Anytime ad blocking is brought up in an online forum, you will inevitably see a number of almost reflexive attacks.
“Your favorite sites will die without advertising!”
“Advertising is the foundation to the open web!”
There are many more well-worn pro-advertising cliches, but fundamentally, the defenders of advertising usually argue that the benefits for both readers and publishers from advertising outweigh any downsides to the current business model.
There is some logic to that argument, of course. But a defense of online advertising, a claim to its unavoidable necessity to a vibrant online culture has to at least acknowledge some of its indisputable negative effects, in order to be taken seriously. And not just the obvious downsides for consumers, that include intrusive tracking, visual distraction, bandwidth losses, security vulnerabilities, to name a few. Often left unsaid in the ad blocking debate, however, is the pernicious effects the current surveillance based advertising model has not on the users, but on the publishers, marketers and businesses themselves. Even if ad blocking disappeared tomorrow, advertisers and publishers would not find themselves suddenly in a rediscovered paradise. In fact, there are profound arguments to be made against online advertising that have nothing to do with consumers at all.
Bob Hoffman, a long-time and legendary ad man, also known as the “Ad Contrarian,” has spent the last few years on a crusade against online advertising, but from the perspective of an insider, as someone who truly values advertising, but is not blind to the dark side of today’s online environment. His most recent post, “Top 10 Reasons Online Advertising Must Change” is a devastating critique of the current ad world from an insider’s perspective.
His list of online advertising problems includes fraud, waste, public disgust, effectiveness, brand safety, fake news, degradation of journalism, non-transparency, corruption and public safety. Of those, only two of them, public disgust and public safety have anything at all to do with users. The other eight issues are critical problems specifically for the advertisers and publishers themselves. In other words, the current system is deeply problematic for the businesses that conduct it, at least if not more so than for consumers.
As Hoffman points out, ad fraud has grown “in the past year to over $16 billion,” 75% of programmatic advertising never makes it to the consumer (with less than 10% of that ever actually noticed), click rates of 5 per 10,000 ads served, the relentless movement of ad money from quality journalistic sites to the “worst online publishers,” and the “pervasive” corruption throughout the ad ecosystem.
If that is what the advertisers themselves are realizing, you can well make the argument that ad blocking users are providing a service to publishers and marketers by forcing them to look twice at their own advertising practices. That is not to say a transition from the current system would be easy, particularly in replacing the ad and tracking-based revenue most publishers depend on to pay for their servers. Yet the longer term benefits available after publishers are weaned off of the surveillance-based advertising model, supported by alternative funding models and new relationships with their users, will surely be much better than the current “preposterous train wreck” that is the online advertising industry in Hoffman’s words. A mass embrace of ad blocking by users, combined with stricter privacy regulations such as the EU’s GDPR and ePrivacy initiatives will despite the howls of the adtech industry, liberate both internet users and publishers from a system that creates more problems than it solves.