Mark Ritson: The new breed of ad avoidance software is the biggest issue facing marketers

The story of marketing communications is a cat and mouse game between two opposing forces.

Ritson award winner

On the one hand we have the various advertising media that, at any one time, carry the persuasive messages of brands. On the other, the concerted attempts of consumers to screen out these messages as much as possible. On the marketing side we call this evasive activity ‘ad avoidance’. On the consumer side they call it ‘having a life’.

There is no prescribed moment when ad avoidance actually began but we can probably assume it started about 20 minutes after the invention of advertising. The methods used to avoid ads can vary from high tech to the very basic. During the late 20th century, for example, the National Grid actively monitored the so-called ‘TV pickup’ that occurred when millions of British households encountered the first TV ad at the end of their scheduled programme and headed, en masse, to the kitchen for a brew.

With the advent of the digital diaspora the likelihood of two million kettles being turned on simultaneously has lessened. But we are no more immune to the effects of ad avoidance today than we were 30 years ago. Both advertisers and avoiders have evolved in parallel. Specifically, it’s the new breed of ad blocking software that will surely become the big issue for marketers over the next few years.

Ad avoidance software – offered as a free download under brand names such as AdBlock Plus and Adguard – can systematically turn off unwanted auto-playing videos, on-screen ads and pop-ups. That’s attractive to consumers not only because it cleans up and optimises browsing but it also speeds the surfing experience too.

Click on a typical magazine link and you’re likely to download about 10KB of article and 5MB of ‘bloat’ – the popular term to encompass all the unwanted content that is piled on and around the wanted stuff. Bloat slows down a consumer’s device, costs them money to download, and often obscures and diminishes the browsing experience. Even in the worst days of TV, the commercials might have annoyed consumers but they did not slow down their weekly dose of Coronation Street or charge them money for the privilege.

Courtesy PageFair Adobe
Courtesy PageFair Adobe

No surprise, then, that the uptake of ad blocking software is on the rise. The third annual report from PageFair and Adobe, published last week, estimates that 12 million British consumers, or about one in five of us, use some form of online ad blocker. More importantly, that figure has grown in the past year by an astonishing 82%. What makes that remarkable growth figure even more concerning is the upcoming launch of Apple iOS9 in September. Thus far, mobile browsing has been virtually immune to ad blocking with almost all of it occurring on desktops. But with iOS9, app developers will be able to create effective ad blocking software on Apple devices. With smaller screens, more intrusive ads and shorter battery life, the benefits of ad blocking on mobile platforms don’t just match those of desktop browsing, they vastly exceed them.

Mobile ads

Two further factors will drive the rapid increase in digital ad avoidance over the next two years. First, as the pool of avoiders grows, the relative targeting of those left to view online messages will only increase. It is a counter-intuitive but age-old pattern. As attention and eyeballs diminish as a result of annoying advertising, advertisers double down and annoy the remaining audience even more. Ad avoidance will also be driven by the growing competition among browser brands for global dominance. The reason Google Chrome continues to offer ad blocking apps that, ultimately, cost its advertising business billions in lost global revenues is because it has to. With competitors such as Safari and Edge snapping at Google’s heels, the lack of superior ad blocking options would  be enough to send users elsewhere if it didn’t provide the apps.

Just as the UK passes the point where more than 50% of our marketing spend goes on digital media, we are about to enter an unprecedented period of advertising avoidance. Never before has marketing been so unlimited in the scope and scale of clutter that it can bake into its digital messages. Never before has the consumer had access to such immediate and effective filtering tools. The stage is set for a brand new match in a tournament as old as marketing itself: advertisers versus avoiders. Here we go again.

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Comments
  • Dwilson82 19 Aug 2015 at 4:59 pm

    The loss to google et al by offering ad blocking facilities isnt as great as you might think. All the advertising companies pay good sums of money to have their adverts ‘whitelisted’ and get through the ad blocking.

    For me this is the most disturbing trend. That adblockers are taking money from both ends of the spectrum. From customers trying to have a clean browsing experience, and from advertisers ‘bribing’ them to let their ads through.

    • Mike French 21 Aug 2015 at 9:07 am

      Money for old rope! You’re totally right though, I’d also like to see the digital strategy behind an Ad blocking app?

  • Steve Jex 21 Aug 2015 at 9:06 am

    Careful what you wish for – widespread blocking of ads means that companies like Google will find it difficult to continue to provide free services as they do now, and they won’t be the only ones who suffer.
    In the same way that we only have such a choice of TV stations because ad spend is available to fund them, the range of free services on the Internet would be similarly affected.
    It’s regulation and supervision that is required, not blocking.

    • Mike French 21 Aug 2015 at 9:11 am

      Like a ‘SafeAd’ software algorithm? Sounds like censoring to me which is nice in theory but unachievable in reality.

      • Steve Jex 21 Aug 2015 at 9:26 am

        Agreed, but Google already do it up to a point in AdWords; there are fairly strict guidelines as to what can and cannot be done in an ad, and much of that is regulated automatically – always with the option of requesting a “human” review.

  • Timm 21 Aug 2015 at 9:38 am

    I work in design and advertising so clearly have an interest in helping my clients sell more stuff. But I also get really irritated by things that interrupt me when I’m reading something. Videos embedded within articles which auto launch while I’m half-way through an article get my goat. So do the ads that flash, wink, jiggle and wiggle and pop all over the bloody place in my peripheral vision. I subscribe to a daily paper online and recently I was so irritated by one particular ad, from a ‘quality brand’ that I installed Adblock.

    Incidentally the best ad blocking application is offered by Design and Advertising (D&AD) the body that champions excellence in design and advertising. Their neat app filters out the crap and only lets you watch the good stuff.

    • kreestof 24 Aug 2015 at 11:26 am

      That reads like a sponsored comment… I think Ross’ prediction may be coming true sooner than he expected 😉

  • RossRobertsonHoward 21 Aug 2015 at 9:39 am

    “UK passes the point where more than 50% of our marketing spend goes on digital media” and 82% of users are employing ad blocking software.

    Prepare for the whispers of ‘branded content’, ‘sponsored articles’ and ‘native ads’ to turn into feverish shouting as publishers try to survive.

    • mark ritson 21 Aug 2015 at 10:23 am

      You make a good point but usage of ad blocking software is not 82% its about 20%. The 82% is the growth in that number since last year. But if that trends continues unabated we will be at 80% penetration by 2018. I think as soon as we reach 50% of users your shouting prediction starts to become more likely.

      • RossRobertsonHoward 21 Aug 2015 at 10:48 am

        Ahh I see, sorry misread that section of the article. Thanks for clarifying Mark. Slightly less alarming, but still a large chunk of potential inventory instantly dismissible in the eyes of advertisers and media buyers.
        I’d be interested to see how/if ad serving technology evolves to combat this by 2018. Or if due to the perceived scarcity the ad price rises.

  • Peter McCormack 21 Aug 2015 at 12:31 pm

    The issue isn’t with ad blockers only relates to search. With display the issue is that the ads don’t work, hardly anyone engages with them which is why creative agencies, media agencies and media owners measure their performance on such rediculous metrics.

    Any experienced digital planner is not recommended display advertising because it is fundamentally a waste of money. The only people who are have an economic vested interest.

    If nobody had ad blockers the issue would almost certainly be the same for advertisers.

    With search it is different as generally with Paid Search the results are actually useful because they are serving an expressed demand. Display ads don’t, they are disruptive (annoying).

    Acutally it would probably be better if someone like Ad Block made it easier when setting up to choose the type of ads you wanted to block.

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