USA TODAY US Edition
Ad blocking poses serious threat to digital world
Ad blocking, traversing through the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance stages of Internet grief, has come. Software can strip out tiresome search, banner, pop-up and video ads — and, hence, the lion’s share of digital media revenue.
There have been various ways of seeing this as someone else’s problem: a European problem, where much of the software has been developed; an ad industry problem for not making ads more engaging; and even a software problem in which blocking software itself needed to be blocked. But with Apple’s move to supply ad blockers with iPhones and Safari, it now has become everybody’s problem or, most specifically Google’s problem, or, simply, an idea whose time has come. Technology disrupts technology.
The fundamental premise of consumer advertising, and of the traditional media business, is of course that ads are unavoidable. As fundamental a premise is that if people can avoid advertising, they do. And further: As soon as they do figure out how to circumvent advertising, they don’t go back to it.
Before the Internet was a threat to television advertising, the DVR already was. Or, as soon as home video gave everybody a taste of TV without ads, then there was only going forward to a world without them. Now, in a once-unimaginable development, you can watch as much television as you want without seeing any advertising ever. There is a new television audience that would not know what to do with the discordant interruptions of ads (except pay more to get rid of them). And this nonad audience, an audience that can afford to pay for not seeing ads, is the one, precisely because they can pay, most sought after by advertisers.
In a peculiar parallel universe, there has recently been enormous digital merriment about the steep fall in traditional television stocks, and the description by a well-known analyst of the television industry as “structurally impaired.”
In part this impairment is the result of viewers theoretically leaving traditional television, thereby cutting the value of television advertising, in a flight to digital, which is expected in total
dollars to surpass television ad spending by 2016.
But, curiously, the television industry, seeing the threat to its advertising bread and butter, began a long conversion from being wholly ad supported to now deriving 50% of its revenues from subscription and licensing fees.
Rather, it is digital media, almost 100% supported by advertising, that ought now to seem existentially impaired. But it is hard to appreciate the inevitability of your own death.
Digital media has often seemed, at least in the minds of the most digitally starstruck, to operate independently of digital advertising. There has never been any rational reason to celebrate the efficacy or future prospects of online advertising, and even less so with mobile — with both the form of online ads and the technology that sells and distributes them causing ever-greater downward price pressure on advertising value — and yet that’s what online share prices and valuations effectively do.
In a sense, the reality of ad blocking is, in the relentless booster environment of digital media, no more disturbing than some estimates that fully a third of online traffic is fraudulent. Who cares if ads are blocked if nobody sees them anyway? Or, why would fake people block ads?
The digital media apologist Jeff Jarvis wrote a recent screed in which he dismissed the problem of ad blocking, or saw it as a secret blessing, by saying that Internet advertising was, in addition to being stupid and annoying, ineffective anyway. His suggestion that ads ought to become smart and engaging— that technology properly applied could make ads smarter and more engaging — was less a solution than an acknowledgement that there was no solution. Because advertising does not ever get better; at its best, it is intrusive — hence, peo- ple (at least sentient people) will always block it if they can. And, to boot, their pages will load faster.
“If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive and far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail,” wrote Farhad Manjoo,
The New York Times’s gadget correspondent.
And what exactly are these ads he has in mind? The most popular notion is native advertising, a form that integrates paid advertising with editorial content — or that mimics editorial in such a way that it is not immediately blockable. In other words, the solution to ad blocking is to make everything at least a quasi ad. The Internet becomes an in-flight magazine.
Meanwhile, of course, there is Netflix which, without advertising, occupies more than 50% of bandwidth use, and the example of Hulu, which is converting from an ad model to a subscription service. But that model — expensive and exclusive content that people pay for — is the antithesis of the Google and Facebook model, which is random, repetitive and user-generated content, which, so far, users have demonstrated little willingness to pay for.
Google, on its part, is trying to go on the offensive against ad blockers by bypassing blocking software and then disabling the skip ad option on YouTube — making users watch three-minute ads. Not that different from TV’s fruitless battle against adskipping technology in DVRs.
It is, for better or worse, a postadvertising world. That’s the media revolution. Not technology.