Are There Any Winners In The War On Ads?

    March 24, 2013

Advertising is a key component of the Web economy as it keeps many of the Web sites and services you use free. Facebook, Twitter, and even the very words you’re reading right now are all free because of advertising.

For years, this model of advertising on Web sites in exchange for free content worked well. That very model, however, has been under attack for the past few years. The two factions in this war – the pro-ad and the anti-ad factions – have been going back and forth, but no clear winner has ever emerged. Two recent events have helped reinvigorate the discussion, but both threaten to take us even further into a war that can’t be won.

Where do you stand in the war on ads? Are you pro-ad or anti-ad? Let us know in the comments.

Earlier this month, Mozilla, makers of the popular Firefox browser, came under attack by the ad industry. The Interactive Advertising Bureau claims that Mozilla’s plan to automatically block third-party cookies in Firefox will hurt small businesses and Web sites that rely on these cookies track consumer’s Web activity and deliver relevant ads.

Mozilla claims that its anti-cookie policy is all about protecting the privacy of its users. A noble endeavor if there ever was one, but what about Web sites that rely on these cookies to make money from advertisements? Mozilla says that “collateral impact should be limited,” but encourages Web sites to make the necessary code change to accomodate the new policy.

In response, IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg says that the policy won’t help consumers in the least, especially in the realm of privacy.

In 2012, the Obama administration endorsed the work of the Digital Advertising Alliance, of which the IAB is a part, for creating a robust self-regulatory program to protect consumer privacy rights and expectations in the advertising-supported internet. This program gives more than 5,000 participating internet publishers, marketers, and other advertising industry companies clear ground rules for activity and exerts penalties if not adhered to. The principles of the program come to life most visibly through a small icon adjacent to advertising that’s delivered to a user based on the educated guess that the ad will be relevant to them. This icon links users to a page with information about how user data is collected and used, and gives them an opportunity to opt-out from the practice. More than 1 trillion of these icons are delivered to U.S. consumers each month.

If third-party cookies are blocked, this program will no longer be effective. A third-party cookie is the technology that tells companies a user has opted out of interest-based advertising through the program; it’s the sign that says, “I’ve chosen not to be tracked.” Cookies can easily be deleted by users through any browser. They are also transparent—any user can find out which ad-supported companies are present in his or her browsers and cherry-pick which cookies they will allow to track their site usage. Today, third-party cookies empower consumers to control their own privacy on an internet-wide scale.

The threat of Mozilla’s anti-cookie policy is still a ways off as Firefox 22 won’t be in use by a majority of Firefox users for another 12 to 18 weeks. This gives the advertising industry some time to meet with Mozilla and come to a consensus on advertising so as to satisfy its need to generate revenue while letting Mozilla feel like its protecting the privacy of its users.

As Mozilla and the ad industry duke it out, the relationship between publishers and consumers are continuously being strained by the use of ad blockers. The debate over the use of the controversial technology came to a head recently as Google removed all ad blockers, including Adblock Plus, from the Google Play store.

Google’s move to protect a major stream of mobile revenue isn’t the first time this year that ad blockers have caused a stir. Earlier this month, Niero Gonzalez, publisher of Destructoid and other online publications, said that half of his site’s readers use ad blockers.

The debate over the use of ad blocking software isn’t new. Back in 2010, Ars Technica ran an experiment that would remove content from those using ad blocking software. The results were immediate:

Starting late Friday afternoon we conducted a 12 hour experiment to see if it would be possible to simply make content disappear for visitors who were using a very popular ad blocking tool. Technologically, it was a success in that it worked. Ad blockers, and only ad blockers, couldn’t see our content. We tested just one way of doing this, but have devised a way to keep it rotating were we to want to permanently implement it. But we don’t. Socially, the experiment was a mixed bag. A bunch of people whitelisted Ars, and even a few subscribed. And while others showed up to support our actions, there was a healthy mob of people criticizing us for daring to take any kind of action against those who would deny us revenue even though they knew they were doing so. Others rightly criticized the lack of a warning or notification as to what was going on.

Those who want to block all ads regardless of its impact on publishers reflect poorly on the intentions of those creating ad blocking software. In early 2012, a New York Times report said that the popular Adblock Plus software would be introducing an exception in its software for “acceptable ads” to help counter the negative effect its software has had on Web sites. In essence, “acceptable ads” are those that don’t distract the consumer with flashing visuals or noise.

Unlike Mozilla’s destroy all cookies philosophy, Adblock Plus hopes to promote simple ads that respect consumers. The makers of the software realize the importance that advertising plays in the Web economy, but also want said advertisers to respect those they’re targeting. If successful, it would encourage more users to unblock ads on Web sites.

Are you an ad blocking maximalist? Or should ad blockers only be used when the situation calls for it? Let us know in the comments.

As it was said at the start, the “war on ads” has been raging for years with no winner in sight. That begs the question – will there ever be a winner? There won’t be as things currently are. It will require a concentrated effort on the part of consumers, advertisers and publishers to make sure that everybody emerges as winners.

Some Web sites are already being incredibly proactive in this space. Reddit comes to mind as the popular Web site recently said that it has partnered with a new ad provider to deliver ads that are “as useful and non-intrusive as possible.” Reddit says that it already enjoys a user base that overwhelmingly whitelists it in ad blockers. The new ad system respects user choice as well by giving readers the option of hiding ads:

For example, if you dislike a particular ad in the sidebar, it is now possible to hide it from showing again. If you hover over a sidebar ad in /r/sports, a new “thumbs up” / “thumbs down” overlay will appear. If you “thumbs down” an ad, we won’t display it to you again, and you can give us feedback to improve the quality of reddit ads in the future.

There’s a desire on the part of consumers to work with publishers and advertisers to keep the ad economy healthy for years to come while respecting their right to an enjoyable experience on the Web. All those who rely on the Web need to take this into account if they want to survive.

Should consumers play a larger role in the ad industry? Can everybody become a winner in the ad wars? Let us know in the comments.