Ad Blocking: M’m! M’m! Good!

Businesses that only work if they can push ads at people that don’t want to see them may be in trouble.
John ParkinsonSeptember 24, 2015
Ad Blocking: M’m! M’m! Good!

I don’t know about you, but I am just about totally fed up with advertising. On every medium I use regularly (TV, the web, and increasingly on my phone) ads are getting in the way of doing work or consuming content for any purpose. It’s time wasting, frustrating, and on some platforms it’s costing me money as the ads eat bandwidth, data plan volume, and time.

While I can generally ignore ads in the few print properties I still use, it’s become more difficult online and over the air. I don’t watch CNBC anymore as a result of the relentless and often repetitive bombardment of moronic ads (and the increasingly moronic content, but’s that a different topic) and I’ve implemented ad blocking in my web browser on every platform I can. Soon (I hope) I’ll be able to block ads on my iPhone too. It’s about time.

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skipadNow I have nothing in principle against advertising, if it’s interesting, well targeted in (especially) time, and informative — or at least entertaining. But most advertising isn’t any of those things. What starts off as cute rapidly becomes banal and annoying the tenth time it’s dumped on you in a day (so far the worst I have seen is the same add 6 times in one hour) or the hundredth time in a week.

It’s not as if some variability can’t be built into the ad content. That’s already happening to a limited extent and the technology to build highly customized ads exists, even if it isn’t yet widely used. So the mediocre, repetitive, and boring content we get deluged with today is more due to habit, laziness, and a cynical disregard for the viewer’s intelligence than anything else.

It used to be an advertising truism that half of all advertising was wasted, but no one could tell which half. Now it’s more like 95% of advertising is wasted and no one cares where the other 5% is hidden. Sturgeon’s Law (Google it) writ large.

Trouble is, this model actually works for the advertisers. Throw enough crappy content at the audience wall and something will stick. Even bad advertising sells some product to some people some of the time. And there is decent evidence that repetition is a reinforcing factor and the combination of repetition and targeting (however poor — and today it’s generally really poor) generates sales you wouldn’t otherwise get and as long as it’s cheap enough (or you only pay for results) it’s deemed to be worth it. Never mind the 99 potential customers you annoyed for the one you got. They weren’t going to buy from you anyway.

Opinion_Bug7While the ad content delivery had to be paid for by the advertisers, there were some economic controls in place, but on the web and phone, it’s me paying and I don’t want to. Even on TV the explosion of inventory seems to have depressed average prices to such an extent that the flow of rubbish is hard to limit. So we have gotten into a business model rut. Open a new potential channel with non-obvious (or absent) economics. Fund it with advertising (it works, remember). Generate ads to fill the inventory (mostly bad, intrusive or both); and bombard the audience (new or existing) with yet more garbage. Take orders. Rinse. Repeat.

So we have a broad range of businesses that only work if they can push ads at people that don’t want to see them, offering products they don’t want in annoying and intrusive ways. Enter ad blockers. On the phone and in web browsers it should be fairly easy to identify and block content you don’t want. On linear TV it’s harder, but linear TV is declining anyway (could be a result of the ad deluge as much as the content erosion).

So, if your business depends on serving ads, you could be in trouble as more and more people adopt ad blockers (eventually implemented as on by default I believe) or advertisers have to pay for the bandwidth their content consumes, or I have to opt in for a particular product or category I’m interested in. You may also be in trouble if you’re an advertiser with a real business model. If your content isn’t interesting, well targeted, and informative, you’ll likely get blocked. I doubt many products would survive solely on “likes,” tweets, recommendations, and demand-driven search results.

Where do you stand on this? Are you looking at better targeting strategies? Personalized content? More interesting and variable content? A lot of the behavioral science behind product promotion has evolved over the past ten years and the whole “big data” phenomenon offers tools that can help, but they aren’t being used very intelligently yet. In a lot of ways, it’s still the 1980s (or even the 1950s) in product advertising. Time to get with the 21st Century before the block gets you chopped.

John Parkinson is an affiliate partner at Waterstone Management Group in Chicago. He has been a global business and technology executive and a strategist for more than 35 years.

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