are sectors of commerce whose products cost only a tiny fraction of the retail price, but whose advertising spend is a considerably greater proportion, which strikes me as absurd.

However, ads cost us more directly too. Particularly when using a mobile device such as an iPhone, the bandwidth consumed by ads is paid for by us. It would be a fascinating exercise to estimate how much of the world total Internet bandwidth is actually being consumed by ads: I suspect that it is neither insignificant, nor falling.

What value do we, as consumers and users, obtain from all this incessant bombardment with ads? Are they informative, aiding our buying decisions? How many significant purchase decisions can you say originated from, or were influenced by, online ads?

Advertising has also poisoned our search engines. For me, this is most noticeable when searching for paintings in Google. Type in ‘monet bathers’, for example, and you will see that at least two of the first page of hits (nine in total) are commercial sites offering to sell you copies, a further six on the second page, and so on. For some search terms it is now hard to find any results which are not commercial advertisers.

Need for reflection

I think that, rather than trying to get us to share their angst about their commercial strategy or blocking blockers, the advertising industry and those dependent on it – including most professional journalists – need to reflect first about what is so wrong with online advertising that we must not be allowed to block it.

Surely to goodness, if an advertiser is doing their job well, we should welcome their ads – just as we used to for many of the iconic campaigns of the past: Cadbury’s Milk Tray touch of James Bondery, Hovis’s homely sepias, Silk Cut’s stunningly enigmatic photographs, Christmas specials on TV, and so on.

The greatest indictment of online advertising is that there is not a single ad which I can recall, nor one which I felt was impressive, or even vaguely interesting.

A healthy advertising industry should see ad-blockers as a challenge to the creative in them, to return to ads which people look at, recall, and do not want to block.

A healthy online publishing industry should see ad-blockers as a jolt out of their complacency, to come up with new and exciting business models, rather than thrust tired old ones at us, or block those using ad-blockers like kids bickering in the playground.

And Apple should be praised, not for finally enabling ad-blocking as many others have been doing for a good while already, but for enabling content-blocking, which could see wider and bigger benefits, perhaps to safeguard our children from adult content without the spectre of censorship, and for us all to safeguard our privacy.