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Ad blocking is more about personal data than on-target ads

By David Murphy

Mobile Marketing magazine

London, UK


The ad-blocking problem continues to challenge publishers and advertisers alike.

Figures from the IAB released last November revealed 18% of consumers in the United Kingdom had deployed ad-blocking software. And, the rate of growth of ad-blocker deployment in the UK between June 2014 and June 2015 was 82%, according to PageFair, which offers publishers the ability to serve simple, unfussy ads to people who arrive on their sites with ad blockers turned on.

That’s exactly double the global growth figure of 41%, which is, in and of itself, worryingly high.

News media readers are turning to ad blockers at alarming rates.
News media readers are turning to ad blockers at alarming rates.

There seems to be broad agreement on why people are deploying ad blockers. There are two principal factors. The first is because they can. It’s never been easier to click on a link and download a bit of software that will speed up your browsing experience.

But being able to do something is not always reason enough to want to do it. In the case of the ad blockers, the digital advertising industry has shot itself in the foot by bombarding Web users with an array of intrusive ad formats – pop-unders, pop-overs, interstitials, auto-play videos, etc. – to the point where people (lots of them!) have had enough.

It stands to reason, really. If I didn’t have kids who insist on turning the car radio to Capital whenever we get in the car to take them to or pick them up from anywhere, I wouldn’t go within a million megahertz of a commercial radio station. I find radio ads unbelievably irritating, especially the ones for financial products, where the lengthy list of terms and conditions have to be read at breakneck speed to squeeze them into the last five or 10 seconds of the ad.

So for me the solution is obvious: As soon as the kids are out of the car and headed for the netball court or the dance hall, I turn the radio off and switch to the CD player. Ad blockers make it just as easy for Web users to do the same with online advertising.

This idea – that the principal reason Web users deploy ad blockers is because the ads are irritating or irrelevant – has led many commentators to conclude that at least part of the solution is to move toward a more engaging type of ad.

Make the ad relevant and contextual and people won’t want to deploy ad blockers. We might even win back the hearts and minds of some of those who have used them, the argument goes.

Native is the poster child for this thoroughly modern way of targeting the modern consumer in a non-intrusive way.

I can see how people reach this conclusion, but I’ve struggled to buy it ever since I first heard it mooted. And my suspicions were confirmed this week when I spoke to PageFair CEO Sean Blanchfield.

He told me that when the company asked 400 consumers in the United States what would cause them to start using ad-blocking software if they weren’t already, the relevance of the ad figured much lower in responses than privacy issues.

In fact, just 10% of respondents said they would start using an ad blocker “if marketers don’t improve their ability to target ads,” while 50% said they would do so “if I feel my personal data is being misused to personalise the ads.”

“Everyone seems to be striving to deliver more personalised ads, but these assume something that people would not want in real life; the idea that a stranger knows all about them,” Blanchfield says.

“Personalised ads and retargeting without permission is, by definition, creepy — this idea that some third party knows what Web sites you’ve been on in the last week. Brand advertising was healthy for a long time before the advent of third-party cookies. Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean you should do it.”

Retargeting, of course, is a soft target, mainly because it’s usually done so badly. Ads follow you around the Web for weeks, or even months, after you’ve bought the product advertisers are trying to sell you from another site – or even from the retailer still trying to get you to buy it.

But those who engage in it, not unnaturally, swear by its ability to convert consumers who would not otherwise have bought. And it will take more than one naysayer to change their tune.

But I think Blanchfield makes a very valid point. Additionally, to his credit, he points out that ad blocking on mobile is still very small beer, almost too small to mention. It’s much more of a problem on desktop because it only applies to the Web, as opposed to apps, and apps are not a “thing” on the big Web.

But this will change, of course, as ad blocking inevitably finds its way into apps. Blanchfield, for one, has no doubts about the scale of the ad-blocking problem.

“This has unbounded consequences,” he says. “Left unchecked, there’s no reason why it could not wipe out Internet advertising.”

So if you’re one of those who thinks that ad blocking is a passing fad that will be blown away on a tide of ever-more personalised and engaging (or, alternatively, creepy) advertising, perhaps it’s time to think again.

About David Murphy

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