Yes, There Is a War on Advertising. Now What?

Ads Are Being Cast as the Enemy as Consumers Find More and More Ways to Block Them

Apple has been scaring up apocalyptic predictions for the future of advertising ever since it said its forthcoming mobile operating system would make it easier for apps to block ads in Safari browsers on the iPhone. Encouraged by the company, the scenario goes, consumers will shut marketers out to surf a perceived faster, cleaner, less-invasive web — until the free internet collapses for lack of ad revenue.

But the truth is the horsemen were in the saddle well before the new operating system, which arrives on Wednesday. Consider:

  • IPhone owners could already easily erase marketers’ messages from mobile web pages and apps. As an experiment, Ad Age reporters did it with marquee publishers such as The New York Times using the app AdBlock Mobile.
  • The number of people actively blocking ads in the U.S. rose to 45 million in the second quarter, up 48% from the period a year earlier, according to one widely cited report.
  • Eyeo, maker of the popular Adblock Plus desktop blocker, is offering new blocker-ized browsers for Apple and Android devices. “As annoying and irritating ads have spread fast to mobile devices, we are still championing the user, offering the ability to block ads and thereby giving them faster browser speeds and longer battery life, not to mention keeping them safe from malvertising exploits,” Till Faida, co-founder of Adblock Plus, said in an announcement last week.
  • The self-described “king of all media,” Howard Stern, recently talked about ad blocking on his radio show, declaring how “beautiful” it sounds.

Ever since the advent of the DVR, it’s clear that given the choice, many, if not most, consumers would rather skip ads pretty much anywhere they encounter them. But the implications run much further for the $58.6 billion digital ad business. The blocking movement has the potential to “threaten the economic viability of the media” and push more and more content behind paywalls, according to Dan Jaffe, the top lobbyist for the Association of National Advertisers. The world could split into information haves and have-nots, who can’t or won’t pay for the information and entertainment that’s now free thanks to advertising, he told Ad Age last week. “Potentially, this could change the whole economic structure of the internet,” he said.

Is it too much to call it a war on advertising?

The threat might be overstated. Some of the hype around the trend this year has come from players with a vested interest, such as PageFair, a company that promises to help publishers “reclaim your adblocked revenue.”(It replaces barred ads with ones that meet Adblock Plus criteria for lightweight, nonobstructive ads, smoothing the way with a small fee to Adblock Plus.) It was PageFair and Adobe that issued the report claiming 45 million active ad blockers in the U.S., along with interesting tidbits like the most ad-blocky state (Oregon, where 16.4% of ads are blocked) and the most blocked browser (Google‘s Chrome).

The directional signals, however, are anything but encouraging.

The industry has taken tentative steps, like beginning to research lawsuits against ad blockers or taking refuge in branded content that consumers might like and ad blockers might miss. But largely, the ad industry has no coherent strategy to confront a movement that threatens its online existence. That’s partly because whatever popularity ad blockers gain reflects consumer wishes. Forcing ads on people who’ve gone out of their way to avoid them doesn’t bode well for the brand messaging therein.

“We don’t want to anger consumers,” Mr. Jaffe said “Everybody needs to move carefully.”

In the same breath, many industry executives say it’s finally time to get a plan together. “It had to get big enough to be an important issue, and I think we’ve reached that inflection point,” said WPP Digital President and Xaxis Chairman David Moore, who also serves as chairman of the board of directors for the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Tech Lab.

The IAB broached the topic during its board meetings in May and followed up with a member summit in July that convened the IAB and IAB Tech Lab boards as well as a number of sales and technology executives. One suggestion: Follow the lead of Hulu and several other sites that refuse to show content when visitors arrive bearing ad blockers — but take that approach much bigger. “I advocated for the top 100 websites to — beginning on the same day — not let anybody with ad blockers turned on” access the sites, Mr. Moore said.

The Washington Post last week began experimenting with the approach on its own site at least. “The test we’re currently running uses a few different approaches to see what moves these readers to either enable ads on The Washington Post, sign up for a newsletter or subscribe,” a spokeswoman said, adding that the company works to respect users’ privacy and keep intrusive ads out. “Many people already receive our journalism for free online, and in the long run, without income via subscriptions or advertising, we won’t be able to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us.”

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Originally posted by and at AdvertisingAge