Pop-ups, personalisation and privacy: is ad blocking software a blessing or a curse?

Back in the early days of the internet, pop-up ads started, well, popping up. Originally, they were seen as a way for advertisers to fight against the early stages of banner blindness and get in front of users without being directly attached to the content of a website. But readers found them intrusive and annoying and, eventually, technology was developed to block them.

One of the men who invented pop-ups, Ethan Zuckerman, eventually apologised for his hideous creation and, in a story in The Atlantic, admitted that they were one of the most hated tools in advertising. Referencing Ron Carlson’s story about good intentions gone awry, ‘What We Wanted to Do’, he talks about his formative days with Tripod and the “original sin” of choosing advertising as the default business model for the internet, which celebrated its 25th birthday last year.  

Optimists believe technology has a way of correcting itself when things go too far; that the wisdom of the crowd means society will eventually reach some sort of happy equilibrium. It happened with pop-ups (and, more recently, the first iteration of Google Glass). And it also seems to be in play with the rise of ad blocking software. There are now more than 200 million Ad Block Plus users around the world and, according to a study by PageFair, New Zealand’s penetration is 22 percent. Globally, that number is growing at a rate of 41 percent per year and publishers, advertisers and web developers are crying foul over the lost billions (US$41.4 billion by 2016, according to one study). They claim it breaks the long-held pact that ‘we’ll give you the content for free and, in exchange, you’ll look at the ads’. 

As Marco Arment wrote in a piece about the ethics of ad blocking: “Ads have always been a hopeful gamble, not required consumption. Before the web, people changed channels or got up during TV commercials, or skipped right over ads in newspapers and magazines.”

But online ads are different. They are often low-quality, annoying or duplicitous; they collect data and build up a picture of our behaviour, often without consent; and they also significantly decrease the performance of a website. Ghostery, a revealing browser plug-in that shows the number of trackers used on each site they visit, shows that the nzherald.co.nz and stuff.co.nz have 13 (StopPress has 11), while overseas sites like nytimes.com and Bloomberg.com have around double that. They’re not all nefarious, of course, and these businesses are increasingly relying on online advertising revenue to keep the lights on as their traditional revenue streams dry up. But, as Zuckerman says, where does it all end?

“The next step is obvious: We need more data so we can make our targeted ads appear to be more effective. To compensate us for our experience of continual surveillance, many websites promise personalisation of content to match our interests and tastes (by giving platforms information on our interests, we are, of course, generating more ad targeting information).”

In many cases, this data can be helpful as it can enhance relevance (as this Guardian story shows, the algorithms do seem to know what some of us want, although they’re certainly not foolproof).  And as technology writer Farhad Manjoo said in The New York Times of the blessing and the curse that is online advertising, many of the most useful technologies may not have come about without online advertising (see Henry Oliver’s story on why the utility offered to consumers by the giants of the tech world, often for free, more than makes up for their supposed tax avoidance). But increasingly, relevance and usefulness are not enough. And just like the pop-up ads of yore, technology is now offering a solution, with ad blocking software now being endorsed by the likes of Mozilla and Google. Mobile ad blockers are also available and, with the upcoming launch of iOS 9, Apple is taking it mainstream. 

“In a few years, after the dust has settled, we’re all going to look back at today’s web’s excesses and abuses as an almost unbelievable embarrassment,” said Arment. “Hopefully, the worst is behind us. And it’s time to stop demonising people who use tools to bring that sanity to their web browsers today.”

So are the evils of online advertising worthy of such drastic action? Or is it another unfair stake in the heart of publishers already dealing with a digitally-inspired existential crisis?

As a recent op-ed in The New York Times said, consumers should have the option of paying online services like Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to not be treated like a product (interestingly, the reverse is already true, because, in an example of protection racketeering coming to the web, some companies are able to pay adblockers to get their ads through). And there are positive signs that there are other potential business models for publishers and options for users who want to support content makers without having to sign a Faustian pact, whether it’s more tasteful, useful native ads and sponsorships (one content company has even launched a campaign called Say No to Ads, although ad blockers are starting to pick up on native ads too); improved micropayment technology; the ability to pay music streaming services like Spotify or Pandroa to go ad-free (although they still track behaviour); the increasing popularity of paid-for SVOD services that let subscribers watch ad-free content on their terms; and, as part of a very meta experiment by Google, giving readers the ability to bid against advertisers to remove online ads. In New Zealand, the NBR recently decided to remove some display ads from its site so that it could focus on creating a better experience for readers and generate more revenue from them (and, because of more scarcity, charge more for the remaining ad spaces).

There will always be a place for display ads, in whatever medium (even if, like Sky, you actually pay for a subscription, its desire to have its cake and eat it too means you’ll be seeing ads around All Blacks games for a long time yet). And advertising will never die. But history shows the most intrusive forms of it will if users kick up enough of a stink. 

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