Neville Doyle offers an alternative theory on the growth of adblockers

Albert Einstein is thought to have said that if he had an hour to solve a problem that his life depended on, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. Once he knew the right question, he could solve the problem in fewer than five minutes. 

As major industries such as advertising and journalism wrangle with the rise of ad blockers, there is a danger of spending not nearly enough time or effort defining the questions we should be posing, or, worse still, whether we are asking the wrong one altogether.

Ad blocking, as a technology, has existed for around 15 years. To everyone who was online back in 2001, you will remember that advertising was not exactly more subtle, or interesting or enjoyable to watch. Quite the contrary. Today, the digital ads that you are often likely to see have had far more time, effort and money invested in them. And yet, in the first 10-11 years ad blocking was available, it saw very little growth. Until 2013. 

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that users simply grew ever more sick of ads in ever more intrusive formats. However, I think that is a simplification of the issue, and one that ignores another outside influence. Something that may not appear to be linked, but in reality has had a huge impact on consumer behaviour.

In 2013, the full weight of the Edward Snowden revelations were unleashed to the world. People who had never really given a second thought to who might be watching their every move online were confronted with the realities of what organisations like the NSA and GCHQ were actually doing. 

The revelations around ‘Prism’ – that the NSA was collecting raw data from nine major US internet companies – were particularly galling. In the words of Edward Snowden, “Even if you are not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and you are being recorded.” 

In the wake of this unprecedented insight into how governments spied on their citizens, a reaction was guaranteed. But in reality, most people have absolutely no idea how to go about shielding themselves from that type of surveillance. They want to take back control, but don’t have the first idea about the dark web and what tools exist to help them maintain their privacy. 

So, what did they do? They looked for a way to get back some semblance of control, to create at least the illusion of privacy and protection within their own minds. In trying to garner more control, they lashed out at something that they could take control over while the real problem remained out of reach. They turned to ad blockers in their millions.

So, if we are to work out how to deal with ad blocking, we need to first truly understand the motivations behind it. To think that it is only about people not wanting to see as many ads is a gross over-simplification of the issue. It is about much more than that, and this is something that even the ad blockers themselves are starting to openly talk about. 

At SXSW this year, one of the panels on the rise of ad blocking featured Ben Williams, head of operations at the world’s biggest ad blocker – AdBlock Plus. He was very open in his belief that ad blockers have developed in the wrong way, that they are too much of a blunt tool – that if both ad blockers and the sites that rely on advertising revenues are to thrive, then ad blockers need to evolve from a baseball bat to a scalpel. This may be counter to the current consumer desire to block everything, but that current model is simply not tenable in perpetuity.  

Seeing Ben Williams talk at SXSW is one point of reference and insight into the mindset of the ad blockers themselves. The other, for me, has come in working closely with Gabriel Cubbage, CEO of the world’s second largest ad blocker – AdBlock. Earlier this year, we brought Amnesty International and AdBlock together to form an unlikely, but potent, partnership to help drive awareness of World Day Against Cyber Censorhsip. The willingness of Cubbage, and AdBlock, to actually reverse the very raison d’être of their platform in support of a worthy cause is relfective of the fact that they are actually far more flexible than people give them credit for. That the ad-fueled internet is under threat from their platform is something they understand and something that they want to ensure they are taking into consideration as their platforms evolve. Another example of this is the recent move by AdBlock Plus in appointing an independent panel when it comes to determining what ‘acceptable’ ads would be. Simply put, the idea behind this is to allow some ads through the platform so that content creators maintain an advertising revenue stream while consumers will know that everything they see will have been pre-vetted to ensure it is relevant, worthwhile and not obtrusive to the point of creating a negative experience. Of course, that opens up the question of subjectivity and judgement of advertising – what constitutes a ‘good’ ad and who would both consumers and brands trust to make that decision? 

Tim Rich, director of data at Publicis New York, recently claimed that we are living in a ‘Wild West’ era of data and that this is something that cannot continue.

The average phone user is tracked 180 times a day, and that anonymous data can be purchased. You only need to get the GPS co-ordinates of that phone between the hours of midnight and 8am and you have the owner’s address. He strongly called out the need for clear and regulated guidelines so that consumers – who are increasingly listing data and privacy as their top concerns about online activities – can feel confidence in their online experience. The alternative is increasing use ad blockers, which is bad for advertisers and site owners alike. 

A recent study by WARC showed that faced with the choice of funding online services in other ways, consumers almost entirely would rather have advertising drive the required revenues rather than having to pay subscription fees. This study estimated that the cost of the online services that the average American uses for free every year would be roughly $1,200 – a fee that in an internet free from advertising would need to be met by the consumers themselves. Faced with this number,  over 90 percent of those surveyed said that they would be happy to see ads rather than pay that amount in subscriptions. 

Helping consumers feel secure in how their data is being recorded, stored and used is a crucial first step. The second is to swallow any issues and start working with companies like AdBlock in an effort to find a solution that can leave all parties satisfied. This may stick in the throats of some – at SXSW Lewis Dvorkin, chief production officer at Forbes Media, angrily challenged Ben Williams of AdBlock Plus on “who gave them the right to insert themselves into the process”. His counter was simple – “well who decided that publishers were in charge of internet?”. 

Consumers want the free and content rich internet  that publishers provide while increasingly wanting the feeling of security and privacy that ad blockers provide. Finding a workable, happy medium between the two will be crucial if we want the internet in its current format to continue. 

  • Neville Doyle is the digital planning director at Colenso BBDO (neville.doyle@colensobbdo.co.nz)
  • This article originally appeared in the 2016 Media issue of NZ Marketing. 

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