We aren’t the sort of family that has much in the way of heirlooms passed from generation to generation. In fact I think that the only thing that I have inherited (other than my wit and dashing good looks, naturally) is a bound edition of a volume of the satirical magazine Punch from around 1918.
It’s fascinating in a dusty old way, but the content is bereft of adverts. Back then (and for many years after) the adverts that helped to fund the content were contained in the front and back pages, which meant for the purposes of binding the content in the middle could be straightforwardly removed from the commercial bits, and then stored pristine and untainted by the hand of the advertisers.
Ad-blocking has been around a lot longer than the current content industries might have us believe.
At some point in the 1960s it seems that the media organizations realised that eyeballs were more likely to rest on the adverts if the adverts were interspersing the content. The Times used to devote the whole of its front page to small ads right up until the 1960s. I’m not sure exactly when publications like Punch stopped separating ads from content, but that legacy of layout can still be see to this day (to an extent) in modern magazines like Wired where the content still remains reasonably free of display advertising.
The choice to intersperse content with advertising in turn lead to more difficult to distinguish practices like advertorial in print and brand sponsorship on broadcast media. Advertisers and media owners have been working harder and harder over time to make it more difficult to escape the advertising.
The rise of ad- blocking software has further raised the ante. I use an ad blocking service, but primarily because of the massive performance impact of over-judicious inventory utilisation when it’s not uncommon to find 20 or even 30 adverts on a single web page. If some of those are multi-media presentations, the drain on performance can hit pretty quickly.
But it seems like a lot of the people using ad blockers are doing so more for reasons of privacy. And this poses an existential threat for the ad industry: for many years now we’ve been told that increasingly personalized advertising will be the future. If you put a highly targeted advert in front of me, I’m more likely to act upon it. But for that targeting to be effective, you need to know who I am and much about me.
That disclosure is the challenge. In theory better-targeted advertising should be less intrusive because it’s more relevant to me (and there should be less of it because charges for highly-targeted advertising should be higher). But the evidence of today’s programmatic advertising is that it’s not only stupid, but also very, very annoying. Retargeting (as it’s known) is that thing that bungs up adverts for things for which you have recently searched. It’s possibly the most needy form of advertising of all time.
Entirely closed systems force the consumer’s hand – anyone who has a Sky+ satellite TV system but uses ad blocking on the grounds of privacy has obviously not looked at detail to what Murdoch’s box is tracking. But for the most part it looks like we are heading into a technological battle where ad-blockers are countered by ad-blocker-blockers (to be confronted by ad-blocker-blocker-blockers… and so it goes on).
But what if we went back to the old ways. Stop trying to force advertising in front of me, but make it easier to ignore if I so choose? What if we were to see advertising sections that we could choose to look at (or not)?
Of course the worry would be that the answer would always be “or not”. But that then puts onus on the advertising industry to start producing advertising that is compelling, not annoying. Which, quite frankly, is a much better place to start a relationship with a new customer than one of mild (or extreme) annoyance.