Mark Ritson: The Coalition for Better Ads is destined for a glorious failure

It is not bad creative that consumers hate, it’s ads full stop, which means however hard the industry tries to improve their quality, the use of online ad blocking software will continue to rise.

Ritson head scratch small

It has been a big week for digital advertising. As you may have heard, the Coalition for Better Ads has been set up to create global standards for online advertising. The Coalition includes P&G, Google, Facebook, The Washington Post, the WFA, the IAB, a guy in a computerised metal suit and the Norse god of thunder.

READ MORE: Google, Unilever and P&G join coalition aiming to rid the internet of annoying ads

Oops, sorry. Got my squads of superheroes mixed up there for a moment. Where were we?

Oh yes, the Coalition. It will set out to create a “scoring system”, which, by the start of 2017, will be applied to all digital advertising. It’s not clear at this point exactly what happens to advertising that does not meet the Eurovison-style approach to ad scoring. Presumably, given the Coalition includes 75% of all digital advertising media outside of China (since both Google and Facebook are members) it effectively has the power to shut out any advertising it deems sub-standard from reaching consumers.

Of course, the real reason for the Coalition’s existence is not a sudden shared desire to improve the quality of online advertising but rather the global rise in ad blocking software. Estimates vary as to the degree of ad blocker use in the UK. Optimistic numbers, such as those from the IAB, put it at 22% of adults while more disconcerting studies, like that from KPMG (26% of consumers) or GlobalWebIndex (37% of mobile users) suggest higher levels.

READ MORE: Google insists it will not be working with AdBlock Plus to sell ads

More troubling is the trajectory of those numbers. Ad blockers were unheard of five years ago and their current growth rates, if left unchecked, could lead to a nightmare scenario where only a minority of the digital audience remains reachable. That is a scenario that the IAB rejects. Its most recent survey from July shows ad blocker usage in the UK in decline compared to an earlier survey conducted in February. But most other assessments, notably PageFair’s, show dramatic annual increases in ad blocking, on both desktop and mobile, with obvious and unsettling implications for advertisers.

So something had to be done and the formation of the Coalition is a significant initiative. To its credit, the Coalition has already made it clear that any future strategy will be built from consumer research into why they find online advertising so annoying and why they are signing up in their millions for ad blockers. Without wanting to supersede these findings, there have been extensive investigations already into ad blocker use and they all say the same thing.

The main reason people block advertising is not because of poorly conceived creative or annoying, data-heavy executions. It is because they hate advertising and prefer their media without it. In a recent survey of British ad blockers by KPMG, for example, almost half the sample (46%) said they would use an ad blocker because – and I quote – “they do not like advertising at all”.

In contrast, the Coalition believes that “better” advertising will reduce the adoption of ad blockers. They say that because they are all marketers and marketers are the only people on the planet that think people like advertising. They think that because of what psychologists call ‘post-hoc rationalisation’, or what we might also call ‘how the fuck could I go to work each day if I really admitted how much people hate what I do?’.

So you can see how this one will play out. The Coalition spends several million quid creating inane legislation that slightly improves online ads. At which point consumers, who still have their ad blocking software up in the right hand corner of their screen, completely ignore the whole charade and keep blocking ads. They will do that not because the Coalition will fail to improve online advertising, but because the only good ad for most consumers is the one they do not have to download and be distracted by while they consume digital media.

None of this is digital’s fault by the way. If consumers had a similar opportunity to block TV ads, they would jump on it. Oh, hang on, they do and they have.

It is called ‘zipping’ – when consumers fast-forward through the ads – and when viewers watch time shifted TV and encounter advertising, they engage in the practice 86% of the time, according to Deloitte.

Scoring systems and coalitions and people on stages saying impressive things in nice suits all make for very encouraging headlines but ad blocking is not going to go away if you improve online ads. Ad blocking is not going away full stop.

The real problem for online advertising isn’t the dismal quality of current executions, it is that ad blockers exist, they are free and they take four seconds to download and start to use. That’s not going to change any time soon, and that means the Coalition is going to succeed nobly in improving online advertising and fail miserably in reducing ad blocking.



There are 13 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Stephen Marfleet 20 Sep 2016

    This is definitely overlooked in the field, it is always assumed that adblockers are installed because of things like pop-ups, which haven’t been an realistic issue for years. It will be interesting how AdBlock’s whitelisting of “acceptable adverts” will affect digital advertising.

  2. Marshall Stacks 20 Sep 2016

    If there was a button that consumers could push that would remove all the ads on their phones, tablets, computers, televisions, and radio – how many consumers would push that button?

    Consumers don’t want ads – period.

  3. JV_at_lAttitude_in_Cairns 21 Sep 2016

    Thanks Mark for shining a laser-like light on yet another flight-of-fancy by those who should know better but can’t resist “flapping their gums” on a subject near and dear to many professional marketers – the impact of ad-blocking.
    Ps If you are ever up my way, let me know – I’d love to shout your favourite beverage

  4. Just imagine if every ad had to pass a one question test before it was published. The question is: “Will this annoy existing and/or potential customers?”.

    This could really change how we do Marketing.

  5. m ritson 21 Sep 2016

    All good comments this week. But what does Daley Thompson think?

  6. Scouserphil 21 Sep 2016

    Isn’t the irritation factor heightened by the fact you receive so much irrelevant advertising when so much is known about you online? My FB feed, for instance is laughable. They know more about me than my mum, but I receive ads in that feed that are beyond irrelevant. How does that happen? So, in addition to crap content they’re not even meant for me. I was exploding about some ad on Adweek taking over my page the other day and all 3 of my kids were laughing at me. You don’t have adblocker, dad, they asked. Despite spending at least 300% more time online they never have to watch an ad, ever, because the first thing they do is DL an adblocker. They will not be swayed by a change in the quality of the ads and that has to be more worrying than the frustrations of an old farts like us.

  7. Steve Jex 21 Sep 2016

    I have spent many hours trying to placate Google with their already stringent controls on the ads that they will, or will not, run. Getting an ad approved is far more difficult than it used to be.
    Inserting another level of approval on ads isn’t going to solve this one. It’s a case of educating the consumer, as has already happened with TV ads, that the content they are watching is only there because the ad revenue pays for it. The alternative is to charge for services that are currently provided for free – how does “Pay Per Search” grab you? – difficult to see how Google could pay for its private army of twiddlers without ad revenue so I differ from Mark in that I believe ad blockers will decline when Google and others start to explain that if you have an ad blocker, there’s going to have to be some kind of charge for the service.

  8. Martijn de Haas 22 Sep 2016

    You already can’t visit some websites without disabling your adblocker. More websites will follow, Most sites are reluctant to enforce this as it will cost them visitors and they sell reach to advertisers. The paradox being that a growing percentage of this reach isn’t actually watching the ads.
    Forcing to disable any adblocker will make visitors think about how much they value the content provided by the particular website. That is scary for a lot of websites. I am wondering if a website with a smaller group of very dedicated visitors could sell the ad space in a different way?

  9. BorderLine Guy 22 Sep 2016

    Does Linkedin have some ban on posting MW articles? Can’t use the direct post to LinkedIn on the left, and can’t cut/paste it either.

    • Samuel Joy 23 Sep 2016

      Hi, hopefully not! It’s working for us here at MW towers. Could you tell me please what browser and version of it you’re using? Regards, MW

      • BorderLine Guy 23 Sep 2016

        Chrome, latest version (Version 53.0.2785.116 m). Direct link from the page to post to LinkedIn just spins as does copying and pasting.

        • Samuel Joy 26 Sep 2016

          Thanks for getting back to us, much appreciated. I’ll ask our IT team to look in to it. Regards, MW

  10. Jonathan Elder 26 Sep 2016

    Even with these stats it means that 50% of people aren’t totally anti-ad. We’ve had ads for over two centuries, first in print, then online. What we have not are not just ads, but ads that are getting in the way – and even non-advert savvy people notice those.

    While there are some complaint, there is no campaign to prevent print ads. Try to think of the print equivalent and how people would react:

    Autoplay video: add one of those light activated sound chips to each newspaper that starts when you open the page, which you cant find to silence. I can imagine stamping on the newspaper.

    Pop-over ads: There is a large post-it note over the page you want to read. It can only be removed by peeling from one specific corner, which is disguised so you can’t tell which one.

    Exit ads: As you go to put your newspaper down, a small chap in a grubby suit rushes over and says you need to keep reading ‘just because’. Or asks for your phone number and email address.

    In-line ads that load after the content: You start reading and article, only to find after a short while the bottom half of the page falls on the floor to reveal an ad.

    Survey/Forced video to continue: Your newspaper comes wrapped in a special wrapper that can only be taken off after 20 minutes. Sometimes this is fine, other times you can’t be bothered waiting.

    Pop-under ads: While you are reading your newspaper, the chap in the grubby suit sneaks up to you and carefully places an advert on your lap or table without you noticing.

    Malicious / fraudulent ads: These do have a paper equivalent – those suspicious ads for invisibility specs, cure-all potions and guaranteed get rich quick schemes. Most decent newspapers do not allow them because of the reputation damage caused – so why do ad networks.

    Click bait articles: Headlines on articles that bear little relation to the content

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