Begun the Ad Wars Have

The rise of Ad Blockers and the death of the implicit consumer/creator contract with a focus on the decline of the customer experience


According to the web analytics and ad network company PageFair the “global cost of ad blocking is expected to be $41.4B by 2016” (PageFair and Adobe, The Cost Of Ad Blocking). According to this same report, this is nearly a 90% increase over the 2015 figure of $21.8B. Estimates of blocking on desktops and laptops vary from 300–500 million users. In addition, ad blocking is growing in the mobile space as well. Data from a subsequent PageFair study (PageFair and Priori Data, 2016 Mobile Adblocking Report) found mobile ad blocking usage grew 102% during 2016 to 298 million users. While there is some evidence to support 2015 as peak growth, and there may even be a reversal of this trend (O’Reilly, Here’s One Sign That Ad Blocking’s Meteoric Growth Could Start To Slow Down), obviously, this still creates a concern for content producers who rely on online ad revenue for profit (or even to survive). An examination of the root causes of the popularity of content blocking software is essential.


Internet advertising is broken. Few would argue against this thesis, but some do (Rothenberg, Rothenberg Says Ad Blocking Is a War against Diversity and Freedom of Expression). Admittedly, seeing the internet as a hostile space is a pessimistic view, but content producers are struggling with a way to get paid, consumers are finding themselves in an increasingly antagonistic and adversarial relationship with advertisers, and advertisers are forced to invent increasingly obtrusive ads and delivery methods in order to prevent being bypassed entirely. Internet advertising is broken, and there may be no solutions, but the first step is properly identifying the problem.

Since the beginning of the commercialization of the internet the landscape for online ads has not been improving for either the advertiser or the consumer. In a medium where the viewer has great control over how content is delivered, more and more people are opting out of viewing advertising through the use of ad blockers. The term ad blocker is problematic in that these often block more than just ads. They may block article comments, social media integration, trackers, beacons, or even site analytics. A more proper term is “content blocker,” but while this may be more accurate, its usage is not as prevalent, so the more common “ad blocker” will primarily be used.

While an overview of online advertising types is presented in this publication (see appendix), it is not possible to be comprehensive under given constraints. A historical examination of the internet in general, or the online advertising industry in particular, is also outside the purview of this article. These are book-length topics, and this is not a book. It is also impossible to touch on all the variables impacting online revenue, so primarily a consumer centric approach is taken. Lastly, internet trends and technologies are rapidly changing, so where possible external cited content is limited to the past 18 months. Historical background of internet technologies and online publishing is presented where context is needed, but a passing familiarity with both is assumed. It would be easy to get bogged down on the minutia of the history of filetypes, text markup, CSS, scripting languages, and internet technological advancements, so while it is helpful to have an understanding of the historical, it is not completely necessary for an understanding of the current state of online advertising.

In addition, many examinations of online advertising often obsess on what content producers should have done when they first started putting content online (often unrealistically). The focus here will be on the present. The ethics — or morality — of blocking will be touched on, but of greater concern is why consumers are blocking.

The Problem

Ads & Expectations

Advertising is straightforward in intent. An ad is a message meant to modify the behavior of the viewer in some manner. This may be effective, or it may be a complete failure. Sometimes an ad has no hope of success. For example, when advertising a drug to a person who does not suffer from the related medical condition, or when advertising a luxury car to someone unable to afford to pay a utility bill. In traditional media ads are blanketed with the assumption enough of the right people will see the ad, but understanding audience demographics better enables the targeting of ads. The internet has allowed this to be taken to a new level. Large advertisers (like Google or Facebook) are able to build personal profiles and identify people even when they are not logged into any services (Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick). This should allow for less annoying or frustrating ads. Imagine an internet where the only ads you see are products of interest and relevant. Unfortunately, reality is much different.

People do not tend to have an inherent aversion to advertising. They have an aversion to bad advertising. People will seek out good advertising. For example, some Super Bowl viewers watch just for the commercials, and often movie goers are disappointed if they miss the trailers. The popularity of commercials is apparent by the millions of views they receive on YouTube (ironically, often requiring the viewing of an unrelated ad prior to consumption).

So what causes a consumer to want to avoid online advertisements?

  • Privacy concerns
  • Malicious executable code
  • Fraudulent claims
  • Objectionable content or design
  • Speed and bandwidth
  • Low quality ads
  • Distracting ads

The above is by no means intended to reflect all reasons why a consumer may want to block ad content. In some cases, the changes made to ads were to address consumer behaviors. For example, autoplaying animated ads were in reaction to people developing “ad blindness.” These ads could not just be ignored. Such changes in online advertising is leading to an increased adoption of blockers (and these changes are further increasing adoption in a feedback loop). The barrier to entry for advertising is incredibly low (many ad networks allow for the bidding of ad space and ads can be purchased for cents). Malicious or poorly designed (ugly) ads are easy to place on websites. This further creates a poor ad experience.

Paywalls & Privacy

One solution to declining ad revenue is the “paywall.” A paywall is a method to block off content until a fee is paid to unlock access. Paywalls, for the most part, have only been partially successful. They are too easy to bypass, encourage viewers to go elsewhere, and create frustration for paying customers (having to log in on multiple devices, or to maintain passwords and account information for multiple subscriptions). Often the paying customer gets the exact same user experience as the non-paying customer; the same content, the same ads, the same features. This is discouraging to the paying customer. There is a sense that a paying customer should be entitled to more than the non-paying customer. People want to get something for their money. So while the consumer is left with the choice of paying or going elsewhere, the producer needs to convert enough readers into paying customers. Some content providers have begun to use ad blocking as a recruiting tool for new paid subscriptions. When they detect a blocker is being used they will offer an “ad lite” version of their site (if the person pays for an account and agrees to whitelist the site).

There are many problems with paywalls. For one, they are not universally used. Often similar content is available on a competitor’s site. So when a content producer implements a system to block ad blocking, this can backfire (Anderson, Sites that block adblockers seem to be suffering). Another problem is one of perceived value.

The potential revenue generated by digital subscriptions is still murky at best. It is not clear whether digital subscriptions were mostly a “one-time” cash infusion that simply capitalized on the most loyal digital readers who were always willing to pay or if newspapers will be able to consistently persuade more people to sign up in years to come. Newspaper executives are hesitant to disclose financial details about digital subscriptions. (Williams, Paying for Digital News: The rapid adoption and current landscape of digital subscriptions at U.S. Newspapers)

In a world where every click is being tracked and associate with a unique user, it becomes important for the consumer to be able to control what data is willingly shared. This obviously becomes more difficult if sites require signing in to grant access. In addition, sites often use the account sign up phase to collect extensive demographical information. There are various methods to bypass any user tracking choices the consumer may have made (too numerous to note here), but many of them conflict with a model that requires an account (for example, browsing the web in “incognito mode”).

Advertisers find tracking along with detailed demographics and analytics nearly irresistible. This sort of information is a potential additional source of income. Selling customer data along with behavioral information can be lucrative. Privacy conscious consumers are obviously against such tracking.

One of the unintended consequences of paywalls is they have been implemented predominantly by arguably credible sites (so far). This forces readers unwilling to pay to resort to potentially less-credible sites. This is problematic when people are less than discerning or refuse to use critical thinking skills while reading. A study from Stanford researchers found that “More than 80% of [middle school] students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words ‘sponsored content,’ was a real news story. Some students even mentioned that it was sponsored content but still believed that it was a news article.” (Stanford History Education Group, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone Of Civic Online Reasoning).

Usability & Decline of Customer Experience

The internet is a big, ugly, dangerous, user hostile place, populated with unethical, intrusive, resource intensive, privacy invading, usability damaging content. This may seem like hyperbole, but the reality is PCs are regularly compromised by malware (ads are often a vector for such), average page weights are now exceeding 2MB in size, more ISPs (along with mobile carriers) are instituting customer data caps, users are confronted with content blocking interstitials, autoplaying ads, link hijacking scripts, fraudulent ad claims, and horrendously ugly design. In addition, identity theft is growing, and privacy and safety are now viewed as a commodity one needs to pay for. In 2011 there were 100 “adtech” companies (ad delivery services). In 2015 there were nearly 2000 (Cegłowski, The Website Obesity Crisis). The fact is consumers often do not trust online advertising and will no longer interact with it given a choice. People did not look to ad blockers because they wanted to. They did it because they had to.

In an ad supported funding model (see Appendix C) the consumer pays for the delivery method, but the advertiser is paying for the content. This can create a conflict when the consumer is faced with limited bandwidth or data limits. One study estimates users can save 25–40% in page load times, and data consumption, through the usage of content blockers (Parmar, et al., Adblock Plus Efficacy Study). This problem is exacerbated on mobile where users become reluctant to view content at all. To overcome this, some companies are choosing to pay carriers to exempt their content from consumption metering, while more users are choosing to solve the problem themselves through blocking. There is little producers can do to directly combat blocking. As previously stated, sites that block the blockers, seem to suffer a backlash, or decrease in readership, but the Financial Times found that “after a 30-day experiment to combat the use of ad-blockers on its website, almost 40 percent of readers agreed to view advertising when asked to do so” (Mullin, 40 percent of Financial Times readers stop ad-blocking when asked).

The modern web is heavily dependent on scripts to function. A lot of the interactivity or design is dependent on having scripts enabled. The downside is it is difficult for users to selectively enable scripts, so it is often “all or nothing.” Malicious scripts can cause minor annoyance like disabling the back button, but they can also be used to take over browser behavior, to install malicious code, or to hijack links, so often ad blockers stop scripts as well, or people who use blockers also make use of a browser plugin like “NoScript.” This negatively impacts the user experience, and adversely affects beneficial scripts. Some sites are completely unusable without scripts enabled. It’s uncommon, but some users may elect to forgo a site entirely if it requires enabling scripts, and some browser settings or enterprise security may preclude the use of some script functions. Bypassing these precautions is discouraged, and requires users to be aware of what choices they are making (not always a realistic expectation). This can sometimes require the intervention of IT professionals to decide if the behavior of a site is malicious or not.

Blocking content and scripts can result in poorly rendered pages, but often sites are actually more pleasing to view when some content is blocked (less cluttered, no ugly ads). While blocking may adversely affect site usability, in these cases it is simply a matter of temporarily pausing the blocker and reloading the page. It’s not atypical of a sites to have 40 (or more) analytics, trackers, ad servers, or social plugins. Each of these influence how the site is displayed and functions. Some of these are neutral technologies, but can be positive or negative in implementation. Sadly, they are increasingly likely to be hostile to the user. Even Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook VP (Ads & Business Platform), acknowledges a need for ad blockers:

When they’re relevant and well-made, ads can be useful, helping us find new products and services and introducing us to new experiences — like an ad that shows you your favorite band is coming to town or an amazing airline deal to a tropical vacation. But because ads don’t always work this way, many people have started avoiding certain websites or apps, or using ad blocking software, to stop seeing bad ads. These have been the best options to date (Bosworth, A New Way to Control the Ads You See on Facebook, and an Update on Ad Blocking).

Those who are not using a blocker can get a poorer experience. Sometimes ads are deliberately deceptive in appearance, disguised as a browser plugin installer, system dialog box, error message, or other expected interface element. Conversely, expected navigational elements may be deliberately disrupted. For example, tap targets made too small to accurately select or obscured completely (Lardinois, Google will soon start punishing mobile sites that show hard-to-dismiss popups).

Screenshot of deceptive dialog box

Ad choices affect site credibility. Fewer higher quality ads make for a more pleasant site interaction. When readers have difficulty discerning legitimate content from paid placement, both end up being viewed with skepticism, or worse, both accepted at face value. When all that differentiates credible content from the incredible is an “Advertorial” label and typos it becomes difficult to take any site content seriously.

Screenshot of “Advertorial” example

Ad choices affect site credibility. Fewer higher quality ads make for a more pleasant site interaction. When readers have difficulty discerning legitimate content from paid placement, both end up being viewed with skepticism, or worse, both accepted at face value. When all that differentiates credible content from the incredible is an “Advertorial” label and typos it becomes difficult to take any site content seriously.

Partial screenshot of low quality ads

Ad networks do no vetting of the advertisements they run. Often they are click-bait content meant only to deliver viewers to a site for even more ad impressions. Bad ads not only hurt the credibility of content producers, they also hurt the credibility of other advertisers. When people begin to look at all online ads with suspicion, advertisers see supporting online content as a less appealing prospect. This lowers perceived value, and therefor the actual price advertisers are willing to pay, in a race for the bottom.

Users of content blockers have been compared to shoplifters or freeloaders at best, culpable partners in crime with blackmailers at worst. The revenue model of one of the most popular ad blockers, Ad Block Plus, uses both crowdfunding (direct user donations) while also accepting payment from advertisers to be white listed.

Regarding fees, only large entities (those with more than 10 million additional ad impressions per month due to participation in the Acceptable Ads initiative) have to pay. For these entities, our licensing fee normally represents 30 percent of the additional revenue created by whitelisting its acceptable ads (AdBlock Plus, Allowing acceptable ads in Adblock Plus).

Ostensibly, sites are expected to conform to an “acceptable ad” standard (defined at the above link), but some liken this to a “protection racket” (Zorabedian, Adblockers are a “protection racket”, says senior politician). Whether one see blocking as a godsend or the end of the internet as we know it, one thing is nearly certain, ad blocking is here to stay. The right to block has survived legal challenges (Mullin, Adblock Plus wins its 6th court case, brought by Der Spiegel), but even in the event that companies are no longer allowed to profit from blocking, there are too many open source software projects to put this particular genie back in the bottle.


The internet needs a better revenue model, or at a minimum better ads. Absent government regulation, the market will be forced to figure out a solution, that both keeps content producers solvent, and allows the customer to consume content. The problem is going to get worse before it gets better (if it gets better). The issue of blocking is further complicated by Net Neutrality, international laws, privacy laws, accessibility concerns, and the success or failure of subscription based models. Perhaps the market will fail, and the days of paid content producers are limited, or perhaps a new crowdsourcing model (patronage) will evolve. Solutions are uncertain, but the first step to is identifying the problem,


Appendix A: Methods of Ad Blocking

Recommending specific ad blockers is outside the intent of this document, but a short examination of the methods of blocking follows:

Various content blocking software exists (most commonly referred to as “ad blockers”). These products use either a whitelist or a blacklist of sites to decide what content is allowed to be displayed. This is often accomplished through routing internet traffic requests through a proxy server running on the device itself.

It is possible to use proxy or firewall settings to block traffic from all known ad networks. This has the advantage of allowing devices unable to block ads on the device itself (smart TVs, streaming boxes, etc.,). The router must be user configurable and this requires a constantly updated list of sites to block.

Hosts files
By adding a redirection to the hosts file on a computer it is possible to selectively block sites. Again, this requires the list to be constantly maintained and kept current as new ad services are created.

Custom CSS
Using CSS to hide content does not actually block the content, but instructs the browser to not display the content. This is more often used to block the appearance of undesirable site content like Facebook’s “trending topics” or Twitter’s “who to follow” section.

ISP level/Mobile Carriers
Some internet service providers or mobile service providers have begun to experiment with blocking ads as a service to their customers. This is not prevalent.

Mobile Browsers
The popularity of blocking in mobile browsers is increasing (though the use of native APIs). Though still limited in effectiveness, this is a major concern as more and more people choose to consume content on the go.

Appendix B: Types of Ads

This section will denote types of online ads and their perceived advantages to the advertiser and consumer, as well as the negative impact to usability or customer experience. This list makes no attempt at being comprehensive, but the majority of ads fall under at least one ad type. Often ads may combine elements of more than one type.

Static Display ad
This is generally a smaller rectangular vertical or horizontal image file. Also called a banner ad. These are the most common ad type. Often they are part of an ad network.

Advantage: The advantage to this ad is the small delivery size. Smaller JPGs or GIFs do not dramatically increase page weight. It takes little skill to design display ads.
Disadvantage: Their ubiquity is primary drawback. People have developed ad blindness when it comes to display ads. Often the images in these ads are disgusting or deliberately shocking.

Advertorial content is a portmanteau combining advertising with editorial content. Also called native advertising, or sponsored posts, they feature extensive product placement. Often indicated as paid content, but usually deceptively similar to regular site content.

Advantage: The resistance to this sort of advertising is lessened by generally containing subject matter similar to what the consumer is expecting to engage. It’s possible the consumer may not even realize the content is advertising.
Disadvantage: Degrades site credibility.

Also called “floating ads.” This is a semitransparent or opaque overlay that obscures site content to force engagement with rich media content. This is generally an ad or a request to sign up for a mailing list.

Advantage: By blocking all other content engagement is forced. This engagement is for a predetermined time or until the user performs an action (dismissing the overlay).
Disadvantage: Delays the consumer from accessing content, causing frustration. Unethical designers may make a “close window” tap target that is small (or non-existent) or made to look like a button. Often a “whole-page take-over.” Users will often just hit the back button, increasing bounce rate (see tc;dr: Tab closed; didn’t read).

Video can be advertising on its own, or it can have a short segment before the content the consumer wishes to view. This is called preroll advertising. Another option is to have advertising overlaid on the video itself, typically at the bottom of the video. This is called lower third advertising.
Advantage: Often no way to skip the advertisement. People are used to watching commercials to view video.
Disadvantage: Sometimes the advertising can actually be longer than the content one intends to view. Video is also data and processor intensive, so may take longer to load and frustrate the user who may have a data cap. This is exacerbated on mobile.

A browser window that is spawned using code. Another session is opened, and as the name implies this either “pops” above the current session or behind the current windows.

Advantage: Unobtrusive.
Disadvantage: When coupled with autoplay an ad may start playing sound without the user even knowing which browser window the content is in. Also, since pop-under ads are not seen until a browser window is closed the consumer may not even know which site served the ad if there are multiple windows open. Often browsers have built-in popup blocking.

Interjected content (ISPs)
A browser session is hijacked by an ISP. This is essentially a “man in the middle” attack where the ISP serves requested content inside a iframe while putting their own content at the top or bottom. This can be something as innocuous as a service outage notice or a bandwidth data cap warning message. It is sometimes even used to warn offenders of the DMCA when torrenting is detected.

Advantage: Forced insecure viewing.
Disadvantage: Only works with http traffic and not https (secure) web traffic. This is an ethically dubious process and has potential legal ramifications as well.

AdWord Ads
This is a google specific program though other networks like Bing also employ an ad delivery program. This returns either context based ads based on administered criteria. The advertiser can pick the sort of sites to appear on, or what demographics are targeted, and a budget for how often ads appear (often based on search terms).

Advantage: Low barrier to entry. Somewhat targeted.
Disadvantage: Low rate of return. Content producers see little money from these programs.

Another portmanteau of malware and advertising. This may be malicious executable code, browser redirects, or link hijacking.

Advantage: Large infection base may accomplish a larger goal like infecting host computers with a virus. Compromised PCs can be used for nefarious purposes (i.e. denial of service attacks, link hijacking, key logging, password farming). Malvertising can also be deception based, where the ad is disguised to look like a common dialog box to get the consumer to interact in a desired way. For example, a “Cancel” button may actually direct to a gambling site.
Disadvantage: Compromised sites lose credibility and often readers. PUA/PUPs (potentially unwanted applications, potentially unwanted programs) are often indistinguishable from deliberately installed software making it difficult to know what programs should be on a system.

Exit ads
An ad that only comes up when the cursor is removed from the browser window (or some other action is taken like using the back button). Often used as a method to solicit an action like signing up for a newsletter or making sure the customer intended to take an action.

Advantage: Can be use effectively to remind the consumer there are items still in an online cart or that a form hasn’t been submitted.
Disadvantage: Can accidentally be invoked distracting the reader and unnecessarily obscuring content.

Appendix C: Ad Supported Funding Model

In a traditional ad funded model the consumer of a product trades attention for access to a product. This product is then delivered for free or at a subsidized price. Presumably this allows the advertiser to inform and hopefully influence consumer habits. This relationship can range from a simple static display ad to immersive interactive experiences. Obviously, this is going to vary according to medium, but a diagram of this relationship may look something like:

Author supplied graphic

For the sake of simplicity no distinction is made between the advertiser or the product being advertised.

Another way to look at this relationship would be to approach it cyclically: the advertiser influences the consumer, who purchases goods, allowing the advertiser to fund the content creators, who then in turn pay for advertising, and the whole thing starts over.

Author supplied graphic

This creates an implicit contract between consumer and content creator. It is possible to view this implied contract as being between the advertiser and the consumer if one prefers, but the idea is exposure to advertising pays for the content being consumed. This arrangement works as long as all parties agree, and as long as all parties benefit appropriately. Increasingly this model has been breaking down. Advertisers are unable to make sufficient money to properly compensate content creators, so they are resorting to obnoxious and ethically shady practices (in collusion with the content producers). This in turn causes the consumer to want to avoid advertising and flips the cyclical model above. The consumer avoids ads, which causes advertiser to get more creative and aggressive, and for content producers to circumvent any attempt at modifying content delivery.

For the most part, the consumer has always been a reluctant participant in this funding model. Given the choice, consumers would mostly opt for an ad free experience.


Christopher L. Jorgensen worked in the publishing industry for Gannett for over a decade. He currently works for the Department of Economics at Iowa State University. This is his first article on Medium.


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Cited in this document:

Sites that block adblockers Seem to be Suffering

The Cost of Ad Blocking

2016 Mobile Adblocking Report

Paying for Digital News: The rapid adoption and current landscape of digital subscriptions at U.S. Newspapers

Here’s one sign that ad blocking’s meteoric growth could start to slow down

Rothenberg Says Ad Blocking Is a War against Diversity and Freedom of Expression

Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone Of Civic Online Reasoning

A New Way to Control the Ads You See on Facebook, and an Update on Ad Blocking

Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick

Adblock Plus Efficacy Study

The Website Obesity Crisis

Blocking the blockers doesn’t seem to work, but asking nicely does.

Google will soon start punishing mobile sites that show hard-to-dismiss popups

Adblockers are a “protection racket”, says senior politician

Adblock Plus wins its 6th court case, brought by Der Spiegel

Additional Reading:

Ad Blockers and the Nuisance at the Heart of the Modern Web

Rise of Ad-Blocking Software Threatens Online Revenue

Ad Blockers Are Making Money Off Ads (And Tracking, Too)

40 percent of Financial Times readers stop ad-blocking when asked

Wired to ad blocker users: pay up for ad-free site or you get nothing

Ad Blocker-Blocking Websites Might Be Violating European Privacy Laws

IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) Tech Lab Publisher Ad Blocking Primer

The Financial Times is testing blocking the adblockers by blocking actual words from its stories

Adblockers: US growth could remove $12bn advertising by 2020

Internet trends report | Mary Meeker, KPCB | Code Conference 2016

That Was Fast: Ad-Blocker Announces Block For Facebook’s Ad-Blocker Blocking

A proxy war: Apple ad-blocking software scares publishers but rival Google is target

The Ad Blocking Wars: Ad Blockers vs. Ad-Tech

Ad wars: the browser strikes back

The Ad Blocking Wars

State of the News Media 2016

One Side In the Ad-Blocker Wars Is Doomed

Understanding the ad blocking wars: why there can only be one winner

Adblock Plus and (a little) more

Publishers and adblockers are in a battle for online advertising

Op-Ed: The onslaught of ad blockers is killing websites and the Internet

New York Times ‘Exploring’ Ad-Free Digital Subscription

IAB CEO Continues to Hammer Ad Blockers

Three on ad blocking and ‘pissing off Google’

Bild’s hardline take on ad blocking: ‘We will not be blackmailed’

You say advertising, I say block that malware

Ad blocking

And so it begins

Welcome to the Block Party

Ad Blocking and the Future of the Web