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).