Ad Blockers and the Naked Emperor

According to an old saying, half of advertising is useless — but no one knows which half. I was reminded of that saying when Apple announced that the latest version of iOS would include the ad blocker Crystal, causing a wave of outrage from advertisers.

Apple soon backed down by allowing advertisers to pay to bypass restrictions, but I can’t help thinking that the complaints were mostly marketeers trying to deny an outburst of common sense that they’ve been dreading for years.

After all, ad blockers are hardly new. They’ve been available as browser extensions for years. Apple’s actions may have given them an official status they never had before, but the publicity means that more people are probably aware of ad blockers than ever before. Crystal had 100,000 downloads in the first week that Apple made it available, and any gap created by its less than complete performance is being quickly filled by other ad blockers. Common sense might have told advertisers that the last thing they should do was call more attention this kind of technology.

The concern, of course, is the potential loss of income from online sales — and not just from direct sales, either. For many sites (including several for which I write, I should mention in the interests of full disclosure), ads are a major source of funding. Online publishing is rarely more than marginally profitable, so a small reduction in ad revenue could mean the end of them.

Or so many claim. Alternatives do exist, such as subscription services. But subscription services could threaten current business models, and not just because subscribers are often encouraged by offering them ad-free reading. Unlike page hits, which indicate only that a viewer landed for a second on a page, subscriptions give a reasonably exact indication of the audience — and exactness is the last thing on-line marketers want, because, probably, exactness would indicate that the effectiveness of online ads is much smaller than generally claimed.

The Advertisers’ Secret

This particular emperor has been dancing sans shirts and trousers for some years now. Search the web, and you have no trouble finding claims about which advertising techniques work, or advice about how to grow your audience. However, if you read these articles critically, you soon notice an almost total absence of hard figures. How much more successful is one form of ad over another? What percentage increase can you expect if you change advertising techniques? Good luck finding an answer, let alone two sets of figures that agree. Most alleged advertising experts cannot even explain why some techniques work better than others, because nobody really knows.

The secret that few advertisers care to think about is that online advertising is an uncertain business, and always has been. When advertisers are successful, they can never be sure whether their skill or pure luck is responsible. So they create an illusion of expertise to sell because they cannot sell any guarantee of results.

What advertisers are reluctant to admit is that the history of online advertising is an endless series of booms and busts. The first boom coincided with the Dot Com Era around the turn of the millennium, and the first bust with its collapse. Since then, the cycle has reoccurred every 8-24 months.

Part of the reason for the cycle may be that search engines like Google are constantly tweaking their algorithms to thwart any attempt to manipulate results. Perhaps, too, booms are sometimes caused by the introduction of new advertising techniques, although booms seem to occur even when no new techniques are around.

But the truth is no one knows, which is why you can hardly find an online marketer who doesn’t live in a state of perpetual nervousness. No matter what facade they assume for customers, they can never forget how precarious their position actually is. They are just dreading the moment when a young child is going to point at their efforts and exclaim, “Look, Mommy, that man is naked!”

Deep Denial

Essentially, Apple’s decision to carry ad blockers was a foretaste of that moment of public debunking. It is an acknowledgement by a large corporation that many users have no use for ads, and would welcome an easy way to opt out of a system whose dysfunction is an open secret.

After so much denial over so many years, what else can advertisers do but lash out in anger? Hard facts are being hinted at that advertisers would prefer to pretend never existed. Even when a few hints are enough to send advertisers into a frenzy, you can hardly expect them to admit that most people simply don’t like ads very much.

In fact, I suspect matters are even worse than Apple’s actions suggest. A growing number of people, including me, have trained themselves not to see ads at all. Even when they consciously try to look for an ad, they find their attention drifting after a few seconds.

Apple’s plans could have been the signal to acknowledge that current forms of online advertising are risky, and that content sites need new funding models. Instead, though, what they chiefly did was provoke outrage and denial.

That’s regrettable, because the truths implied in the story are not going away. And the longer they are ignored, the harder the consequences are going to be.


Cover Image: Signs by Christ Coleen for FreeImages.com

  • Webpass.io

    It will be interesting to see how Apple iterates on their current adblocking implementation.

    If you’re looking for an alternative to advertising — either as a website that typically runs ads, or a visitor who wants to support websites in not showing you ads — then check out https://webpass.io. It’s a subscription based method, but the core idea is one subscription to cover many websites. Can also use it alongside your existing adblocker.

  • http://www.mark-potter.com mark p

    Apple allows plenty of third party apps to use dozens of different tracking and advertising services within their apps. Many of these include geo-tracking being sold to third parties, not to mention the suite of trackers within the Facebook ecosystem. To allow ad blocking within Safari on iOS does not a paradigm shift make. Their market share is growing, they do tend to start trends, but this is more symbolic than anything at this point.

    However, if there is to be an arms race of advertisers vs. ad blockers – I can tell you who will win. The advertisers have far more money and powerful parties than the ad blocker side, and this is likely to only push the advertising tech companies to push the boundaries further than they do today. Yes, some advertisers do go to far, and yes there is consumer push back against this. However barring government involvement, it’s likely that in the end – the average internet suffers the most collateral damage in this battle.

    It’s usually a bad idea to poke the bear.

    • Pantufa

      This is apple turning the faucet that feeds Google from iOS. Google profits 3x more from iOS ads than from Android ads. By turning the faucet off, Apple dries and screws Google. Simple as that. Google betrayed Apple. It is now being repaid. First was Maps, second Wolfram, Yahoo and Bing as SIRI assistant, Yahoo on stocks instead of Google, ?Pay to dry Google Wallet, ?watch to demolish android watch and now adblock on safari. Google is so screwed.

      • http://www.mark-potter.com mark p

        I presume your numbers reflect the reporting from March of this year that said that of 12B in mobile revenue in 2014 – 75% was from iOS? Keep in mind that number was specific to mobile search (PPC), which is unaffected by the ad blocking now being deployed by iOS developers. The only ad blocking being done right now – is in page scripts – primarily user tracking and display advertising features – i.e. tracking multiple site visits on one cookie to develop a user profile; and all of it in Safari only. The PPC ecosystem will be largely unaffected by this move.

        In addition most middle and low-tier app developers have relied on Google to monetize their apps, NOT iAds. I don’t believe this move will have any affect on those apps, or their data collection. I don’t know that Apple would dare risk losing a large chunk of app developers over an inability to monetize free apps via advertising.

        While I agree that Apple and Google are at a cold war arms race of sorts, you overestimate how much of a dent this will actually create in Google’s wallet, especially in the short term. I think mid and upper tier publishers may be the most hurt by this. How many iterations of pay for content models has the New York Times gone through in the last few years? Subscriptions, Pay Walls, etc – very very few publishers have been able to successfully monetize their services to an extent that they no longer have to rely on selling advertising to keep the service running. There are plenty of small sites run by people that are doing it as a hobby or for fun, and they’re not going anywhere. But hosting, bandwidth, branding, authors, editors, account people, research, computers, cameras, software, etc make this an expensive business, and people are kidding themselves if they think they can start blocking ads and the internet will become some magical free rainbow land of content with no ads.

        It costs a certain amount to do a thing – and that money will come from somewhere, or that thing will go away.

    • Tom

      From a technological stand point, ad blockers should always be able to block ads on the wild web. On platforms like iOS, it really is up to the owner of the platform. The big problem for the ad blocker side is the ad blockers themselves. For example, Ad Block is now taking advertiser money to allow “useful” ads by default. This is how it starts. Since there is no one watching the voluntary watcher, there is no real organized resistance to aggressive online advertising.

      • http://www.mark-potter.com mark p

        So if advertisers used a server-side program to insert advertising into an article, using the same underlying html code as the rest of the article – how would an ad blocker kill that? (magazines don’t use different paper for ad pages, your only ad block there is to not pay attention to something, but you still see it)

        If video hosting sites stopped using client side scripts to run pre-roll video, and instead simply insert it mid-stream within the video data itself, how would an ad blocker kill that? (Like a tv-show, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to channel-flip digital videos on YouTube)

        Where there is a will, and a MASSIVE budget, there is a way…..

  • http://mjanja.co.ke/ Alan Orth

    Hold up a second. First, Apple introduced a content blocking framework in iOS9, not an ad blocker. Second, Crystal is just an application by a third-party developer that utilizes the content blocking framework to perform ad blocking, and there are several other ones on the Apple Store.

  • Tom

    Ad Block just sold out.

  • Sep

    I wouldn’t say advertisers are in denial **AT ALL**. I have been to 3 ad tech conferences in the last 2 months and they are on top of this stuff in ways you can’t begin to believe.

    First off, native advertising is about to get so insidious you can’t even imagine. The people that are in denial are the people who think there is still going to be “journalism” after this is over. Literally everything you read will be bought and paid for. There will be subtle references splattered all over your “news” and “articles” which are actually advertising content.

    Advertisers are coming up with new metrics and new ways to measure native advertising, references and in-content links.

    On top of that there are loads of ads that break right through the defenses of adblockers.

    And of course, there are 100% free (and powerful) solutions like http://blockadblock.com

    This war is just beginning. But let’s be very clear about how it’s going to play out: The same way every other conflict plays out: MONEY WINS.

    Case in point: AdBlock just sold out to money.

    Think that’s not going to happen every time? Think again.