Why People Block Ads

People don’t hate good advertising that helps them discover new things, become better at things, provides them with insight and awareness, fuels their passion. What they hate is intrusive, repetitive, uninteresting, stupid and irrelevant advertising.

The promise since day one of the internet has been that big data was going to turn online advertising into something that is tailored to each one of us personally. The deal was going to be: Let us put software on your computer that lets us know what you like and where you are and what you are doing, and we’ll serve up ads that are relevant.

Of course, 15 years ago the term for “big data” may have been “personalization” or collaborative filtering or some other mumbo jumbo, but the idea has always been the same.

So our browsers today are now all weighted down with tracking crap (that’s not the technical term, I’m guessing) and the way most users experience big data is through some creepy “re-targeting” approach that makes a product we searched for because of something we can’t remember now is following us around the web for weeks.

And so we do whatever we can to just make it all go away and let us see the content we want to see.

And so in the way we used to plan going to the restroom around TV commercial breaks, we block ads online.

But it didn’t start last week with Apple’s new iOS.

Five years ago, the 12 people who read this blog were able to learn that Apple’s Safari browser included a one-click ad-blocking feature that’s been baked into the browser ever since. Look at this cool GIF I made and see the feature you could have been using for past five years to see what a web page looks like without all that stuff that gets in the way of making it easy to read.


For as long as I can recall, ad-blockers have been most the popular web browser extensions (the add-ons and plug-ins that let you customize the way a browser works). Rather than learn from that the lesson that people don’t want to read copy that is cluttered up and covered up, legacy media companies want to see the problem in terms of how readers are free-loaders and that blocking ads is what’s wrong with the world.

Here’s the problem, however: most advertising on the web sucks.

Some advertising works great, however: Search advertising, for example.

But the intrusive banner and display ads that people block, face it: they are awful and they deserve to be blocked.

So why is this old news, new again?

(Before answering this question, let me point back to a 2009 Rexblog post in which I ask media companies to stop blaming me for their failure. I inserted the link here for no specific reason, but that’s how it works on the web.)

If you’ve missed the current ad-blocking controversy, here are links to Vox.com’s explainer and Danny Sullivan’s insight at Marketing Land. Simply put, Apple, in its new version of the operating system for iPad and iPhone, is allowing developers to create ad block apps that work like ad-blocking browser extensions have worked since the first pop-up ad appeared on prehistoric cave-drawings in France 100,000 years ago.

The current season’s ad-block controversy went viral when Marco Arment (a superstar developer who is best known for his roles in developing Tumblr and Instapaper, created an ad-blocker iOS app ironically called “Peace.” It instantly became the #1 iOS paid app. But it became major “news” when Marco removed it from the App Store for reasons he explains here. (Sidenote: This makes Marco one of the only people I know who has actually followed Jon Lennon’s suggestion to “give peace a chance.” It didn’t work for Marco, is all we are saying.)

Why do people want to block advertising?

Here’s something I discovered when looking into this controversy. As Macro created Peace using data he licensed from the browse-extension ad-block company Ghostery, I decided to download it and try it out. You’ll discover two things when using it: (1) “Big data” tracks a lot of stuff you didn’t know existed (see the list of tracking software on the screengrab below); and (2) When Ghostery turns off all that data tracking, your browser runs a lot faster.


It seems strange to me that marketers spend so much money on data that’s used to decide how to target customers with advertising so bad that customers want to block them.

But that’s why people block them. Not because they are bad people, but because the ads suck.

Where does this end?

This weekend’s controversy is a continuation of a far too long-lasting debate over the economics of media. 

I have lots of opinions of what’s wrong with the way companies now advertise and communicate with customers and what marketers should do while waiting for tradition media companies and agency media buyers keep being frustrated over the fact that fewer people click on their ads.

Most of my recent writing on the topic can be found in the bi-monthly newsletter form Hammock Inc., called Idea Email (archive and subscription).

How Apple Advertises New Products: The Prestige

Last September 4, I wrote a Hammock Idea Email called, “Learn the Secret to Apple’s Product Launch Magic.”

It referred to the movie, The Prestige, and broke down how Apple would be introducing what we now know is the Apple Watch into the three parts of a magic trick, as described by the film’s character played by Michael Caine: (1) The Pledge, (2) The Turn and (3) The Prestige.

Continue reading How Apple Advertises New Products: The Prestige

Advice to web advertisers: Dial back the retargeting

A few months ago, I posted an explanation of what advertising retargeting is.

In it, I wrote:

Say, you have an interest in bicycling and you spend a few minutes on a Saturday morning visiting some online retailers to see what they have related to something you’re thinking about getting. Later, you notice that everywhere you go on the internet you see ads that look like the ad below.

what is retargeting?That’s advertising retargeting.

I believe good advertising is a good thing. Good advertising can help us discover things we might otherwise miss. And the revenue from advertising helps keep lots of content free to the user.

But I’m not sure advertising retargeting, as it is being practiced today, is good advertising.

Advertising retargeting (also called behavioral retargeting) must be effective, for it’s everywhere I go. For example, a month ago, I visited the website of a security camera that was mentioned in a post on SmallBusiness.com. Over the following weeks, ads for the camera appeared  on random websites I’d visit, dozens of times each day.

So, retargeting must work–at least in the way that 2 out of 100 click-throughs are twice as effective as 1 out of 1oo click-throughs. But what about the 98 people who don’t click at all? I believe that some of them are being inspired to learn how to opt-out of retargeting — and other forms of advertising, altogether.

Retargeting is especially offensive during any gift-giving season, I wonder how families who share a computer (who don’t know how to avoid retargeting) are responding to the way retargeted ads will be show up when the person you’re shopping for is using the same web browser.  (Tip to keep your gift shopping a secret: Shop from an “Incognito window” if using Chrome,  “Private Browsing” in Safari, or “Private Window” in Firefox. In those modes, tracking cookies can’t be downloaded to your browser.)

I believe the use of retargeting has reached the point at which it can be so intrusive and random it will encourage people to adapt their usage of browsers to avoid such ads, altogether. In doing so, they will lose some of the personalization and customization features of a browser that can be helpful.

Too often, marketers tend to forget to think like customers. Too often, they don’t realize when they’re killing geese who lay golden eggs.

Helpful links:

Google Ad Help (allows you to adjust the types of ads you see)
NAI (National Advertisers Initiative) – A self-regulatory approach major advertisers and ad-serving networks are providing that provides consumers a single dashboard to control the types of ads they see.



How Could One Not Buy a GoPro Camera After Watching This?

If the product you’re selling is a camera that adventurous people strap on to themselves to record what they see while doing adventurous adventures, don’t waste time talking about how great the camera is. Do what GoPro does in this four minute video.

While it’s no lie to call this a promotional video, I wouldn’t call it an advertisement or commercial as GoPro didn’t pay YouTube to show it to me and I wasn’t subjected to it in the middle of another video I may have been watching, say, a sporting event or episode of CSI. (Although, they may have paid something to have the clickable features embedded.)

No, I saw it because about once a quarter, I make it a point to visit the GoPro Channel on YouTube, hoping it will convince me that life won’t be complete until I have one of these cameras strapped to my bicycle helmet. I know I’ll never do anything these adventurous (and very crazed) people are doing. Then, again, I’ll never be Michael Jordan, either, but I’ve been buying Nikes for decades.


After advertising, what? Levi’s bike commuter collection “Go to Work” media

Levi’s commuter collection uses digital and video media to celebrate a niche passion, and to help grow its potential customer-base. (Note: Take up the “no-helmets” issue with them, not me.)

The 12 people who read this blog know that among my top three current obsessions is riding a bicycle to and from work. (I’ve just crossed 1,000 miles of in-town bicycling during the first eight months of 2013.) A small sub-set of people know that my in-city bicycling has caused me to wonder why I spent so many years believing riding a bike was dependent on my wearing Spandex and trying to ride as fast as I could.

Riding a bicycle for transportation and fun has nothing to do with Spandex, I’ve discovered. Nor speed. It’s about having such a wonderful means of commuting to work that even a woman driver* blowing her horn, screaming, “just get on the f*0#ing sidewalk” can’t pierce ones zone of bliss. (And yes, that happened to me yesterday.)

Recently, I touched on this topic and wondered out loud what the bicycle industrial complex was thinking when they spent decades using-up the majority of their marketing dollars reinforcing the idea that Spandex and bicycles are joined a the hip area. (Actually, that’s a rhetorical question as I know the answer: bicycles purchased by spandex-wearers are high-margin, expensive products.)

As I’ve noted, I believe the CitiBike program in New York could prove to be the breakthrough biking needs to help people understand that riding a bike is about transportation, as much as it is about recreation or fitness.

The reason I say CitiBike is the “disruptive” force is simple: A large chunk of the U.S. fashion industry exists within a fairly flat and densely populated few square miles of Manhattan. The world’s largest advertising and marketing firms occupy much of that same area, as do the nation’s major entertainment and media companies.

Quickly, these gate-keepers of pop-culture and fashion (especially the young fashion magazine associates commuting to work) will crush the notion that Spandex has anything to do with bicycling. Spin-classes, maybe, but the commuting kind, no.

Just look at this list of articles about “bicycles and fashion” that have appeared in the New York Times during the past year.

Spandex is bicycling’s Blackberry. Commuter fashion is its iPhone.

Before landing in New York, the urban bicycling fashion trend has been building over the past several years. For the past five years, San Francisco-based Levi’s has been nurturing a niche fashion collection for bike commuters. (And the coolest bike shoes in the U.S. are also from San Francisco.)

Today, bicycle fashion tends to slant towards hipster chic…or if older riders like me wear it, perhaps hipster-replacement chic. But check out these bicycle shoes from the UK if you want a sample of what you’ll see on Wall Street among bicycle commuters there.

As you’ve probably never seen its commuter fashion line advertised on TV or elsewhere, how does Levi’s market it? Customer media and content, of course.  (Thus, the subject line of this post.)

Here are three short videos in a Levi’s YouTube series that show hip, young bicycle commuters who happen to be wearing Levi’s Commuter “Go to Work” collection. Makes you want to commute, huh?

*This particular incident involved a woman, but being a redneck is gender neutral.