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The only solution to online advertising is self-regulation

Enrique Dans
Sep 2, 2013 · 4 min read

A report by IAB Europe confirms the growth of online advertising, despite the ongoing economic crisis, putting it second after television, with an annual growth rate of 11.5 percent, ahead of print media: one in four euros spent on advertising now goes to the internet.

At the same time, the use of ad blockers continues to expand: for several years now, growing numbers of companies that live off web advertising, including big players such as Google, have deliberately ignored ad blocking, saying that only a few, non-representative types use it: hackers, geeks or the like.

But according to some sources, up to 30 percent of internet users now regularly employ ad blockers, and the recent campaign by Michael Gundlach, the founder of AdBlock, looks set to extend their use even further: a crowdfunding appeal to fund advertising in the mass media has already raised more than the 50,000 dollars required to pay for a giant hoarding in Times Square, and is fast approaching the 150,000 dollars that a full-page advertisement in The New York Times costs. In short, we now have the paradox of a company buying ads to advertise a service that prevents ads.

With more than 20 million users and satisfaction ratings of 4.5 out of five, AdBlock is an extension entirely financed by its users that is able to block any type of advertising insert, including those on YouTube. Along with AdBlock Plus, which is unrelated, it is the most popular extension of this type, and the most controversial since its announcement that it would partly finance itself by charging advertisers to allow their publicity to leapfrog its filters, as long as they meet certain standards.

Both extensions are under a GPL license, which means that they could continue being developed even if their use were banned. As with so many other similar issues on the web, the ad blocker issue cannot be resolved in the courts. Efforts to overcome its filters through different advertising formats have proved unsuccessful: the most popular filters allow users to report via a click ads that make it under the radar so that they can be added to a list and blocked later.

So while online advertising continues to grow, a growing number of users are doing all they can to avoid it: a difficult balance to maintain. So what is the reality of the situation?

Talking to the majority of internet users, we find that the decision to block advertising has nothing to do with any aversion to advertising per se, but instead is simply a wish to avoid bad advertising. What prompts most people to download an ad blocking extension is to put an end to in-your-face advertising using animation, pre-activated video or sound, or formats that block content.

The problem with online advertising is that not all advertisers respect the people they are supposedly trying to reach. At the same time, many are. What’s more, many sites that show advertisements oblige their advertisers to meet certain standards. But when the user installs an ad blocker, they often end up blocking out all webpages, which means that companies that produce decent advertisements, along with pages that require their advertisers to meet certain standards are effectively punished for the sins of others.

Installing an ad blocker changes one’s experience of the web: but users should also be aware that many sites’ survival depends on advertisers who play by the rules. However, research proves that the decision to block advertising tends to be binary: all or nothing.

The answer is not to start a war with ad blockers. Competing with technology is a waste of time. Going through the courts is a long and tortuous process with no guarantee of success. Refusing content to people who use ad blockers is also unlikely to work either. So, whilst the sales teams try desperately find more advertisers for their publications, web managers can only sit and watch as the gap between page printouts and advertising downloads widens progressively, unable to do anything about it.

The only solution that I can see is self-regulation. This would require advertisers, web pages, and users to reach agreement on what constitutes acceptable advertising. In the same way that eventually everybody accepted that pop-ups were irritant and had to go, let’s lay down some rules that clearly specify what practices are acceptable, and which are not, and then banish advertisers and web pages that breach them.

Speaking for myself, I draw the line at the now near-extinct pop-ups, along with interstitial ads, those using preactivated sound or video, excessive animation and extensible formats that block the content. This list could grow as “ingenious” designers come up with new, bothersome formats, and which might require setting up a permanent, international tripartite commission of advertisers, webpages, and users that would meet periodically to decide which developments were acceptable.

Another solution, and undoubtedly a simpler one, would be just to keep ignoring the problem, but which means running the risk that we reach the point where a very large number of internet users block online advertising, and the advertisers decide to take their ball—and their money—home with them.

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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