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 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 great story in The Atlantic, admitted 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 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 popups. 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 of ad revenue. They claim it breaks the long-held pact of ‘we’ll give you the content for free and, in exchange, you’ll look at the ads’. But 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.”
Online ads are different, however. They are often low-quality, annoying or misleading; they collect data and build up a picture of our behaviour, often without consent; and they also significantly decrease the performance of a website. Most modern media companies rely on online advertising revenue to keep the lights on. And the trackers they use are not all nefarious. 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).”
Increasingly, that’s a price users don’t seem prepared to pay. And just like the pop-up ads of yore, technology is offering a solution, with ad blocking software now being endorsed by the likes of Mozilla, Google and, with the upcoming launch of IOS 9, Apple.
So are the evils of online advertising worthy of such drastic action from consumers? Or is it another unfair stake in the heart of publishers already dealing with a digitally-inspired existential crisis?
Arment believes we will look back on these web excesses and invasions of privacy with embarrassment. And 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 some companies are able to pay adblockers to get their ads through). There are positive signs that there are other potential business models for content makers and options for users who want to support them, whether it’s more tasteful, useful native ads and sponsorships; improved micropayment technology; the ability to pay music streaming services to go ad-free; the increasing popularity of SVOD services that let subscribers watch ad-free content on their terms; and, as part of a very meta experiment by Google, the ability to bid against advertisers to remove online ads. Here, the NBR recently took the bold step of removing 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, due to scarcity, charge more for the remaining ad spaces).
Advertising will never die. But history shows the intrusive forms of it will if users kick up enough of a stink.