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Ad-blocking is a cultural challenge, not a technical one

28 Sep 2015  |  Dominic Mills 
Ad-blocking is a cultural challenge, not a technical one

It's time for some 'nudge' thinking or choice architecture to help reframe the proposition to consumers, Dominic Mills believes.

Rather late in the day, it seems to me, the ad industry has woken up to the threat of ad-blocking. Most of this has been provoked by the launch of iOS 9.

Even the mighty Goldman Sachs has weighed in, and when the 'vampire squid' takes an interest in something, it's really time to worry.

In fact the problem has been around for a while, but the industry has been asleep at the wheel. About 18 months ago, I sat on the panel discussing the problem with industry figures, one of who ran a trading desk.

When he returned to his office, he did a quick straw poll of his staff and, to his shock, found that they all used ad-blockers. Doh!

What is absent in the debate, curiously, is any attempt to reframe the issue. And I don't just mean by those for whom every cloud has a silver lining - i.e. printed versions of newspapers, magazines and outdoor (more on which later) - or even PR/owned media - all of which share one unimpeachable virtue: they can't be blocked.

If you read some of the stuff coming out of the IAB, you'd think they're coming at it the wrong way. The UK arm seems to think the problem can be solved by 'improving the user experience' - which I take it is shorthand for making the ads better, not following consumers round like stalkers and showing a modicum of self-restraint when it comes to frequency. Fat chance.

Meanwhile, the US arm, in what sounds like complete panic, has been talking about legal action, and fluffing itself up into a a state of righteous indignation about the immorality of the 'racketeering' approach employed by some ad-blockers.

Of course some of it is racketeering. But moaning about it isn't going to help, because the thing about racketeering is that the 'victims' are complicit in it. The publishers are as keen to do 'whitelisting' deals with ad-blockers as the latter are to hoover up the money.

Both approaches are daft. Who decides what constitutes 'better advertising' such that consumers are only too pleased to turn off their ad-blockers? Brian Jacobs summarises the argument beautifully here.

And as for the idea of taking legal action? Don't make me laugh. Have they forgotten the disastrous way the music business went about tackling piracy a decade ago?

The problem, I think, is that the ad industry frames the issue as a technical one, that can be solved just by tweaking a few formats here, and channelling everything into native.

But it needs to be reframed as a series of overlapping cultural issues. Some people just don't like ads; some think we live in a free culture, where they don't have to pay for stuff; some hate data intrusion; some people don't understand the way ads fund free content; and some people just don't care that it does, and don't care that their behaviour places the media they consume at risk.

On the latter, by the way, it will be interesting to see if the debate about ad-blocking widens to include the BBC's digital activities. As long as consumers can go to the BBC for news/entertainment, the ability of the commercial media to fight back by blocking the adblockers is circumscribed.

But that is a whole other question.

If you want to get a sense of the different ways consumers feel about ad-blocking, read the hundreds of comments here underneath a Guardian story about ad-blocking.

'Global gypsy', for example, says this: "I can tolerate static, unmoving, unblinking, silent ads. Before I discovered ad-block, years ago, I sometimes used to keep a blank Notepad window open sized to cover particularly irritating ads, so I could concentrate on what I was reading.

"The Guardian was one of the very worst, and it was their ads which finally pissed me off enough to install blocking software. So, thanks Graun, I've never looked at an ad since."

'Fishworld', meanwhile, thinks publishers have violated the 'implied contract': He/she says: "Basically I think any 'implied contract' has been well and truly violated by the extent of advertising - or to put it another way, customers will put up with a lot, but when sites start taking the piss it gets untenable."

And here's Drunken Begger [sic]: "I use ad-blocker and it's great. The guardian does have a pop up saying we notice you are using adblocker please subscribe and i have thought about it but half the daily content is feminist ranting to which I am not against although it dosent interest me, i am only here for the main stories and i can get them any where.

"As for blocking ad-blocker users Youtube tried to but a court battle ruled in favour of the ad-blocker saying its upto the individual if they want to be bombarded with ads or not and so it should be."

I have no idea what the answer is. The music industry may offer some parallels. It has moved from near-disaster (Napster etc) to a more healthy state, where premium (Spotify subscribers), free (Spotify ad funded) and micro-payment systems (iTunes) co-exist.

One idea that gets touted is reinforcing the idea of the 'implied contract' - i.e. you give us your time/data and we'll give you content and services for free. But the 'implied contract' has been around for years (ITV/C4/commercial radio/free mags).

My sense is that people understand the 'implied contract', but they just don't care about it.

Instead, the ad industry could call on the behavioural economists for help. If the issue, as I believe, is a cultural one, then it might be a bit of time for some 'nudge' thinking or choice architecture to help reframe the proposition to consumers.

And where better to start than the creative agencies, most of whom are highly practised in the art of reframing consumer propositions. Where's Rory Sutherland when you need him?

New brooms in outdoor

outsmart

I like the thinking (and the brand identity) behind the new outdoor industry trade body Outsmart.

The new brooms, chairman Mark Craze and CEO Alan Brydon, are upfront about their targets and their points of weakness. On the former, it's about focusing on effectiveness to boost market share; on the latter, it's about getting JC Decaux, the biggest player, back into the fold.

The idea of a trade body without the biggest player is, of course, ridiculous. In many ways, Decaux's return (or not) will be the ultimate measure of success.

The effectiveness question is another vital one to tackle. One of the things I love about the main trade bodies - and here Outsmart's predecessor was notable by its failure to do so - is the intellectual rigour with which they set about proving how their medium works.

This is the stuff that really matters to the rest of the industry, and it's where they can really shine some light.

The temptation, which all trade bodies ought to resist (and they mostly do) is to generate heat by trashing their competitors. I understand how that might play well with their shareholders, but it's not much use for their wider stakeholders (i.e. advertisers, media planners and so on).

However, one area OOH could legitimately have some fun with the competition is in the area of ad-blocking. Other than blindfolding oneself, you can't avoid OOH. That's a competitive advantage to be exploited, certainly, but it's not very collegiate.

Let's see how Outsmart plays it.

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13 Dec 2019 

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