#OPSPOV: Who Will Block the Blockers?

Who Will Block the Blockers?

In “15 Million Merits” – my favorite episode from the contemporary “Twilight Zone”-esque anthology, “Black Mirror” – our dystopian future protagonist lies in his cubicle-like bedroom with no walls, but a giant video screen that also serves as a wall. After a long day of riding a stationary bike at the office (yeah, you gotta watch it to understand), he indifferently watches reality shows, casually skipping commercials – typically for a porn channel – by paying a small fee.

When our hero runs low on funds and can no longer skip ads, he tries to avert his eyes from the screen only to set off an alarm – a voice barks that watching the advertisement is mandatory. (How’s that for ensuring viewability?)

Paying to remove advertising is a trend gaining steam – take Hulu’s ad-free subscription model for starters. Lack of advertising is such a big selling point for Netflix that there was hysteria when the company experimented with showing short promotional clips for its proprietary programming. “No ads!” is a big marketing ploy Spotify uses to encourage subscription, though I care less about the lack of advertising and more about the ability to access music offline for subway rides. And this is not a new phenomenon: for years HBO and other pay-cable channels have lured in subscribers with the no-ad promise, though technically self-promoting commercials are littered between normal programming.

You can bet this trend is on my mind because of ad blocking, and numerous interesting pieces of news around digital advertising’s current top anxiety. While there’s a strong argument that using an ad blocker is akin to digital piracy or cheating a publisher out of the potential revenue (publisher might just serve you house ads, which means they didn’t miss out on advertiser spend), Independent Journal CEO Alex Skatell went as far as to compare ad blocking to the music piracy of Napster at a recent MediaPost conference. 

Of course, Napster’s piracy days ended rather unceremoniously while AdBlock Plus gains subscribers by the day – despite being disinvited to the IAB’s annual leadership meeting and receiving a tongue-lashing from its CEO Randall Rothenberg. A German court ruling in parent company EyeO’s favor has buoyed AdBlock’s legal legitimacy, much to the chagrin of publishers. 

So ad blocking is just going to have to be dealt with – but how? Well, a publisher can pony up to AdBlock’s shakedown scheme, also known as the Acceptable Ads Initiative, and limit the types of creative it serves. But there seems to be a big flaw in this: if I install an ad blocker because I don’t want to see ads and then I’m shown a bunch of ads… I’m going to go find another ad blocker, probably without an Acceptable Ads Initiative. If I’m using an ad blocker mainly because of malware concerns, a piece of malvertising could still slip through an “Acceptable” publishers ad stack – after all, that’s just a whitelist. 

Another option that’s been tried by Forbes, Washington Post, Axel Springer and other digital publishers – block the ad blockers. Or rather, ask users to turn off their ad blockers to view content, or potentially offer the ability to pay cash-money. Wired is the latest to pursue this method, offering a week of ad-free content munching for the nice price of a dollar. 

Forbes’ recent experiment had mixed results – when they put the blocker-blocker on its signature “30 Under 30” series, only 42% of the sample turned off their blockers. Part of the theory behind blocking the blockers is that users are so loyal to a media brand that they will be willing to suffer through the ads (and tracking and security risks – but these are other stories) to get authentic (in this case, Forbes) content. Nothing screams Forbes like “30 Under 30,” but 58% of visitors still said, “Not without my ad blocker!” (Or they found ways around the blocker-blocker.) 

Still, according to Forbes the group that relinquished their blockers proved to be quite engaged, hitting numerous articles and racking up 63 million incremental impressions. Perhaps more brand loyalists will show up with time and cede their ad shields.

But there’s another breakthrough that could give blocker-blocking the leg up it needs: micropayments. Politico EU recently wrote about Blendle, which enables consumers to make micropayments for pieces of digital content. Say I hit Wired.com for some piece of essential content, but don’t want to turn my ad blocker off for security reasons and grimace at paying $1 for a week-long subscription that I’m likely not going to take advantage of. I would be enticed to pay a small, reasonable fee at the click of a button just to see that one piece. 

In the past, industry peeps have sneered at the potential of micropayments, suggesting little pools of revenue wouldn’t amount to much over time. But has the mobile gaming industry taught us nothing? Microtransactions can quickly add up, often proving a better revenue driver for mobile games than advertising – in that case, paying actually enhances the experience while advertising disrupts.

Which takes us back to “15 Million Merits” – paying little amounts to get rid of ads is somehow a back-end way of paying for content. When the protagonist first swiped away an ad for a puny amount of currency, I might have said aloud, “That’s convenient.” And I also thought to myself, I wouldn’t waste the money – a bit of my attention costs less.

But now I’m empowered to make the decision – as a consumer, I can value the worth of my attention as well as my data. This is something FTC Chair Julie Brill narrowed in on at a recent AdExchanger conference and something I’ve long advocated for. Enabling micropayments could be a big step in giving consumers agency with their data, allowing them to be used as a currency.

Micropayments are not the savior of digital media – truly enabling consumers to use data as currency would require a great deal more transparency on the part of the advertising industry. But micropayments could be an essential part in breaking the current ad block stalemate.