The debate around the new ad-blocking apps is now about ethics in advertising

Yesterday Apple allowed ad-blocking apps in the app store for the first time with iOS 9 and, lo and behold, they became the most downloaded apps in the iTunes store in a few hours. The most popular choices are Peace, $2.99, Purify, $3.99, and Blockr, $0.99.

Typical ad overlay at HBR.org

Typical ad overlay at HBR.org

This is a testament to how frustrating the user experience really is, especially on some mobile websites. Some frustrations are intrusive pop-ups that are impossible to close, overlays with the same challenges, extremely slow load times due to numerous heavy ads, and autoplaying video, often with the sound on for additional aggravation. To further maximize advertising revenue, some content sites split one-page articles into several paragraph long bits to expose visitors to even more advertising. Articles have been written comparing download times with and without ad blockers, and it’s significant, with ad blockers chopping page download time by half and even more, increasing phone battery life and decreasing data usage, both beneficial to users. Then add the somewhat creepy tracking, social extensions, and data collection that ad networks use to improve ad targeting, and, well, it’s understandable why users are downloading and paying for ad-blocking apps in droves.

But today the debate is going beyond the user experience and has become an ethical one. Now that users can block ads and have a better user experience, is this fair to the content sites who are constantly creating great content that users want to read? After all, content creation isn’t free and aside from the big, name-brand news sites such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, many users are not willing to pay for access to content. Most will just virtually shrug and pick another source for the topic. It’s not that the big content creators, the well known news brands, are having an easy time generating revenue in the digital world, it’s just that their subscriptions work for a large group of users. What this means is that the ad blockers will mostly hit the smaller content publishers. Perhaps these will be popular niche sites, web sites of magazines, and maybe even the bigger content “farms.” Any site that is mostly dependent on ads mostly provided by external ad networks will probably see a decline in revenue.

This is the source of the problem: the non-giants want to focus on content creation so have outsourced their revenue generators to the ad networks. Most are not building native ads beyond sponsored content (more on that later) because most are focused on editorial work, not adtech. Says Anil Dash in one of today’s best threads, we, as users, should want these sites to focus on content creation and not adtech because that’s what they do best and that’s what users want. 

Yet users want to access that content with a “better user experience” read: less intrusive ads and less invasive tracking. Is this fair to the content providers? The internet content game has historically meant that free equals ad-supported. There is no free lunch. If users don’t directly pay for content or a service, that service has the “right” to use advertising to create revenue. Otherwise it will cease to exist. How is it fair for users to block the source of revenue for publishers when both sides, users and publishers, have long understood this tradeoff?

Instagram thinks I need a Disney baby.

Instagram thinks I need a Disney baby.

Users have said: give us “better ads” (I have also been guilty of this.) But what are better ads? Native ones that the giants like Twitter and Instagram can insert in their stream at will but are out of reach for publishers without more development work? Or more sponsored content such as paid-for product reviews and sponsored articles, which are deceptive? Are adtech companies around the world sitting down and brainstorming new ideas? Or, pessimistically, will the ad game become a cat and mouse chase where adtech companies find ways to bypass the blockers, with the blockers responding with patch a few days or weeks later? Perhaps adtech will tone down ad aggressiveness and number of ads per page, reaching a theoretical balance where both users and publishers are happy? Or perhaps, like Adblock Plus does today, define “acceptable ads” that will still be displayed even if ad blockers are installed? Even if adtech changes tactics, it remains to be seen how much harm this will do to publishers. Will users have fewer content choices in a year? Will the remaining publishers compromise on including more sponsored content? One thing’s for sure, this guy (creator of Peace) is happy:

Update 9/18/15:  Marco Arment, creator of Peace, the developer I quoted yesterday at the end of the post as proud of being the number one selling app, pulled Peace from the app store today due to ethical concerns. Says Mr Arment: Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.” He goes on to say that “Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt…”

The future of online advertising is not about blocking all ads, nor is it about allowing all ads and trackers. It will be somewhere down the middle, with smarter ad formats, less ad bombardment, less tracking, some all out blocking while allowing some ads. In other words, a compromise.  

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2 thoughts on “The debate around the new ad-blocking apps is now about ethics in advertising

  1. Pingback: Facebook, trust and the internet of things | What it all boils down to

  2. Maybe people would be more willing to accept ads they didn’t double the download time of the page, use up precious and pricey bandwidth on mobile connections and invade your privacy with 17 tracker scripts coming along for the ride on the page.

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