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Ad Blockers: Unwitting Arbiters of Consumer Preference

Consumers who use ad blocking are fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapon.


Consumers who use ad blocking are fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapon. The result is a paradigm where consumers unintentionally suffocate the content they want and punish the brands they buy.

If you have never heard of ad blocking, it’s an often-free software you install on your computer, tablet or mobile device to stop advertisements from appearing on the page. And if you are surprised at my prediction that ad blocking, at least how it’s used today, has no place in the economy of the Web, let me explain.

Publishers produce the content you and I consume rabidly every day. Producing that content is expensive: They support content creation either via subscriptions, where you sign up and agree to pay a subscription fee, or through advertising, where brands pay the publisher for the opportunity to advertise to you. Ad blocking inadvertently disrupts the relationship between consumers and publishers. Suddenly, you, the consumer, are receiving content for free.

Content providers are, unsurprisingly, responding. Some, like the political blog Talking Points Memo, have directly appealed to their users to remove the ad-blocking software, pleading their case that they need ads to sustain a business. Others are going direct to the ad startups themselves, paying to be “whitelisted” as a safe company in order to avoid having their ad space blocked. It’s an odd contradiction — an ad blocker that makes money by allowing ads through its filter. And it’s one I’d bet many consumers aren’t aware of.

Deploying ad blocking is not the fight consumers want. But neither the pay-for-access model nor the advertising-in-exchange-for-free-access model works well enough today. The former is an untenable system if every domain, including your favorite food or travel blog, demands a separate login before accessing the content and sends consumers an individual bill (imagine the hundreds of billing emails a month, clogging up your inbox!).

Opting in to the advertising experience is also broken. Consumers en masse should not be expected to choose to view ads when blocking them is both easy and consequence-free. And, while in small numbers, ad-block adoption has a marginal impact on publishers, when done so, it’s 50 percent to 60 percent of users, according to some estimates. It is a tragedy of the commons.

So what’s the answer? First, consumers need to understand the impact of ad blocking on the very publishers whose content they love. You like publishers — you consume thousands of pages of the content they create every year. And you must like some brands, because you spend money on their merchandise. There’s also the reality of what advertising pays for. Google’s self-driving cars? Paid for by ad revenue. Same with its Wi-Fi tools for remote locations like sub-Saharan Africa, and the hundreds of other innovative products that companies like Google are working on today to ensure a smart, digitally connected world tomorrow. Ad revenue is the research-and-development funding stream we don’t even think to consider.

The solution for consumers, which may come in one month or 20, is a system in which they better understand the economy of the Web, have a clear voice in the debate of how advertising should work, and can opt in to good advertising, and out of bad.

Let’s consider good advertising for a moment. Uncrate, an app on my iPad, is basically half advertising. I don’t mean pop-ups or pre-video ads. There are entire sections dedicated to gear, style, cars and so on. The retail items embedded in the app are encouraging me to shop. Native ads, which are ads that exist right next to the sections with Uncrate’s content, target me based on my browsing history and shopping habits.

I appreciate this experience in part because I have spent a career working in ad tech. I understand the system. However, not all consumers do. The onus is on advertisers and publishers to rectify that problem. The trade group the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has spent 45 years helping brands advertise to consumers responsibly in a mode of self-preservation. Maybe it’s a DMA ad campaign about ads. Too meta? It would work if done right.

Consumers also need a stronger voice in this debate.

The industry should add transparency to what consumers already may implicitly understand but don’t act on: Advertising is necessary, and can be enjoyable. Some of you already make that choice. Spotify, the popular music-streaming app, offers a subscription version with no advertising and a free version which includes ads. The former has 20 million users, while the pro-ad version has 75 million. Proactively choosing to view content is also not new. Some websites ask users to disable their pop-up blocker embedded in the Web browser.

That could work with ad blocking, where, rather than having a choice between “block everything” and “block nothing,” consumers can reward those advertisements and the brands that serve them, for relevance, utility or entertainment.

Imagine, for example, knowing that you’ve been served a customized ad for your favorite pair of shoes, including a private sale, seeing that it was suppressed by the ad blocker you chose to install, and having the option to allow it through. Eventually, those advertisers who don’t understand their consumers — who don’t make smart, real-time decisions about what’s most relevant or meaningful to a given consumer at a given moment, those unable to create a better experience for consumers — will be blocked, choked off from the very people they want to reach. Survival of the best ad.

Right now, the market is addressing consumer dissatisfaction through a cottage industry of ad-blocking startups. Some have argued that ad blocking will be good for the advertising industry. It is true that it will catalyze an important conversation about the consumer experience in advertising. But ad blocking does not have a permanent place in the advertising ecosystem. Once we solve the larger issue, we no longer need the smaller solution.

Joe Zawadzki is chairman and CEO of MediaMath. Reach him @JoeZawadzki.

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