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Richard Marks 

UK adblocking hits 40%: is online advertising now a bug rather than a feature?

UK adblocking hits 40%: is online advertising now a bug rather than a feature?

The latest Connected Screens survey reveals that 40% of us have installed an adblocker - but Research the Media's Richard Marks isn't surprised given he uses one himself...

Looking through the most recent Connected Screens Survey from Mediatel there's a wealth of data on consumer screen use, but one particular figure sticks out like a beacon. 40% of laptop and PC/Mac users have installed an adblocker.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Connected Screens interviews 2,000 adults in broadband homes. Its ongoing mission, as the name implies, is to track screen use across the various devices available to consumers, with an emphasis on media and advertising. This most recent wave for H1 2016 is the fifth, but it's the first to include a question on adblocking. In the chart below this article you can see how this breaks down by screen type and age.


If we net these together, 44% have installed an adblocker on at least one of their connected devices. We are often told that younger adults are more brand-conscious and interested in advertising and yet they are the most likely to use an adblocker. Males are significantly more likely to block than females, whilst social grade is fairly even.

You will have noticed that adblockers are far more likely to be installed on laptops and PCs than on tablets and mobile. This may correlate with the higher amount of browser-based web access (where adblockers will have the most beneficial impact) compared to more app-driven access on tablets and phones. It's also not as straightforward to install an adblocker on a mobile device compared to a PC browser.

Latest Connected Screens data shows that not only are the ads on smartphones less likely to be blocked, smartphones have an advantage over tablets when it comes to targeting, as they are less likely to be shared devices. 87% of smartphone users said they never let others use it, compared to 59% of tablet users. So arguably 'targeted' advertising will be less of an irritant on smartphones than on shared devices.

The adblocking epidemic would be less worrying to advertisers if there was a clear migration from laptop to mobile. However, any trip to a Starbucks serves as a reminder that tablets have not become the laptop killers they were initially hailed as. Indeed, over the five waves of Connected Screens, whilst fixed PC usage has fallen slightly, laptop usage is remarkably consistent.

How do we interpret this? In my own case it is hard for me to comment on these figures without declaring an interest. Strictly between you and me, I have an adblocker installed on the Mac on which I am typing this article. So my comments are far from impartial. However I do know that 35% of my age band also have blockers installed, so suspect that this is more than just a personal take.

Adblocking is just a proportional response. Put simply: we will stop blocking your advertising when you stop blocking our content."

So why adblockers? Well, perhaps consumers are fed up with being treated like lab rats. After two decades of experimentation, the industry has yet to find a model for the online delivery of advertising that actually works - one that doesn't annoy people so much that they are driven to block it. There seem to be three separate but fundamental misconceptions behind Internet advertising.

The first bizarre assumption? If a brand attempts to obscure content and make that content harder to view, consumers will somehow reward that brand. Even the inventor of 'pop up' advertising has stated he regrets having created a monster.

Attempting to read some websites without an adblocker can be exhausting, like playing an 80s arcade game shoot-em-up. Ads leap out like snipers in an alley at every angle, as the player desperately tries to spot where the 'x' is hidden to remove them.

And then, because pop ups clearly weren't annoying enough, along comes autoplay video to steal your battery life and data allowance.

Adblocking is just a proportional response. Put simply: we will stop blocking your advertising when you stop blocking our content.

The second assumption is that advertising can work independently of content, rather than being seamlessly integrated into it. Advertising in 'traditional' media works because consumers buy into the value proposition around advertising and how it slots into their medium in an integrated and linear way. In the online environment that value proposition is clearly broken, resulting in half of 16-24s actively blocking out advertising on their laptop - not avoiding it, but making sure they never get to see it in the first place.

The one type of advertising I do get to see on my adblocked laptop is video advertising when it is integrated into the content - pre-rolls before embedded content on broadcaster, publisher sites and on YouTube and social media. Ironically this is a form of advertising that most closely matches the traditional TV model, with the advertising seamlessly accompanying the content as opposed to attempting to compete with and even obscure it.

That last reference to seamless integration should under no circumstances be interpreted as an endorsement of native advertising - moving from annoying the consumer to attempting to deceive them is surely not the way forward.

The third garment in the Emperor's new clothes is that consumers will embrace targeting because it is 'giving then more relevant information'. This may well be the case if the process were executed properly, provided that we can gradually overcome our fear of what some have labelled the 'uncanny valley': disquiet caused by knowing that our behaviour is being tracked. However its execution has been botched and 'precision targeting' has manifested as creepy stalking. As Nielsen's Megan Clarken portrayed adblocking recently: "It's a cry for help from consumers who are sick and tired of targeting and re-targeting."

Personally, what finally tripped me over the edge into installing an adblocker was an ad for Australian beer that kept jumping out in front of nearly every site I tried to visit (no, I don't drink lager) and a ubiquitous banner imploring me to buy tickets for New Order (weeks after I had already done so on a rival site).

At the risk of adding to what has been a difficult year for online advertising, the conclusion has to be that adblockers are the fault of the advertising itself.

They are a wakeup call to online advertising to get its house in order and learn from 'traditional' established media how to deliver a blend of content and advertising that people will embrace rather than reject. Because deep down I genuinely don't think people have adblockers because they 'hate advertising'. They just want a good user experience on their devices.

The Connected Screens survey will continue to track the use of adblockers, but for media owners to focus on technological attempts to circumvent them or on withholding content is treating the symptom not the disease, so I don't anticipate a fall in their use anytime soon.

If advertising inhibits, rather than enhances the online experience, if it's a bug rather than a feature, is it any wonder that consumers will want to reboot their relationship with advertising?

Richard Marks is managing director of Research the Media

Connected Screens

Purchase Mediatel's Connected Screens report for just £250 or for access to the raw data contact us for information about the Connected Surveys module.

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Tim Elkington, Chief Strategy Officer, IAB on 18 Oct 2016
“Ad blocking is obviously a hot topic and attracts lots of different opinions, I agree with some your points, however I disagree with others and am disappointed that you only seem to want to tell half the story. So in the interests of balance here’s the full picture.

In the first instance we believe the figure of 44% using ad blockers is way off. The question used to determine the level of ad blocking in the Connected Screens Survey is ‘Have you installed or used an ad blocker on your smartphone / tablet / laptop / desktop’. Unfortunately this is not necessarily a true representation of usage as it’s basically a ‘have you ever’ type question rather than a ‘are you currently doing it’ question. Because of this it shouldn’t be used to reflect how many people are currently blocking ads.

The IAB has been working with YouGov since March 2015 to understand levels of ad blocking use in the UK. Like the Connected Screens Survey we rely on claimed behaviour and people’s ability to accurately self-report on the use of ad blockers. Crucially though we go into a bit more detail and therefore I think we get more accurate results.

First we ask ‘have you ever downloaded ad blocking software / app?’ The latest wave of research conducted in August 2016 showed that 30% of internet users said they had. We then ask the 30% who have ever downloaded an ad blocker if they currently use it and 72% say they do. Applying the second percentage to the first shows that 21.2% of internet users are currently using ad blockers (less than half the net 44% figure that you give).

Out of interest those that have ever downloaded an ad blocker but no longer use it give ‘switched to a new device’, ‘couldn’t access some content with the ad blocker installed’, ‘didn’t trust the ad blocker’ or ‘the ad blocker didn’t work properly’ as the main reasons for no longer using ad blockers.

Obviously self-reporting around the use of ad-blockers can be difficult. Because of this in the last wave of the research we asked those who claimed to be using ad blockers which brand of ad blocker they were using in order to test their knowledge. 20% of those claiming to use ad blockers identified an anti-virus software provider (which didn’t offer ad blocking functionality) as their ad blocker. So the actual percentage of those people currently using ad blockers might be even smaller.

In the five waves of research into ad blocking that we’ve conducted we explored the motivations behind blocking ads - and here’s where I do agree with you - the main reason is that some online ads can be frustrating and distracting.

You call this ‘a wakeup call to online advertising to get its house in order’ and I couldn’t agree more. What disappoints me about your article though is that you’ve ignored all the actions that the digital advertising industry is taking as a result of this wakeup call.

In October 2015 the IAB launched the LEAN principles that dictated that online advertising should be Light in terms of file size, Encrypted, Ad Choices enabled and Non-invasive in terms of user experience. Since then we’ve been working with the industry on a global basis and have recently announced two important developments.

Firstly is the launch of a new portfolio of ads (and the retirement of others) that adhere to the LEAN standards We’re currently in a period of public feedback and inviting comments about the new ads until 28th November, you can feedback by emailing

Secondly is the launch of Coalition for Better Ads which sees global stakeholders from all sides of the industry (for example 4A’s, ANA, Facebook, Google, GroupM, IAB, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and WFA) coming together to improve the consumer experience of online advertising.

So please tell the whole story. Yes, some online advertising can be annoying, but to the best of our knowledge just over one in five use ad blockers (not the 44% you cite) and we are actively working as an industry to heed the wakeup call and improve everyone’s experience of digital advertising, including yours!”
Richard Marks, Director, Research The Media on 17 Oct 2016
“Hi Tim

Thanks for the considered response.

With regard to the wording of the question, you make a valid point about differentiating installation from use and, mindful of the questionnaire wording, I did try to be careful in the article to refer to 'have installed' as opposed to 'use'.

My main aim in the article was to try to channel why consumers had felt the need to install one in the first place.

Hopefully people (including yours truly) will deinstall them; or not feel the need to reinstall them when they upgrade to a new device. That will I guess be driven by how much they notice the absence of the blocker on the new device. Certainly I don't have one on my smartphone or tablet as neither have annoyed me to the extend the laptop has! I do hope that the positive actions (LEAN) that you describe above bear fruit.

With regard to the point you make about balance, I actually do agree that the article wasn't balanced. It wasn't supposed to be, it was an opinion piece designed to cast light on the survey finding by explaining why I myself had taken a course of action, as opposed to explaining why I perhaps should not have. It wasn't a news item but a short opinion piece designed to spark debate. Even then I overshot the 900 words the column was supposed to be.

So in that context your reply works really well as a counter-balance and I would certainly recommend people to read both together to get a balanced view.”