The 5 stages of advertising grief: Denial

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The recent Adblockalypse has provoked a wide variety of reactions from those likely to be affected. Digital advertising is so broadly deployed and so central to the online economy that any potential disruption of the status quo was bound to cause major turmoil. Yet the shock of Apple allowing content blocking in iOS 9 is still rippling through the content and marketing worlds as they struggle to come to grips with what is happening and how they can conceivably respond.

In general, industry reaction has been all over the map, but there are some discernible trends coalescing. It has been amusing to see how easily the responses can be slotted into that hoary old cliche about dealing with loss, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief. Marketing executives and publishing thought-leaders are pumping out endless articles and blog posts that demonstrate huge amounts of Denial, Anger, Bargaining and Depression. Some day, we may get even to Acceptance, but on the evidence so far, that is quite a ways off. For now, denial, anger, bargaining and depression seem far more prevalent.

Out right denial of the impact of ad blocking has been less evident in recent weeks, but it definitely characterized the attitude of the online publishing and marketing industries towards ad avoidance prior to iOS 9. In the minds of many marketers, ad blocking was at best a fringe phenomenon, practiced mostly by a handful of geeky redditors. Even though ad blocking browser extensions had been hugely popular for Firefox and Chrome for years, there was an almost pervasive gentlemen’s agreement to ignore or dismiss it publicly. The recent PR efforts of PageFair, to make ad blocking more of topic (so that they could profit from their offered ad blocking blocking technology) generated a good deal of discussion, particularly with the release of their study with Adobe in August, that had actual numbers attached to ad blocking (questionable as those numbers are).

Efforts to dismiss the overall impact of ad blocking have lessened considerably, though, since September and the iOS content blocking explosion. Now it is, according to some advertisers, an unavoidable topic for anybody in the marketing industry.

Yet, to me, the real denial that we still occasionally hear from the online content and marketing industries concerns what value people see in advertising. According to some marketers, advertising plays an important and necessary role in informing consumers about goods and services they want or need. Most industry defenders, however, do not push this argument. They are instead content to merely point out the practical role advertising plays in financially supporting free online media as a social good that would be missed if ad blocking killed such revenue. But left unsaid in this view is the widespread acceptance that advertising is at best a necessary evil, that users need to put up with, however irritating, in order to receive the valuable benefits of online media and services.

The profound denial among marketers is, therefore, the stance that advertising is not a necessary evil, but actually deprives users of something that they should wholeheartedly value. The worst recent case of this form of denial came from Marissa Meyer of Yahoo! at an advertising conference last month. Not only did she defend online advertising as in fact beneficial for users, she took it even farther, by praising the tracking that has generated so much of the consumer backlash against ads.

“I think that for anyone that uses their browser’s incognito mode and starts getting untargeted ads or no ads at all, the experience on the Web becomes a lot less rich. I personally think it’s a mistake to install ad blockers,” she said at an IAB event during Advertising Week in New York City on Monday. “If I have friends or family members asking if they should install them, I tell them ‘please don’t because I think that your experience on the Web will get worse’.”

If there remains anybody still confident in Meyer’s ability to turn Yahoo!’s fortunes around, quotes like these have to be disturbing. One can maintain the importance of advertising revenue generation to the web we all love, but to posit ads as valuable to users, in and of themselves, is quite a stretch, particularly when that value is premised on tracking and targeting. In theory, well targeted ads sound great, but in practice, nobody actually wants targeted ads, no matter what ad tech thought leaders proclaim. Even if users could get past the creepyness factor, real world tracking tends to produce worse ads, not better ones. As a response to the grief caused by the ad blocking explosion, denial that people actually dislike online ads is the worst kind of denial, and is certainly not going to help advertisers and publishers come up with effective ways to move forward. I sincerely doubt Yahoo! under Meyer is going to be part of the solution.

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