Ad blocking

Having worked in both TV and advertising, I’m intrigued by how easy it is these days for people to block ads online and what it might mean for the near future of online advertising.

Press the red button now

I recently learned an interesting fact about the popular Adblock plugin for Chrome; it doesn’t just block banner ads as I assumed, it also blocks pre- and mid-roll video advertising on sites like 4oD, ITV Player and YouTube. Similar plugins, including Adblock Plus, work in the same way. While this is possibly old news to you, I had not used any ad blocking browser plugins for a while and it came as quite a shock to me just how easy (and how pleasant) they have become to install and use.

Ad blocking was previously only done by those with the patience to install and maintain fiddly add-on software, but it’s no longer the preserve of the tech elite; the latest breed of browser plugins is more than easy enough for even the most casual web user to set up.

Such users are currently a (growing) minority. Adblock describes itself as “the most popular extension for Chrome” and there might, very roughly, be around 10-15% of browsers running some sort of ad blocking software these days. It’s about to get even easier, too. The AdTrap project on Kickstarter is a hardware ad blocker that blocks all adverts for all the wifi connected devices in your home. “Zero software to install, zero configuration”.

What will happen when ad blocking goes properly mainstream? We’ve already seen a gradual arms race with ads becoming increasingly clever about avoiding being blocked, with some content creators preventing their content being seen by people who block ads, sometimes even blocking entire browsers just to be on the safe side. Will this ultimately doomed attempt at control continue to escalate?

I hope not, and there are some glimmers of hope. A few companies have instead tried to gently encourage their users to support their advertising model, or offer alternative models. Reddit offers a page, showing Adblock Plus users how to how to create an exception for Reddit, and thanking their users for not blocking their ads. OK Cupid straight out asked their ad blocking users to donate money directly: “you donate $5 to us once, & we remove all ads from the site forever’.

I think that useful tools need to be sufficiently fine-grained to allow people to chose to opt in to (or out of) specific adverts and specific sites. Since most people will probably never change the default settings then getting the balance right is obviously important. It may have been controversial with some of its users, but Adblock Plus’s move to allow “acceptable” ads was an interesting step towards supporting less intrusive advertising, giving users more control, and finding sensible defaults. “Some users are even asking for a way to enable Adblock Plus on some websites only.” Both Adblock and Adblock Plus now allow users to turn on ads for a specific site, or to blacklist only certain ads.

Ad block plugins for Chrome

It’s understandable for site owners to become a bit anxious about this stuff. Ars Technica says it’s “devastating to the sites you love” while James Cridland equates it to theft, and says “I do find it difficult to understand why running AdBlock or the like is not frowned upon by otherwise honest people.”

Personally, I’m not convinced that ad blocking is theft, or that it’s in any way immoral. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. Site owners can put ads around their content to make money, just as – whatever you think of the choices they make – users can decide whether to see the ads or block them.

My grandfather used to mute the TV whenever adverts came on. Was that morally wrong? What if everyone did the same thing? Whether you’re a content producer or an advertiser you should think about what your users want, and how much easier today’s technology is making it for them to avoid your advertising. Simply describing them as immoral might not be the best way to change their behaviour.


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  1. I remember when (many years ago now) adverts first started turning up on the internet. Not a problem at first, as they were typically simple banner ads, crafted to fit with the theme of the website they were being displayed on. And because it was done individually by the website, they tended to be related to the website content. Then came the commercialisation of advertising, and we got centralised servers serving adverts to many websites. And then, because it was easy and supposedly more lucrative, websites started putting multiple adverts on each page.

    So the adverts got brasher to “stand out from the crowd”. Pop-ups. Pop-unders. Flash. You might have to close 4 or 5 windows of strobing adverts at the end of a session. And this was at a time when bandwidth was a lot more limited (and hence expensive) than today. Finally it reached the stage where I worked out that for some websites I was spending significant time waiting (watching a partially rendered screen) for the adverts to download before I could even see the content.

    I actually remember finally snapping one morning, and spending 20 minutes with a text editor setting up a simple DNS blackhole that removed the majority of adverts, but at the cost of sometimes breaking the formatting on some sites. Browsing the web became a pleasure again. For me at least, the genie was out of the bottle.

    Of course, as you noted, things have moved on and it’s very much simpler now; I just run Adblock Plus (and NoScript and Ghostery). And that handles the whole process far more smoothly. Even the formatting of pages with blocked adverts on them is rarely affected. I’ve come across a couple of sites that won’t serve content if I don’t watch their adverts. Fair enough, that’s their right. But frankly, there are so many other sites that I can go to instead that it’s no loss in my eyes.

    So would anything persuade me to remove adblocking? Possibly. But (for me) it would be such a major departure from where the internet advertising industry are (with their LOOK AT ME!! adverts) and multimedia flash, that it’s never going to happen. No – the few times I’ve run without adblocking just reminds me of all the reasons why I turned it on in the first place. It’s brash, obnoxious and tries to foist stuff on me that I don’t want, and in most cases, would rather never know about.

    Like your grandfather, I also mute the TV during advert breaks. I rarely read print adverts either. I figure that if a product needs to be advertised then it’s probably not good enough to sell itself by word of mouth or brand reputation. So why would I want to buy it?

    Comment by Richard Appleby — November 19, 2012 #

  2. I think Richard is right, even the cleverer web ads tend to be really brash and jarring.

    I do love print ads though, at least the expensively produced ones. One of the best things about fashion magazines (apart from the nice paper) is that their ads are of the same quality as the editorial content. I know people would say it’s actually all one big advert, but if you enjoy it – does it matter? The John Lewis Christmas book, or the Ikea catalogue are all satisfying in their own right despite them being adverts. You can’t fake it though, anything with “advertising feature” is a bad sign and Wired magazine, to me, has got in a bit of a mess with this.

    Maybe an option for advertisers is to make their web content so good that people would go to it in its own right, without needing to piggyback on other people’s stuff.

    Comment by Darren Shaw — November 19, 2012 #

  3. It sounds like you think adverts are a bad thing per se. I think personalised adverts telling me about things I want to know about are a good thing and I think google, amazon etc are moving that way. People sign up to daily discount sites because they want to be contacted about things that actually might interest them. The key is make it relevant. It’s annoying when I can’t read articles at all because videos etc pop up on top of them, especially on the ipad, on loud ones when I’m in the office (business related). It’s annoying that amazon etc keep sending me ads for tvs when 6 months ago I was looking to buy one. I bought one. I don’t need another. But I am attracted to people who advertise. Especially “on the internet where no-one knows your a dog” I want reassurance about the company I’m buying from and that brand presence gives me the confidence that they have money behind them. Of course with tailored advertising I may be the only person they’re advertising too and it may not be that expensive.

    Comment by Sam Garforth — November 19, 2012 #

  4. Let’s imagine a situation where ad blocking had been made illegal by some not-so-far-fetched bill in parliament backed by a powerful advertising industry lobby group. So every web site I visit is now festooned with advertisements that were previously invisible to me.
    They’re annoying and ugly, but I’m still never going to click on them.

    If the ad space is sold on a per click basis, then it should really make no difference to the advertiser whether I block the ad or not, since they’re not missing out on clicks from me either way.

    These days I rarely watch TV as it’s broadcast, so I go further than muting most adverts and fast forward through them. If the programme makers and/or advertisers object to this – as I have seen some do – then they need a better model for ad pricing based on some other factor than projected audience figures.

    If all this ad avoidance adds up to a moral failing on my part, so be it. However, it’s hard to view an industry that exists solely for the purposes of persuading people to acquire things they don’t need, possibly at the expense of personal financial security or at a 2000% APR, as one that holds the moral high ground.

    Comment by Martin Cartwright — November 19, 2012 #

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