Ad-Blocking: A debate about ethics

23 Dec 2009
Posted by Kiran
I am an active user and advocate of Mozilla Firefox. I also am a fan of its Ad-blocking extension - AdBlock Plus. I have considered AdBlock Plus a very useful extension that allowed me to get rid of all annoying and pesky pop-ups and banner ads that otherwise clutter my browsing experience.

However, a recent blog by Vaibhav Gadodia titled "When will people stop stealing content" raised a very interesting point; it gave me food for thought. In his blog Vaibhav argues that since the advertising pays for the content, blocking those ads deprives the site owner the revenues that he would have earned had those ads been visible. Vaibhav goes on to compare the online content monetized by ads to an "honor system" of selling goods, wherein the users are free to pick up the goods as long as they drop the recommended amount into the jar.

Equating ad-blocking to stealing, in my opinion, is a radical generalization and I disagree with it. Here's why.

Let us start with the basics, shall we?

What are advertisements? The Wikitionary defines advertisement as A commercial solicitation designed to sell some commodity, service or similar.

Advertisements are meant to educate the consumer about a product and try to get the consumer to part with his/her hard earned cash in exchange for that product.

Let us note that the onus of getting the consumer to view and appreciate the advertisement and getting him/her interested in what is being advertised lies with the advertiser, not the consumer. The consumer is free to walk away from the product or the advertisement itself if it doesn't catch his/her interest.

We routinely walk away from advertisements all the time — we use the commercial break for a quick nip to the loo in between our favorite Television program; we skim over the pages containing bulk of the advertisements in our local newspapers, while going straight to the sports pages to check how the Indian cricket team is doing against Sri Lanka; we block online ads — and at the same time, if an advertisement is interesting enough, it can draw us to it and capture the mind-share that it is after.

Successful advertising has always been about innovative strategies to capture consumer interest; it has never been about annoying the hell out of the consumer.

Understanding Click throughs

Why does anyone put up advertising on their sites? To earn money of course! How do they earn money? The online advertising industry has grown into a very complex and intricate business over time. However, most of the time, publishers will earn money based on the number of times their users click on any ads displayed on their site. This is called a Click-Through. The site owners usually get paid based on the number of click-throughs their site generates.

The basic thing to understand here is that revenue is generated for the site owners when somebody clicks on an ad. AdBlock Plus is used by consumers who find those ads annoying and intrusive. What is the chance of those very consumers clicking on those ads? Next to nil, I would say.

AdBlocking is a symptom not the illness

Why did AdBlock Plus come on the scene? Why is it increasing in popularity daily? If online ads were limited to text that was actually relevant to the consumer's interest, then those could be tolerated. However, today the norm is to have huge, in-your-face, bandwidth hogging ads that take up bulk of the screen-space and serve as a huge distraction from the actual content that the user is interested in. The annoying ads are the illness. AdBlock Plus' popularity is a direct result of this illness.

The privacy concern

It is all well to say that the price of the content is the annoying ad. But when the ad-networks start intruding into the users' privacy by tracking them through unsolicited cookies stored on the users' computers, things go too far.

A quick illustration:

I visited the NTDV Website using Firefox but without AdBlock Plus enabled. After having loaded the first page, I saw that I suddenly had cookies set on my computer from five different ad networks! These cookies stayed on my computer even after ending that browser session.

The following two screenshots display cookies set on my computer after visiting, one without AdBlock Plus and the other with:

The difference is clear. Simply by blocking the unwanted ads, I am preventing ad networks from tracking me via cookies. In effect, I am protecting my online privacy.

It is very obvious that more and more users are increasingly uncomfortable about the number of splash ads and tracking cookies that are thrown at them each day. AdBlock Plus provides these users with an option to do something about it all, and they take that option.

AdBlock Plus isn't the root cause; it is simply a symptom of a problem that has been created by the ad networks themselves!

Blocking Ads is not the long term solution

Having said that, I must add that blocking all online ads is not a long term solution. If 100% of the users started blocking all ads, the free internet as we know it today will die. The content publishers do need some mechanism by which they can generate revenue for their efforts.

However, content publishers need to understand that if users choose to circumvent their ads, it is because those ads aren't having the desired effect. Site owners need to think of ways to advertise that would engage consumers and readers instead of forcing annoying and undesirable ads down their throats. They also have to decide what is of value to them: is it readership or is it ad revenue? If you believe that the content you are putting up is so valuable that nobody should be able to view it without first paying you for it, monetizing it using ads may not be the right option; putting it behind a pay wall and running a subscription service will guarantee you a revenue stream. If you choose ads to monetize content and ad revenue is of primary importance then simpler options such as scripts to block AdBlock Plus users are also available. Here is another script that you may want to try implementing on your website to block AdBlock users (courtesy Danny Carlton).

The best option would be to put up great content along with relevant and non-intrusive ads. Then, tell your readers that your advertising shouldn't cause them issues. I have personally disabled AdBlock Plus on many websites that have ads that don't get in my way.

Online advertising needs to evolve such that the advertising is relevant to the content that the user is viewing, while at the same time not being annoying or intrusive. Advertisers need to win the trust of their consumers; after all that's what marketing has always been about.

Nice write up. Let me raise a

Nice write up. Let me raise a few points. There is a fundamental difference between the TV ads that you describe, and advertising on the web: "The advertising on the web is simultaneous with the content, and not interspersed between the content". So, when you walk away, you are not missing any content.

A better comparison would be the ads that pop-up while the content that you are consuming on TV is on. For example, in cricket matches, from time to time you see how the live feed is made smaller while an ad is displayed on the side and bottom, or when a sponsor graphic is shown when a 4 or a 6 is hit. You don't change the channel at that time now, do you? Nopes, that is an advert that you have no choice but to watch.

There are other points - for instance, when you talk about annoying the hell out of the customer, once again, isn't it a choice of the channel (in case of TV ads) how many ads it shows? For instance, again in a cricket match, Indian channels try to cram as many ads as possible between over - they don't even wait for the commentator to stop speaking after the last ball - I find that very irritating. But the channel has to make money. Similarly, a website (which is like a channel) which is providing ads to make money, can choose how much advertising to put on its site.

Now, on TV we don't have an option to block advertising, so we put up with it. However, let's take the example of a DVR - typical case being TiVo - when these came out, they would allow you to skip advertisements in recorded programs. In the US, that is not allowed anymore, you can only fast forward an ad. In Singapore, TiVo is banned, because the government fears it will impact the local TV industry adversely.

When you say that people should put their content behind a pay wall, you need to understand that not everyone is producing content which is of Gartner quality that people will pay for it. Nor is everyone hungry for premium content. Same goes with Pay TV versus free channels. Same applies for buying a car for example - there are very expensive ones and there are cheaper ones.

People who have advertising on their page are providing content which is not premium enough to put behind a pay wall, and yet they want to be paid for it.

Now, to address the point of using scripts to prevent access to people who are using something like AdBlock - I agree, people should use them perhaps. But let me put another analogy. Just because, I don't have a lock on my house to prevent thieves from getting in, it doesn't mean that what the thief does is right if he/she gets into my house. The onus of honest consumption of content lies on the consumer, not the provider. The provider can try their best to protect the content that they publish (through pay walls or through scripts), but they can only do so much - it is the consumer who should understand that you are getting a freebie by blocking out the advertisement on the website - its no different than piracy.

Advertising has to evolve; it has to strike a balance

Vaibhav, very good points.

What we see here is a classic tussle between advertisers trying to earn revenue and readers/viewers trying to get a clean reading/viewing experience. There has to be a balance.

I really don't mind the duck walking across my screen on TV or the occasional graphic that pops-up on TV. They are a distraction, yes. But they can also be fun at times and do not interfere as much with my viewing compared to let us say a Ford Car Pop-up taking up my entire screen-space for a minute preventing me from reading the news content that I actually came to the website for. I already own a Ford, why would I want another one?

Moreover, they don't track me across programs/channels and serve me targeted ads everywhere I go. My privacy is still intact and each channel endeavors to provide ads that are as relevant to the content they are displaying as can be.

As for DVR's, yes there have been various litigation and even rulings that have deemed Ad-skipping illegal. But advertisers have also evolved new strategies of advertising such as Product Placement to engage viewers while not serving as a distraction. These strategies are definitely better received.

I wrote about Ad-blocking scripts just to provide an option. I honestly don't believe they are the answer. They are only going to result in publishers pushing their readers away. Putting up intrusive ads and then putting up such a script simply tells the user "I really don't give a damn about you or your privacy; if you want to come to my site, you have to view these annoying ads and possibly be tracked by a dozen ad networks". Some readers may tolerate that approach — your content better be really good — others will just laugh at you and move on.

Advertising has always been a consumer driven industry and it will remain so. Consumers want the best products but at the same time do not appreciate corporates intruding into every part of their lives and tracking them everywhere. Over time advertising has engaged consumers in various ways — some successful and some others very unsuccessful. If you ask me Ad-blocking is the result of one such very unsuccessful endeavor!

Advertisements have to evolve to capture the mind-share without becoming a nuisance. That is the only way they are going to succeed.

Once again, I think there is

Once again, I think there is a fundamental difference between being an advertiser and being a channel for an advertiser - which a weblog is.

Anyway, I forgot to address your point about privacy in my comment. Yes, privacy is an issue, but this issue is definitely not a function of how irritating the ad-display is. It's not even correlated. So, when you say that you want to block only ads that are annoying and in your face, well even the ads that are nicely placed in the sidebar will leave cookies on your system - even they are intruding your privacy.

For protecting your privacy, use your browsers privacy mode if you want.

In any case, my argument is not for defending the way advertising is today - which I totally agree (with you) is way too intrusive. The point that I am making is this: given all of these things, when you visit a site that has advertising that you don't like, just leave - do not read what the site has to say. My issue is that people block these ads and then consume the content, which is unethical.

They are both part of advertising

Yes, advertisers are distinct from advertising channels; but they are both part of advertising.

Be it advertisers or channels for advertising, I believe that the onus is on both of them to find ways to engage their target audience - the consumers. By allowing advertisers to display intrusive ads on a website, the website owner is becoming a part of the problem.

What happens if the user chooses to display the ads but still doesn't click on them? The website owner still doesn't get his money, does he? How then will he differentiate between users who are blocking ads and those who simply ignore them? Ad-blocking isn't really the problem; the fact that website owners are so focused on displaying ads is.

A website owner's focus has to be on developing and maintaining loyal readership and that can only be done through good content. Once the loyal readership has been developed, he may choose to monetize using relevant and non-intrusive ads and that is where his rapport with his readers will help - they now trust him. Many of them will choose to allow him to display ads and may click on them too.

The moment the website owner stops focusing on content and starts focusing on displaying ads, we start having problems!

As for Privacy, yes cookies are set by all ads and ad-blocking helps me prevent that. I also make it a practice to set my browser to delete all cookies whenever the session ends.

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