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Why the ad industry will never win the war on ad blockers

Matt Kapko | Jan. 29, 2016
The head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau came out swinging against ad blockers this week. Instead of even attempting to fairly distribute blame for the chaotic state of the ad industry, the executive pointed his finger everywhere else but at IAB members.

interactive advertising bureau iab
Credit: Matt Kapko

PALM DESERT, Calif. — A "flamboyance," or a large group, of pink flamingos this week greeted guests as they approached the Interactive Advertising Bureau's (IAB) Annual Leadership Meeting, an industry event for marketers, publishers and ad tech providers. The resort's bucolic grounds and peaceful surroundings, however, was more like a mirage than an appropriate backdrop for the battle cry the group used to kick off the event.

President and CEO of IAB Randall Rothenberg delivered a fiery opening speech that called ad blockers enemies and demonized companies such as Adblock Plus, which he boldly called an "unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of tech wannabes." 

For more than a decade, advertisers and publishers have had to contend with different ad-blocking technologies, but recent mobile variations gained new levels of traction when Apple started to allow such apps in its App Store and amidst growing consumer backlash against intrusive or misleading ads

Ad blocking apps and algorithms are "stealing from publishers, subverting freedom of the press, operating a business model predicated on censorship of content, and ultimately forcing consumers to pay more money for less — and less diverse — information," Rothenberg said. 

Consumer rights groups support ad blockers and user choice

The unfortunate truth for advertisers, brands, publishers and developers that make money off ads is that much of the negativity in the market is directly related to their own missteps, according to privacy experts and consumer advocates interviewed for this story. Bad advertising is as much to blame for the rising threat as anything else, they say, and ad blockers are merely a symptom of a festering ad industry disease. 

"IAB has failed to set reasonable advertising standards, which is precisely why ad blockers have grown in popularity," says John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog. Simpson supports the use of ad blockers and says many consumers use them because of "privacy concerns, as well as the invasive and obnoxious characteristics of so many ads." 

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital consumer advocacy group, doesn't think advertising is inherently bad and says EFF isn't opposed to ads. However, the group is very much against many of the data mining techniques in play today. "I really don't see how ad blockers subvert freedom of speech," she says. "Is it meaningfully different from skipping commercials, whether by muting and leaving the room, or by using your DVR to fast forward?" 

Netflix and premium channels should prove to advertisers that people place a high value on the ability to avoid ads, and some are willing to pay extra for the choice, Tien says.


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