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How Intrusive Can 'Acceptable' Online Advertising Be?

04/03/2014 05:23 EDT | Updated 06/03/2014 05:59 EDT

With tens of millions of users, it seems fitting that open source AdBlock Plus be one of the most influential services to issue a manifesto on acceptable ads -- those that will still show up despite a user running ad blocking software. On Adblock Plus 2.0, all users have a feature automatically checked, which will allow acceptable ads, though anyone can uncheck this if they truly don't want to see all ads. They're doing this because only 25 per cent of respondents to a survey reported being against ads altogether, ultimately opening a door 75 per cent of the way for loosely-defined acceptable ads to be served (though it's worth noting it looks like the survey was done in 2011).

The problem with this initiative, however, is not in the fact that AdBlock Plus is contending that not all ads, in fact, need to be blocked. They've had a whitelisting service for years. Rather, with highly contentious and relative tenets of what is acceptable, such as the notion that ads should not be 'annoying', this manifesto is not at all helpful to users, websites, companies or advertisers.

Defining acceptable

The manifesto outlines current requirements for defining acceptable, though emphasizes that these change. Among the tenets of being acceptable, AdBlock Plus allows static advertisements (no animations, sounds, etc.), text-only with no attention-grabbing images (though what is attention grabbing remains to be seen), ads should be identified as such and should be distinguished from page content with a border or background colour (but remember -- nothing eye catching!), ads should never obscure page content, and other regulations on hyperlinks and placement.

What the manifesto doesn't cover

Clearly, AdBlock Plus's broad definitions of acceptable, which allow oceans of space for creativity within the tenets, will not extend to the many services that currently have online advertising as their bread and butter (think Google, social networks, etc.).

One of the stipulations of acceptable ads speaks directly to services like Taboola, which have grown exponentially with the rise of content marketing. Taboola works with sites including online publishers like Time, the Huffington Post, etc. to identify what you are looking at right now (unlike Google cookies that follow you around), and serve you up relevant content at the bottom with captions like, "If you liked this, you may also like..." The appeal of Taboola to companies is that content is not identified as ads and does not stand out as such.

Social networks remain one step ahead

It's no secret that ad-blocking software has had an effect on how networks deliver ads to their users. Over the past years, changes in ad delivery have been purported to enhance accuracy and relevance for users -- though, they came on the heels of millions of ads failing to deliver, and therefore failing to create impressions for their companies, and revenue for the platforms. Google even courted controversy in 2013 by getting rid of ad blocking software from its store, and then reportedly paying AdBlock Plus to be whitelisted.

Regardless of backroom deals, networks have had to evolve in order to get around ad blockers as much as possible, and their own methods now outpace the anti-annoying manifesto.

In late 2013, Google introduced new features that would have your face and name endorsing certain places that you've been to or reviewed. This new type of social advertising was meant to combat banner blindness by introducing a human element, however users have complained about Google ultimately selling their endorsement.

Facebook has also used 'sponsored' stories, allowing advertisers to opt-in to generating ads with real people profiles (a face and a name) endorsing the ad. On March 18, 2014, however, Facebook eliminated the fact that this is a choice -- from now on, all ads may be delivered as sponsored stories. This was immediately followed by several lawsuits from people who claim to have never liked something they were seen endorsing.

This past week, Facebook, which is fighting to stay relevant among reports that users are logging off, introduced a new feature for companies that allows entire customer lists to be uploaded, giving social marketers the option to advertise directly to their already-built, non-Facebook audience. While purported to boost engagement, the option, which is delivered as 'Facebook for Business', is basically allowing a third party to share information with Facebook that you may not have shared yourself, such as interests, relationship status, education level, and more.

As the Internet becomes more widespread and takes on different meanings and uses to people around the world, it seems like Adblock Plus's manifesto is a well meaning, but insufficient, standards declaration. However, if Adblock Plus wants to issue in a new age of non-invasive, relevant advertisement, it is the titans of industry, the powerhouses like Google, and social networks like Facebook, that must be converted into true believers.

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