The Circle of Greed and Why the Government Needs to Call Time on the Ad-blocking Morality Play

Our industry’s debates have always made for great theatre. Yet the ad-blocking debate has gone from theatre to pantomime, and more recently it has descended into farce. Here Vincent Flood, Editor at Video Ad News, argues that it’s time to reframe the debate and to seek outside help.

The ad-blocking debate tends to be framed in moral terms. It’s either portrayed as the media/advertising industry versus the highwaymen of the ad-blocking companies, or the heroic ad-blocking companies saving the helpless consumer from the ravages of the advertising industry.

Both views are wrong and overly-simplistic.

The reality is that all of these groups are for the most part composed of good people, all of whom are trying to make a living or consume media in one way or another.

That said, even the nicest people can get a little greedy. And it’s the underlying self-interest of all of the ad-blocking debate’s participants prevents us from making any progress.

But what if we were to do away with the the moral posturing, the outcry and the self-righteous indignation?  That is, what if we were to reduce everyone down to their naked self-interest? Might it help us to see the wood for the trees?

I think it would. Here I explain why everyone in the ad-blocking ‘debate’ is conflicted to the point where it’s next to impossible to take them seriously. The solution, in my opinion, will have to come from outside of the industry.

The Racketeering Ad-Blockers

The ad-blockers fall mainly into a few different camps, but all are motivated by greed. You have the likes of Apple who see it as a strategic play against ad-focused competitors like Google and Facebook. Then you have the specialist ad-blocking companies. Adblock Plus are probably the best known, especially at the B2C level, and then we have Shine, who partner with mobile operators.

Adblock Plus play both sides. On the one hand they claim to be arming consumers in the fight against bad ads. But on the other, they also strike deals with publishers to have their ads shown. To use a completely unnecessary military analogy, if Adblock Plus were in Syria, they’d be selling guns to ISIS but also doing dirty deals with Assad to allow them to drop the occasional barrel bomb.

block-out-sunShine, however, have taken a different route. Instead of engaging with consumers, Shine have made the decision for what they frequently refer to as the ‘abused consumers’ and have gone upstream to the mobile operators to stop the abuse, so consumers don’t have to worry their pretty little heads about whether they actually need Shine or not. Like Mr Burns’s plan to block out the sun in The Simpsons, Carthy & co would like to block out all of the ads. However, the operators wouldn’t have any control over ads served once the phone is connected to wifi, which accounts for a significant chunk of mobile advertising, especially for video.

In making the case for ad-blocking, Shine’s CMO Roi Carthy frequently uses language more commonly associated with sexual abuse. “No means no,” Carthy said to the industry at ATS London. Then at Mobile World Congress he spoke of “abused consumers”. However, strangely, the (highly entertaining) self-styled hero of the hour spoke in quite different terms at New Video Frontiers, where he said, “We’ve got a good racket going.”

The Revenue-Hungry Publishers

Publishers – especially those burdened by legacy print businesses – have been haplessly trying to monetise digital for years now. Many are still struggling, although more recently there are encouraging signs that some are finally getting there. This desperation has resulted in ad units being shoehorned into even the most ridiculous of places with little if any regard for the user experience. While publishers are one of the more obvious victims of ad-blocking, their ‘over-enthusiasm’ has also been one of the root causes of the problem.

GhosteryEven today, top tier premium publishers running Outbrain and Taboola-style links to the worst of online content, which is evidence that they’re still more than willing to degrade the user experience if it will generate a few extra pence. Even in these supposedly enlightened times, on most websites you get the sense the publisher would happily reach out of the screen and staple ads to your eyeballs if they thought they’d get away with it.

The Over-zelous Advertisers and Agencies

The advertisers and agencies have been just as bad, only they’d happily staple ads to your kids’ eyeballs too. Annoying, interruptive and distracting ads — commonly referred to as ‘engaging formats’ — are still in being deployed across the web on a daily basis.

The Opportunistic Ad Tech Industry

The ad tech has happily helped facilitate the destruction of user experience. For every additional ad unit, there’s an extra ad serving fee, a bit of margin on media or a tech fee. So the more a publisher’s page is loaded with tags and ads, the better.

The Trade Industry Bodies

The trade bodies were subjected to scathing criticism by Starcom’s performance chief Marco Bertozzi for their inaction on the issue. As Bertozzi said, most have been clambering around for a response to the issue over the last year or so, in spite of the fact that the ad-blocking issue has been bubbling away for years.

In their defence, I would say that ad-blocking was seen by most as an issues that was best swept under the carpet for fear of pushing ad-blocking into the mainstream, as opposed to it being mainly the preserve of tech-savvy nerds, which it was for quite some time. Although perhaps it is fair to conclude that the trade bodies should have been better prepared.

However, one thing the trade organisations- and the industry in general – has been extremely poor at, is communicating the value of advertising i.e. we shouldn’t take for granted that the wider public understand the economics of the free Internet.

The Biased Media

The trade press are the only good guys in all of this. Only joking, we’re just as bad as everyone else, as of course we profit from events, articles and sensationalism while everyone else scraps it out. As publishers we’re also inherently biased towards protecting ad-funded revenue models of course.

The Greedy, Greedy Consumer

For some reason the ad-blocking consumer has been eulogised and put up on some sort of moral pedestal in the ad-blocking debate. Users of ad-blockers are routinely portrayed as innocent victims in the tug-of-war between between the tech giants and ad-blockers, but at the end of the day the average ad-blocking consumer’s greed is a match for any of the industry players above.

Worse still, ad-blocking consumers are not only greedy but self-entitled, as they expect publishers and journalists to get up each day and entertain them for free.

But the ad-funded Internet was already free, you might argue? Not free enough, the greedy ad-blocking consumer will tell you. They want content for free without little ads at the side of the page. If you look at the comments on The Guardian article, or at the comments on any article about the subject on Reddit or Boing Boing, you’ll see that for the most part these people are very much part of the generation of spoiled idiots described by Louis CK. Feeding their delusion that the Internet owes them something is not a sustainable strategy in the long-term.

The Internet Deserves Better Than This

So what we have is an unvirtuous circle of greed, where everybody involved in the ad-blocking debate comes out smelling pretty badly. It’s hardly surprising that we haven’t made any progress in the ‘debate’, as it isn’t a debate, it’s a very muddled and confused negotiation where everyone has a stake in the game. So any attempts to find the middle ground are doomed to failure as long as we continue to think about ad-blocking simply isn’t the type of problem that can be talked through.

While there are various companies touting technological solutions, to the best of my knowledge we’ve yet to see one that works across the board. But even if one does emerge, we need to consider whether it’s simply just an other step down the road towards an ad-blocking arms race, which is hardly a sustainable solution to the problem. In an industry already over-burdened with middlemen, publishers really have the means or the desire to pay the infinitum.

Time for the Regulators to Step In

This week culture secretary John Whittingdale offered government support to publishers hit by the technology. While many in the industry tend to be pessimistic when it comes to government intervention in industry matters, this time around it should be warmly welcomed. According to The Guardian, Whittingdale plans to form a round table of the publishers and tech companies affected by the problem.

However, assuming it’s possible to regulate ad-blocking protection rackets out of existence, it’s important that the industry doesn’t lose sight of the need for reform. Initiatives like Google’s AMP – designed to speed up page loading times – will help considerably, but ultimately there needs to be a cultural shift towards truly respecting both the privacy and the user experience of the end user. That respect should be pre-emptive too i.e. it shouldn’t simply be a question of shoving as many ads down a user’s throat as you possibly can and then waiting to see if there’s a drop off.

Fortunately, all of this is happening at a time when the industry is starting to realise that fewer ads results in a more impactful ad experience. Fewer everyone’s favour as advertising becomes increasingly measured on impact rather than just impressions. If advertisers recognise this fact and are willing to pay a premium for higher impact ads, the industry should be able to eliminate the need for ad-blocking.

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