Ending the ad blockers arms race depends on engagement, not technology

ad blockers
Image credit: Nednapa Sopasuntorn / Shutterstock.com

Cyber security is often described as an arms race between hackers and everyone else – you create a defense, hackers think up a way around it, you beef up your defenses, etc and so on. The same can also be said of ad blockers. A number of companies are coming up with clever ways for online users to screen out unwelcome ads, and both site owners and advertisers have to figure out ways around them, etc and so on.

Last month, researchers at Princeton and Stanford University raised the stakes with new ad blocking software that is so powerful that Motherboard reports it could effectively end the ad-blocking war – and it’s the advertisers who lose:

The software, devised by Arvind Narayanan, Dillon Reisman, Jonathan Mayer, and Grant Storey, is novel in two major ways: First, it looks at the struggle between advertising and ad blockers as fundamentally a security problem that can be fought in much the same way antivirus programs attempt to block malware, using techniques borrowed from rootkits and built-in web browser customizability to stealthily block ads without being detected. Second, the team notes that there are regulations and laws on the books that give a fundamental advantage to consumers that cannot be easily changed, opening the door to a long-term ad-blocking solution.

The “regulations and laws” in question are the ones that require ads to be visually identified as such. The research team basically enabled their software to look for the same things a human would to recognize that they’re looking at an ad. So while older ad blockers look for the urls and markup code typically found in ads (which advertisers can simply change to get around the blocker), the Princeton/Stanford ad blocker looks for labels like “sponsored” or “advertisement”.

Is that really it for ads, then? Not necessarily – I’m sure advertisers and publishers will come up with something. But what’s more interesting is the fact that the ad-blocker war is actually a thing.

A big part of the problem is adtech – basically digital junk mail – which is not only annoying and intrusive, but also notoriously hard to opt out of. Adtech comes with additional problems like malware and fraud. This is separate from “proper” ads, but odds are most consumers don’t know the difference, and probably don’t care, because even responsible digital advertising can be a headache.

For example, no one likes pre-roll ads getting in the way of watching a YouTube video, even if you can skip them after five seconds (and have you noticed that the smarter advertisers have created five-second video ads to nullify the skip option?).

The introduction of data collection and analytics complicates that advertiser/consumer relationship further. Such technologies are supposed to make ads more appealing to consumers by being relevant to their interests – but many find it intrusive and creepy.

No wonder ad blockers are growing more popular, then.

Pay attention to this. After all, many of the business models being bandied about for the upcoming digital economy are counting on advertising as a revenue generator. For companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, etc, it’s their primary revenue source. If consumers are fighting that trend, it’s worth taking the time to find out why.

David “Doc” Searls wrote about this back in 2015, observing that the rise of ad blockers represented “the biggest boycott in human history”. That’s a great, concise and reasonably accurate description of why ad blockers exist in the first place – consumers aren’t sick of ads so much as they’re sick of being bombarded by them in all kinds of annoying ways. And it’s key to understanding how both advertisers and their partners (be they social media sites, telcos, or media sites like us) should be approaching this issue.

Ironically, a lot of it boils down to the age-old problem of failing to understand what everyone in the value chain wants, as Arvind Narayanan (one of the Princeton/Stanford researchers) told Motherboard:

“The fundamental problem with online ads today is a misalignment of incentives—not just between users and advertisers, but between publishers and advertisers,” Narayanan told me in an email. “We’ve consistently found that publishers are upset about rampant online tracking and the security problems with ads, but they don’t have much control over ad tech. Changing this power imbalance is important if we want a long-term solution.”

In other words, the real solution to ad blocking isn’t just finding ways around the blockers, but understanding why consumers use them, and finding ways to engage with them rather than fight them, and treat them as people, not data portfolios. And that engagement needs to flow both ways, as Searls wrote in another 2015 post:

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

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