Advertisers: The Solution to Adblocking Might be Close to Home

PushON | March 8th 2016

Last week Culture Secretary John Whittingdale apparently said adblocking is akin to a “protection racket” and has made parallels with software, music and film piracy that those industries have fought since their inception. He even spoke of banning adblockers (presumably with the ability to take abuses through the courts), which would represent a massive leap in personal freedom, if it were possible to police.

Whittingdale seems to be suggesting that whenever we access “free” content, be it a news story, a comment piece or a video, we enter a contract with the provider to “pay” for the media by consuming some sort of advertising. It is an unwritten contract, though – few outlets expressly forbid viewing content with adblockers enabled, toothless though the warning is. Some sites have taken the next logical step, attempting to prevent browsers running adblockers from accessing the site at all – in Forbes’ case, with unexpected consequences.

Is adblocking any different to watching Coronation Street and popping to the kitchen to brew up during the ad break? One wonders what Whittingdale is proposing …

Marketers and their Camp Straddle

Like everyone working in marketing, here at PushON we have feet in both camps, being both advertisers and consumers. As a company we feel the pain of reduced reach when our clients’ ads are not displayed where they should be; but as consumers we also have the same motivation to block ads as the rest of the world, even though keeping an eye on the state of advertising is part of our professional lives.

Maybe Mr Whittingdale – and advertisers – should take a look at the reasons why consumers are blocking ads. It’s a widespread phenomenon can only be cracked with natural selection, not legislation. If advertisers and the sites that carry their wares continue to ignore the aesthetic, economic and disruptive costs of ads to consumers, no one will visit the sites, the sites will fold and no one will get sued.

The idea that the public has got it in for the advertisers – and, by extension, the companies being advertised – is false. They are perfectly relaxed about advertising, consume it regularly and understand the part it plays in the funding of the media they are consuming. They’re not stupid.

Nobody ever stopped buying magazines or refusing to watch commercial TV because of the ads. It’s when ads repeatedly encroach upon the reason they are visiting the website that users, often reluctantly, maybe even guiltily, start looking to adblockers. In many cases, the ads are their own worst enemies. Here are the key gripes.

Interfering with readability of site

The number one annoyance is the ads that pop up over the content. They usually have tiny X buttons in the corner that are partially obscured, and will often appear a few seconds after the page has loaded or when a certain part of the page is reached. And some cheeky advertisers even put false crosses in the ad that actually open the link, the scoundrels. Imagine if this happened in any other form of media – watching the news, say – and the dissonance with other media consumption becomes clear.

No chance to skip videos

No doubt everyone reading this will have clicked a social media link to watch a video on a news site only to be confronted with a 30-second ad with no chance to skip it. It forces consumers into a decision – sit through the ad or just not bother with the video. There has to be a compelling reason to sit through an ad for a product they’ll never buy. Even the best-placed ad (in a specialist magazine or website) can only expect a small percentage of those who see it to follow it up. But in mainstream media, the chances of a random viewer being interested in the offering are close to zero. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and money.

The solution here would appear to be something like Google TrueView, where viewers can click through if they want and advertisers don’t have to pay when it happens. It forces advertisers to make their ads compelling from the first second but doesn’t punish consumers, businesses or website owners.

Mobile data

While home/office broadband is generally unlimited or restricted to a few gigabytes per day, many mobile contracts and PAYG deals are often 0.5–2 GB per month (16–64 MB per day). It’s easy to see how a month’s data can be swallowed up in a matter of days if the sites you’re viewing carry graphic-heavy ads or videos. Blocking ads conserves data.

Unwanted sound

Some time ago, the internet arrived at the conclusion that browsing should be silent unless you specifically visit a site where you’re consuming audio/video. For a while it held true, and the internet was good. You could take your laptop to the library or secretly browse during meetings. Then suddenly a Pandora’s Box of audio/visual ads was opened, and it’s never been closed. The cure? Adblockers!

Processor/memory hogging

A single gif might not break your computer, but once multiple ads are being served, all coming from different servers with differing sizes and plugin requirements – alongside the media you’re there to see, of course – it’s not unusual for a browser to start using the majority of your available memory and start slowing your computer to a crawl.

Large, unwieldy background ads

Say the content of a page is 800 pixels wide. Well wow; that might give you 500+ unused pixels down the edges that could be used for ADVERTISING. Oh, and let’s make it image heavy enough to slow down the site load time –hell, let’s make it load before the content – so scrolling is a jerky tumble down the page. People will go crazy for that.

Security and privacy concerns

It’s not only wearers of tinfoil hats or Guy Fawkes masks who are blocking ads. As the Forbes story points out, ads are essentially out of the control of the sites that carry them, and can be vectors for malware (not that anyone’s seriously suggesting using an adblocker as a malware prevention tool). The tracking cookies carry genuine privacy concerns, too, with some groups feeling particularly vulnerable.

Stopping the Rot

So we have a public that understands the symbiotic relationship between the content they consume and the advertising that pays for it, but that is still, in significant numbers, resorting to blocking the ads.

The blockers who are doing it for privacy reasons have a real concern. Unless we return to the days of manual placement of ads hosted by the site owners, that’s unlikely to change. Despite the display networks’ assurances that data gathered is anonymised, we’re trusting these companies and the law enforcement agencies to handle our data properly, and history says that we probably shouldn’t.

But to say that privacy concerns are the only motivation for ad blockers is untrue. They are freely available yet billions of well-advised internet users choose not to use them.

TrueView does make money for Google so consumers are holding off the Skip button and watching ads that interest them. For many consumers, advertising is an essential part of the purchase journey; indeed, it’s often the spark that ignites a life-long relationship. TrueView is a reasonable balance between making revenue available for website owners, ensuring ad spend is optimised, and minimising the intrusion on users’ browsing sessions. Its central planks should surely be the basis of all future online advertising.

“Relevancy forms the foundation of all our paid media activity,” says PushON’s paid media consultant Andrew Gorry. “The aim is to use advertising to introduce a product or service to individuals that actually appreciate and recognise value in the offering. When this is done correctly with well thought out, well designed and well targeted ads the user experience is heightened rather than burdened.  This approach wins for all parties. As we see other advertisers implementing more sophisticated relevancy driven campaigns we would expect to see ad-blockers decline in use.”

Whitelisting (and emotional blackmail)

There might be a halfway solution in the form of whitelisting. All adblockers have a function that allows certain sites to be exempt from blocking, thus letting ads appear when consumers have built up trust for the site and understood the reasons for having ads. The The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is going for a soft approach called DEAL (detect, explain, ask, lift), whereby sites try to persuade consumers to switch off the adblockers to protect their revenue and keep the sites going. On the face of it, it seems like a happy medium between blocking browsers using adblockers and ignoring them, but if people are whitelisting sites but not buying the products being advertised, brands might become dissatisfied with the return on their investment and pull out anyway. Perhaps those using adblockers with no intention of ever buying are actually doing the advertising industry a favour.


A more old-fashioned approach to revenue generation is offering a subscription-only model. Several newspapers have tried it; the Sun had little success and dropped it last year. Stablemate The Times has stuck with paywalling, but for how long, we don’t know. The Telegraph and Financial Times have limited access for free users, but payment is required to view the whole site. Subscription isn’t entirely unheard-of in the mainstream media, but for smaller niche sites it’s probably not viable. To get people to view your paid content over the flood of free stuff means you have to have some serious clout, which isn’t good news for new entrants into the market.

A Question of Quality

Advertising agencies, businesses and website owners are in a mutually beneficial affiliation, but that’s only true as long as people are visiting the sites, consuming the ads and making purchases because of them. The affiliation fails when there is poor quality media content, unwanted products and ineffective advertising. It is up to all three to keep their standards high, and it can be argued that advertisers aren’t keeping their end of the deal. Force-feeding irrelevant ads is leading to the great ad-block just as much as the privacy concerns.

Could we be about to see the dawn of an honest, ethical advertising industry?

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