Why You Should Be Paying Attention To The Talk About Ad Blockers

Mar 08, 2016

I know that I’m in the minority. I’m that person who refuses to fast forward through commercials even when I DVR a show. Heck, sometimes I even rewind to watch ads that I really like. You don’t have to say it. I embraced my nerdiness a long time ago. I’ve loved advertising since I started collecting Absolut Vodka ads in the third grade (my parents, I’m sure, were puzzled by this). Most Americans, however, don’t like (or trust) advertisements. Hence, the advent of the ad blocker.

Ad blockers? Give me the short version. 

Though ad blockers have been around for a while, at the end of 2015, Apple introduced support for ad blockers within Safari when it released iOS 9. This allows third-party developers to build apps that prevent ads from appearing on the mobile web. Apple’s move put a spotlight on the issue and in February 2016, Samsung announced that it would be the first major Android smartphone manufacturer to allow ad-blocking technology (the catch here is that users will have to use the Samsung browser in order to use ad blockers, as third-party browsers won’t support it). The benefit to the consumer? Improved, ad-free mobile browsing experience, extra content stripped from pages, faster load times. All good stuff, right? Depends how you look at it.

How does any of this affect me?

Though ad blockers are still not as widely used as you’d expect, according to the most recent PageFair/Adobe report, we can be sure that the percentage of the population using them will be on the rise. Besides the obvious impact on advertising agencies and brands attempting to reach consumers via the mobile web, the rise of ad blockers will cause a ripple effect that reaches all of us.

Google, for example, gets 90% of its revenue from online ads and Facebook isn’t far behind. But it’s not just the giants of the web that need to be concerned. Consider the already-beleaguered publishing industry, which relies on ad sales to make content accessible to everyday readers. How then, do they continue to provide free content to the internet-perusing public? Ad-blocking sounds great in theory until you consider that you might not be getting your daily dose of the Wall Street Journal as a result. For now, many are opting to refuse it to anyone with an ad blocker installed. Wired.com, for example, now asks users with ad blocking technology installed to disable it in order to use their site. In light of this, some ad blockers are allowing what they call “acceptable ads” (nothing that is particularly disruptive, simple text or images) to be whitelisted. Depending on how extreme a stance you’re willing to take, you could claim that the evolution of the ad blocker may bring about the end of the free internet as we know it.

Now let’s take this a step further and consider the little guy. What does ad blocking mean for your favorite blog? Or the writer who finds him/herself making a career of blogging ? I think we’ll find that fewer ads mean fewer creative folks are able to make a living this way, which also means less independently written content for those of us looking for it. Examined from this angle, you can see how the argument that there are ethical implications to this technology can be made. In fact, Marco Ament, the developer behind Peace, one of the more successful ad blocking apps back when they made their big announcement in Fall 2015, pulled it from the app store shortly thereafter.

“Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have,” Ament wrote. “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.”

So, what comes next?

Ad-blocking is new technology, so we’re about to see advertising agencies, their clients, and publishers evolve alongside it. In a sense, advertisers are paying the price for years of intrusive practices but they won’t go anywhere without a fight. As for the little guy, let’s hope that he (or she) doesn’t go down as a result. I wish I had a clear answer to this question but I think we’re about to see a whole lot of change. In the meantime, I’ll be on my couch, ad blocker-free, rewinding to watch commercials.

If you’d like to dig in a bit more on this subject, check out WNYC’s Note To Self podcast’s take on all this.