Ad blocking and the end of the columnist, Part 1

Ad-blocking in IOS will lead to the end of professional content creation.

A bold statement? But follow thorough on Casey Johnston’s vision from The Awl — which I encourage you to read. It’s an insightful article, in which Casey goes back to some of the earliest controversies about ad blocking, and though recognizes the “significant consumer dissatisfaction” people have with blockers (she quotes an Oxford study), takes a pretty open-minded take on internet ads and explores the evolution of Internet advertisements.

Her main thrust is that popup blockers threaten a revenue model that sustains the mainline internet news and commentary providers. As a way to highlight the dire straights in which traditional publishers find themselves, Johnston provides a chart illustrating the downward trend of the Internet’s premier news source: the New York Times. She explains:

“…advertising revenues are down 5.5 percent percent year-over-year, while circulation revenues are up less than one percent … the end result is a net revenue decline of 1.5 percent. In other words, even the most important and widely respected newspaper in the world is nowhere close to being healthily monetized, especially not by the small number of people who pay for it.”

It isn’t a pretty picture, and ad blocking threatens the already insufficient advertising revenue of the NYT online presence. They get paid when we readers ‘click through’ an ad to the advertiser’s site. No ad, no click through, no revenue.

So, if the mighty NYT can’t survive the failing health of online advertising, who can survive? And what can publishers do to better their lot?  Johnston posits that the blockers will drive advertisers to create better ads. Ads of the future will be fun and interesting…hopefully, we’ll have no more ‘smack the monkey’ adverts that were so prevalent at the turn of the century. Maybe auto-starting video ads will go away, as will those ads with bad animation. Perhaps ads will resemble content, in that they’ll be compelling in their own right.

Maybe. But in the U.S., such advertising, known as “native advertising” is in the crosshairs of the FTC. The aforementioned NYT reported in 2013 that “native advertising or sponsored content — and has been referred to as advertorial or infomercial — has grown more aggressive on the Internet.” They’ve got rules about it, and people don’t like it.

A walk on the seamy side

It’s been two years since that NYT report, and as far as I can tell, ads are still mostly a pestilence, though I have to admit the NYT’s ads don’t seem too awful (disclosure: my wife is a digital subscriber). Today a couple blocky logos for REI share the banner, and a page-wide but shallow banner lurks below. No flashing, no animation thankfully. Tasteful. We already pay them but I’d be happy to whitelist their site and put up with their level of advertising.

Other mainline sites vary. The Verge opens with a MASSIVE banner for Best Buy, pushing content halfway down the page, with another huge banner halfway through their content blocks. On mobile, they spare us that, at least, but I’m blocking them on desktop — it’s off-putting and jarring as the page loads a bit, then jumps down screen as Best Buy fills the page. Ars Technica is less egregious, they pop a couple ads in amongst its content blocks and load a couple small ads at the top in in the mobile site. Ars is a nice compromise. I’m leaning towards whitelisting them with my blocker.

Wander a bit further afield to seemingly respectable sources and it’s already getting seamy.  MSN is filled with clickbait ‘news’ stories that lead to even worse click-bait sites–within MSN. Animations and videos start up, and I jump out. Yahoo has its news feed salted with sponsored ‘stories’ that my blocker doesn’t block. No worries, I don’t read either of those sites.

It gets worse on dedicated clickbait sites. Often driven by services like Outbrain, these sewers of the ‘Net get nasty fast. Videos start up, and often you can’t find them for all the ads and content blocks strewn around. Celebrity sites are the worst, stylebistro and radaronline for example. The pages take forever to load, all kinds of crap is moving…the horror.

And by tracking you with cookies, these sites are gathering info on you to better target their ads. That’s why I get all the ‘mature women singles’ ads, and Viagra promos. Thanks, I’m good on both counts, guys.

And what is our reaction to this horror? Ad blocking, and cookie blocking (with tools like Ghostery). Johnston fears the blockers will drive all content and advertising to platforms like Facebook, for a couple reasons. As opposed to news feeds which depend on cookies to glean some info about you, on the platform, we’ve already given up our privacy, our salable details. And as Johnston points out, on Facebook the ads are un-blockable; the platform is the publisher. You want the platform? You get marketed. No escape.


Part 2: Who will write in the future?

About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
This entry was posted in Future, Publishing, Technology, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ad blocking and the end of the columnist, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Ad blocking and the end of the columnist, Part 2 | Pat Hayden Jones

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