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).

PacMan Eats Up Amazon’s Home Page

Earlier this year, I noted a new design of Wired.com that supports “takeover” ads. These are not pop-over or pop-up ads that you can click an “x” to remove. These are ads that are actually a part of the background or are, in some graphical and often animated way, an actual element of the page.

Today, I thought I saw Amazon come as close as I’ve seen it come to promoting a product using a takeover approach (that wasn’t a letter from Jeff Bezzos). However, upon looking at it more closely, I realized it was a standard size Amazon uses — a “slider” approach to promoting various products that someone viewing the site on a desktop screen will see. (I use lots of smaller screens, so seeing something on a big screen jumps out.)

2010 Google Doodle
2010 Google Doodle

Later: No wait. More than a takeover ad, this now reminds me of a Google Doodle from five years ago (left).


Small Business marketing words vs. words used in marketing to Small Business

If you are an actual small business, there’s a major possibility that you have no idea the meaning of marketing department jargon like like SMB, microbusiness and SOHO.

(Note: Much of this post can also be found on something I wrote recently for SmallBusiness.com. As “marketing to small businesses” is a topic I’m going to be writing about on RexBlog during the coming months, I decided to crosspost it here.)

As within any tribe of professionals, it’s normal for those who market products and services to small businesses to develop an inside language of buzz-terms and acronyms as shortcuts for long strings of words or common concepts. As business-to-business marketers can’t do what consumer marketers do when they describe customers as a set of demographics (women, ages 18-21, for example), marketing strategies for reaching small business decision makers tend to describe the customer by the size of a company (revenues or employees), the industry “vertical,” or other factors like location. For that reason, the proxies for consumer-like demographics have evolved into terms like:

  • Microbusiness
  • Small office/home office (SOHO)
  • Small and mid-sized (or medium-sized) business (SMB)
  • Small and medium enterprise (SME)

As marketing strategy terms, those labels may make sense. However, if you are not a marketer to small business, but an actual small business, there’s a big possibility that you have no idea what any of those terms actually mean. And even if you did, you’d likely prefer to be described as a small business, anyway.

Read more “Small Business marketing words vs. words used in marketing to Small Business”

Don Draper to Apple: The Apple TV is not a wheel, it’s a carousel

“Technology is a glittering lure, but there is the rare occasion
when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash
if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”

— Don Draper, creative director, Sterling Cooper

I’ve buried the lede in this post — Somewhere down below, I’m going to have the audacity to suggest the demigods of marketing and advertising at Apple and their agency, Chiat-Day, are the reasons that the Apple TV is merely “a hobby” and not a successful product. But first, the set-up.

I have an Apple TV (okay, I have just about an Apple Everything) but frankly, I often forget about it. I don’t watch TV passively (it’s not ever on in the background), so when I actually watch TV, it’s with intent. Whenever it’s time to watch TV, I usually have several movies or recorded episodes of shows queued up on my Cable-box’s DVR.

Recently, however, I was messing with my Apple TV to see how the iPhone “Remote” app works (it’s rather clever). Out of curiousity, I surfed around the features of the slightly updated software version of the Apple TV and discovered there is now a much larger selection of movies and TV shows than when I last checked in. I was also impressed by the growth of video podcasts being provided from sources big and small. Long story short — I downloaded the first season of Mad Men and my wife and I ended up being engrossed in the program over the next four or five nights.

However, downloading TV shows and movies is not what makes the Apple TV special. (More later, on what is special about it.) Access to TV shows and movies better not be, because I can get movies and TV shows about a dozen other ways. But accessing TV shows and Movies is what consumers first think about when they hear Apple TV described because that’s the way Apple has marketed it. So it’s not surprising that during the quarterly financial conference last week, Apple executives told analysts the AppleTV was still “a hobby” — a reference to what Steve Jobs called it in January when admitting its sales had not been robust.

For most tech bloggers, reporters and financial analysts, the “solution” to Apple TV’s lack of sales success can be solved the way they believe any technology product problem can be solved: by adding features or making it “more open.” “More features and openess” is to techies what “better branding” is to marketers — the solution to everything. For example, here’s a link to a recent post on Weomatica where Jason Kaneshiro has a wish list of features that could improve Apple TV. And today, Dan Frommer says it’s time Apple gets serious about Apple TV and calls for them to, drum-roll please, add a Blu-Ray drive.

I don’t believe the problem with the Apple TV is with technology. It’s a (you can’t believe how amazed I am to be writing the next few words) failure by Apple to successfully market a product. I believe the marketers at Apple and Chiat Day — the ones who regularly are mythologized for their unique brilliance in branding and advertising — have blown it with the Apple TV. They’ve done a terrible job articulating any unique benefits of the Apple TV and have, in a rookie-blunder way, done nothing to explain to consumers why it is different from getting movies or TV shows via cable or from Netflix or Blockbuster. These marketers, who have created the most effective campaign ever conceived to explain product features, the iPhone, have done nothing even good, much less brilliant, to explain why anyone with a Tivo or Cablebox would ever need an Apple TV. The only advertising support they’ve given the product was a lame TV ad (did anyone actually see it on TV?) telling us how we can watch TV shows and movies on our TV.

Additionally, Apple has not given the product the “paid-media” support that typically accompanies the launch of an entirely new genre of consumer product. Think about it. Apple has spent (and continues to spend) hundreds of millions of dollars each year on incredibly effective product advertising and astoundingly powerful promotional pushes for iPods, iPhones and Macs. What kind of media buy schedule did that Jack Black ad receive — compared to, say, a week’s schedule of iPhone ads? Where is the outdoor? Where is the magazine advertising? If you answered, “nowhere,” I think you’d be close to correct. (Please, tell me if I’m wrong.)

So what should Apple do?

While I’m not an advertising expert, I know one: Don Draper, the creative director at Sterling Cooper. I asked him about the Apple TV and he said the one thing consumers can do with an Apple TV that they can’t do with NetFlix or Tivo or their Cable Box is to tap into photos and videos of their family — even family members in far-away places who can stream photos and video from anywhere in the world. It’s like having another channel on a grandparent’s TV that says, “The Grandson Channel” and grandparents can tune in to see his latest soccer game — without a computer. Again, it’s not about technology — you don’t need a computer to watch the Grandson Channel. All you need is an Apple TV hooked into your TV (Don left out the part about needing Internet access).

So what should Apple do, I asked.

“They should stop talking about the Apple TV just accessing movies and TV shows,” Don told me, “The Apple TV is about the ability to travel over time and space to experience the most special moments in the lives of those you love most. It takes us to a place we ache to go. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around the world and back home again. A place where we know we are loved.”

Wow, Don, I said. If Chiat Day was smart, they’d hire you away from Sterling Cooper to develop a campaign to save the Apple TV.

So Apple, listen to Don. He’d tell you the Apple TV is not about downloading more TV and movies. It’s about connecting with those you love.

He’d tell you, it’s not a wheel. It’s a carousel.

Great TV advertising

Mad Men

During the past week, I have become a fan of the AMC series Mad Men. It’s well written, directed and acted and captures the zeitgeist (granted in a caricature way) of an era that I find fascinating. (For anyone watching the program, I would have been about the age of the Draper’s daughter at the time during which the show is set).

I won’t write here in detail about the show for fear of including spoilers — there are too many things about the series I enjoyed because I went into it cold — I only knew it was about advertising in the late 1950s / early 60s. Placing the show in that period and using the names of real products allow for exploration of cultural trends during a period of radical change. The writers and director magnify the cultural differences with our own time to make them even more jarring: the sexism, the ubiquitous smoking, the continuous drinking, the clash of generational mores and old and new media — print and radio, the old, and TV, the new. The writing is so clever, one must have a range of awareness that goes from Cheever to Kerouac to commercial jingles to truly appreciate how great it is. But with no such awareness (although he has read Kerouac), my 17-year-old enjoys the show and watched the season with his highschool friends. (Another post for another venue: Why do teenage boys identify with the 1960-era men on Mad Men?)

My wife and I watched the first season (12 shows) during the past week (an easy iTunes purchase via my Apple TV), but last night we watched the first episode of the current season on the cable channel AMC. Unlike other premium channels, AMC has commercials, so I recorded the show and was ready to fast forward through them.

However, the advertising on the show was nearly as brilliant as the show, itself. Some “pre-roll” and “post-roll” ads from a single sponsor, BMW sandwiched the program. And at the middle of the program, one commercial appeared — a one-minute “documentary” — that looked at 1960s era BMW advertising accompanyed by a voice-over interview of the creative director who developed the “Ultimate Driving Machine” tag line.

At the end of the program, the BMW advertising was focused on current and future developments by BMW, including a hydrogen car, but still had a texture that tied it back to the past.

It was brilliant advertising that kept me from fast-forwarding through it. It was the type of TV advertising that works in any era.

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