Digital Advertising and the Politics of Ad-Blocking: a Wake-Up Call?

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As the ad-blocking war rages on, are advertisers beginning to wake up to feedback from their audience? Is this the wrong to make the industry right?…

The Near Future of Ad-Blocking

The announcement that Google is to build a feature for Chrome with ad-blocking functionality has sent shockwaves throughout the industry. The news was reported by the Wall Street Journal and then reprised and commented in numerous industry publications.

If implemented as leaked, the feature would block ‘unacceptable ads’ that are likely to compromise users’ experience. Indeed, it is rumoured that Chrome will block all ads on websites that allow such adverts. Intrusive ads, such as pop ups, sticky ads, auto-playing videos as well as aggressive re-targeting, are deemed to be the culprits for the vertiginous popularity of ad-blocking software among the public, which might have reached up to a quarter of internet surfers in countries such as the UK and the US. Ad-blocking, together with more stringent regulation such as the upcoming GDPR and issues of brand safety, is forcing a change of ethos in the industry (a trend that has fostered the establishment of companies such as Teavaro) towards a more controlled and more transparent way to operate in the programmatic environment.

It is not only a matter of values; ad-blocking is threatening the modus operandi of a whole industry that so far has operated in a regime of only nominal respect for the customers’ data footprints and their experience online. The rise of ad-blocking is in advertisement the equivalent of the populist rebellion that has perturbed politics lately. Publishers are the most affected and have responded in a variety of ways, including, in turn, blocking part of the content or trying to reduce reliance on ads by asking a fee. Big advertisers, who also feel the pressure, face hefty fees to have their ads deemed ‘acceptable’ by companies such as AdBlock Plus. Outside of non-profit entities such as Private Badger1, ad-blocking is in itself a business model with its own agenda, not driven by consumers’ needs. Companies that charge to whitelist ads function as gatekeepers for other businesses, but not always as guardians of users’ privacy and online experience, as they usually claim.

Acceptability and Ad-Blocking

As a result, the definition of ‘acceptable ad’ is in itself political and contested; that is, according to how it is constructed, it favours certain industry players rather than others or alters the balance of the trade-off between advertising and free content that users can enjoy online. This is what makes the current intra-industry war by proxy fascinating: there are now two major projects to move the standards of online advertising onto the next level. The Acceptable Ads Committee, inspired by Eyeo (the parent company of AdBlock Plus) has gathered user advocates, industry players, and ‘experts’ to establish ‘independent’ criteria for acceptable digital advertising. Most of these are sensible, for instance  limits to the size, colours, sounds and placement as well as the requirement of a clear distinction from non-ad content (which might irritates the likes of Google, often accused of playing foul in this respect). Importantly, it’s emphasised the no company can pay to avoid compliance with the criteria. The Committee is however clearly aimed to ‘improve the experience for ad-blocking users’; it champions the idea that ad-blocking is here to stay and that it should play a pivotal role in setting up the industry standards. On the other hand, the Coalition for Better Ads, backed by titans such as Google, Facebook, The Washington Post, Unilever and IAB, aims at improving the overall quality of ads in circulation, so that the need for ad-blockers would not be felt in the first place. The Coalition has funded ‘independent’ research, involving 25,000 users, to establishing a list, called Better Ads Standards, of the most frustrating ads, such as pop up ads, or prestitials ads on mobile, that push consumers in the arms of ad-blockers. These standards are what Google has claimed it will adhere to when it will unveil its ad-disabling feature in Chrome (they don’t want to call it ad-blocker). While the Coalition enjoys wider industry support than the Committee, it is still controversial in that it targets some of the ad formats more profitable for advertisers and publishers alike, and in that it would give Google, whose Chrome is the most popular world browser, the power to limit other companies’ ads, thus further strengthening its position among ad sellers.

While both initiatives might represent a step forward in staving off the death of display advertising and improving standards, they both clearly respond to the needs of industry players. Having looked closely at the space in which  the Teavaro team is operating and the conversations they have, I suspect that users do not want advertising, but engagement. From a user perspective, adopting ad-blockers means to take control of their experience. Users are more likely to be open to engage when they can opt, within a clear and transparent framework, into a relationship with marketers and publishers that they think provides value. The discomfort in the industry that ad-blocking symbolize is just the onset of a change in culture that customers are bringing forward with their choices. It’s a development that will be fascinating to observe in the next years.

 

PHOTO CREDIT: FLICKR USER SUNNY LAPIN

Comparison of ad-blocking extensions and their functionality: https://www.comparitech.com/blog/vpn-privacy/free-anti-tracking-browser-extensions/

Posted by Nico Pizzolato

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