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It's Time To Get Serious About Ad Blocking

10/28/2015 03:45 EDT | Updated 10/28/2016 05:12 EDT
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Much has been said about ad blocking in the last few months. The good, the bad, and the ugly. To the average person, ad blocking seems like a non-issue. Just another mechanism to reduce unwanted friction in their everyday lives -- the digital equivalent of a 'no junk mail' sign on their mailbox. But not unlike Uber, or Napster, ad blocking has brought with it a major challenge to the way people do business. And there's no putting the genie back in the bottle.

To quickly summarize for the non-industry crowd, the reason ad blocking has been met with so much fervor, is that it challenges the very basis upon which much of the Internet is run and financed. The public accesses content for free, in exchange for seeing ads that produce income for the creators of such content. The ethical dilemma has been framed as the following: does the public have a right to both consume the content, and block ads?

One Ad Age contributor has even gone as far as to call ad blocking "an extortionist scheme that exploits consumer disaffection and risks distorting the economics of democratic capitalism." Notably, this fellow was the President and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). IAB has since issued an apology for lacking all sense in the matter.

Well, regardless of whether it's right or wrong, it's happening. And it's happening because the public is tired of ugly, poorly targeted, malicious, and bandwidth heavy ads for products they'll never buy, from companies they don't care about.

Consider the following comments on an article about Ad Blocking via The Atlantic:

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We are inundated with information on a daily basis. It's estimated that a person is exposed to about 5000 ads daily. Five thousand. How many of those do you think people remember? Not too many. Which brings me to a point made by Seth Godin, which is that 'people have been blocking ads forever. By ignoring them.'

Now we have a tool to aid our brains in blocking the material. Marketers have responded in several ways, the most common: blocking content when an ad blocker is detected. Now that's a lazy solution to a complex problem. The fact is that banner ads are about as reviled now, as paying $20 for a CD was in the early 2000s. It's just not going to happen now that content is freely available, without ads, all over social media.

In a way, this is just another symptom of a publishing industry that's struggling to redefine its self in the digital era. What is the role of a publisher, in a world where information is instant and accessible by anyone, anywhere, with a Twitter account? While we need people to report the news, the publishers have become a luxury item. One can exist without the other.

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It also reflects the challenges of a seismic shift in public expectations of brands. Tolerance for brands behaving badly has been in decline as awareness of their behaviour has increased. It would follow that this tolerance will naturally evolve from intolerance of human rights abuses, to intolerance of unethical and intrusive advertising.

The questions we should be trying to answer are: What is unethical? What do people not want to see? Why don't they want to see it?

Here are a few examples. Intrusive and unethical are the semi-pornographic ads that awkwardly pop up when you're showing your spouse showtimes for Kinky Boots. It's the malware that's downloaded when you accidentally click on an ad strategically placed next to a link you need to access.

It's time we came up with more creative solutions, and the sooner we let go of the old model, the sooner we can regain the public's trust. With every challenge comes opportunities. If Germany is any indication, the war on Ad Blocking may already be lost. If that's to be believed, perhaps we should consider the following basic principles of good work:

Less is More / Quality over Quantity

Yes, there are a lot of ads out there. The solution, however, is not more ads! By that logic, the banner ad industry will just collapse under the weight of its self. Fewer, more aesthetically pleasing, and better targeted ads (to a point) will yield better results.

Programmatic might not be the answer

Which leads me to my next point -- programmatic, which is a process by which media is bought via algorithms, may not be the answer, especially for some industries like health and wellness, or credit and banking. These require careful scrutiny of who is being targeted and how, which algorithms we simply not designed to handle.

Establish no-go zones

As stated above, there are some topics for which banner ads simply aren't appropriate. My Kinky Boots example is a good illustration of this problem. Research needs be conducted to determine these no-go zones, and a pact will need to be formed to keep players accountable. Establishing an ethics body and fining for infractions would send a clear message to the public that you hear them loud and clear.

Loose the sketchy tactics

Stop with the moving buttons, and any other tactics that are meant to drive revenue by misleading people. Just stop.

Communicate these changes

Just doing these things wont' reverse the damage caused. A strong PR campaign backing up some real changes will be required to slow the tide of ad blocking. And undoing ad blocking will need to be heavily incentivized, since now you're competing with inaction. It's a lot easier to keep an ad blocker on, than to disable one.

Many of these points are related to claims I've made about the need for a big data code of ethics. And for good reason. As advertising increasingly become a data-driven business, so too will its responsibilities need to be increasingly scrutinized.

Joseph Donia is a digital marketing consultant with a passion for social technology and a knack for finding meaning in numbers. He creates digital experiences for brands that produce serious results. Follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, or email him at joe@connectonline.ca.

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