Ad Blockers: an Affront to Capitalism

Apparently you get some weird results when you google “affront to capitalism”

Recently, my wife and I were having dinner with my cousin and his wife. We were pulling up funny videos on YouTube like Funny or Die and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer. While trying to pull up the next video, my cousin noticed an annoying ad pop up that we couldn’t skip.

My dear sweet cousin, he was just exasperated “How do you not have an ad blocker yet?”and pulls up UBlock Origin, a Chrome plug-in to stop ads. And bless my cousin’s heart, I mean him no disrespect. Using an ad blocker is super normal. According to the International Business Times, “about a quarter of all U.S. internet users, nearly 70 million people, will use technology to block online ads in 2016.” When my cousin put up that ad blocker, it awoke something in me. Maybe it was the countless pitches I had heard from startups about how their monetization strategy was dependent on advertising. Was it right to block out something that people I knew relied so heavily on?

In 2016, $72 billion was spent on digital advertising, surpassing television spend for the first time ever. I kept thinking that maybe ads are getting outdated. Jesse Eisenberg, founder of Facebook, said ads aren’t cool, right? After all, people hate ads, why would businesses keep relying on them? I kept thinking that maybe its been big in the past, but it must be projected to trend down right?

Yeah, it’s super not trending down.

After my cousin installed my ad blocker, I honestly didn’t think it would change anything. Tons of people use ad blockers, why would the internet do anything other than just ignore it, right? The first time I even remembered that I had an ad blocker was when I was trying to use EasyBib to write a paper and I saw this depressing little cry for help.

The same part of the brain that lights up when a homeless person asks me for money was ringing in my ears. I immediately disabled the ad blocker on that particular site. Afterwards, I kept feeling guilty, but I didn’t really take the time to delete it entirely and promptly forgot about it again (that’s how the terrorists win.)

That is, until I tried to pull up VentureBeat and saw this little beauty.

Well played Venture Beat. The one weakness of any internet user: cats.

That one isn’t even prompting me to pay, it’s just making me feel bad.

And here’s the thing, VentureBeat is right. A lot of my favorite businesses rely significantly on ad revenue. Amazon ($1 billion in online ad revenue), Snapchat ($800 million), Google ($34 billion), and Facebook (north of $15 billion.) And ad blockers hurt them.

Remember those 70 million socialist ad blockers we talked about? “That differs significantly from the 45 million [ad block users] suggested in a report published by the advertising technology company Pagefair, which sent seismic shocks through the digital media industry.” But if people hate ads so much, why do companies keep using them?

People who know a lot more about marketing than I do have already said this better than I can: people don’t hate ads; people hate bad ads.

Scott McKelvey, a self-made content marketing fella, reiterates that fact. “Think about the Super Bowl. People take their bathroom breaks during the game so they don’t miss the commercials. And they talk about those commercials for days. Why? Because advertisers bring their A game.”

People hate deception, phonies, selfishness, arrogance, being insulted, interrupted, or being annoyed. They don’t inherently hate advertising. In fact, people LOVE good advertising. They love the feeling of discovering something that they would have never found otherwise.

I am a proud owner/user of Ministry of Supply, MailChimp, and Squarespace because I heard about them on Gimlet Media podcasts. And I love those products. Other similar services that you might not think of as advertising is product recommendation generally. Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix all have offerings that help recommend things to you. What else is advertising than saying, “hey, you might like this.” Sure, there are instances where those recommendations aren’t great.

At some point, someone wears scrubs in Silence of the Lambs… I think.

But the reason these companies live and die by data is because the more data they have, the better they get at telling us what we want before we even know ourselves. In a study conducted of Amazon transactions, “11% of the revenue came from recommendations; and in some subgroups, the figure was an astounding 68%.”

Personalized marketing is the way of the future. People talk a lot about privacy, and I understand the concern about letting big tech companies into every facet of my life. But if (safely) giving more information to Amazon, Google, and Facebook will make it easier for me to find products that I love, why not? I encourage any and all companies: if you give me an advertising experience that delights me, I’ll give you all the data you want.

And an important note is that good advertising doesn’t just mean funnier videos. Advertising should be renamed discovery, and it should be thought of as an end-to-end user experience, not just a video.

Kevin Spacey, when discussing his wild success as a part of Netflix’s ‘House of Cards,’ pointed out an important thing that Netflix is doing: listening to their customers.

“If they want to binge then we should let them binge.” And that works for Netflix wonderfully, releasing their new shows a season at a time. But what happens if people want to binge, but you make them watch ads?

When I googled for information on Hulu’s ads, this is what I got:

As far back as 2010, former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, when discussing ads, said “Sure we want to make it a better experience for consumers, but it would be missing the whole picture if you didn’t make it better for advertisers and content publishers.” Boooo! Delight the customers and the advertisers will fall in line. For example, I now have a seething hatred for Sprint because five years ago I was binge-watching Chuck on Hulu and I saw the same Sprint commercial. Every single commercial break. I watched two seasons in the span of 5 days. That’s 35 episodes, with an average of four commercial breaks. I saw that same Sprint ad 140 times. Every time I see their stupid logo I empathize with hyenas and other things that murder while laughing.

Last year, Jared Newman wrote a great piece on TechHive called “Ad nauseam: Inside streaming video’s repetitive ad problem” where he laid out exactly what we’re talking about. With normal TV ads, “If an ad buyer was to actually say, ‘Hey, I want to run every ad break during a football game,’ somewhere along the way, a human would go, ‘Why the hell would you want to do that?”

Online video is more complicated. The average online ad system is run on an ad exchange that matches an ad to a specific demographic. “That ad server just looks for the next five times they can hit you, and goes, ‘Boom, I’ve done a great job, thank you very much, I’ve achieved my objective.” Meanwhile, your viewer is devising the violent destruction of the people you cast in your commercial. And the kicker? Most of these systems have the ability to set limits to how many times you see a certain ad. But “most people are just looking to spend the money, hit their objectives, and be done. They’re not looking to slow down their delivery methods.”

Jared ends his piece with the cheery thought that “Services that don’t bother to make commercial breaks tolerable — or, dare I say, enjoyable — might ultimately find that they have no impressions left to give.” And I think that’s spot on. If your advertising takes on a role of offering your viewers discovery, whether on streaming video, or any site, you’ll add a component of ‘delighting your customer,’ even on your banner ads.

If your plan is to build a business around eye-balls and expect advertisers to pony up a sizable portion of your revenue, then that advertising experience (or what we shall now call discovery) should be every bit as important to your customer-centric design process as any other component of your business.