iOS Ad Blockers: Why Advertisers Are Suddenly Going Diarrhea In Their Pants

Apple recently released ad blocking capabilities in iOS, and the ad and publishing industries began frothing at the mouth. Every emotion from spitting panic to disdain have been hurled into the webversphere over the capability. And as a consumer, and an ex-advertising shill, I love it.

I am particularly fond of the most vicious ad blockers, the so-called ‘blunt instruments’. The ones that leave gaping, blank maws between thin slices of actual content. The ones that so severely disable Forbes ’welcome page’ (an interruptive page of ads feigning value with some irrelevant ‘quote of the day’) that you are required to close the resulting blank window and click the article’s original link again to see the content.

Yes, I even revel in the extra effort it requires to get past all the newly broken, well-blocked bits. It’s harder in some ways. But you know what? It’s payback time. And that extra effort? It’s a pleasure. I know that each tap and empty window is sending a message.

With every whiny press release and industry insider wailing about the “end of content as we know it” a delightfully warm, glowing feeling washes over my insides.

I admit it, it’s an unhealthy pleasure in general. And in any other context I wouldn’t celebrate it. But here? I’m gonna party like its 1999.  Because for all the ad industry has learned since then, it might as well still be.

I’m gonna party like its 1999.  Because for all the ad industry has learned since then, it might as well still be.

This is what selfish, self-inflicted industry ruin smells like. Banners in ashes, melted trackers. A stockpile of suddenly outmoded scripts and tactics, all in embers. The dumbfounded expressions of dim-witted middlemen watching the gravy dry up.  Ah, there’s that warm glow again.

Unfortunately, ruin is what this will take.

I realize there is a risk that the arms race will result in even more devious forms of advertising, that the penicillin will result in resistant strains. But the relief for now is unquestionably worth it.

Even so, some are feeling guilt.  Under peer pressure, I assume, a few creators of Ad blocking technology are trying to give a crap.

Marco Arment pulled his ad blocker from the iOS app store, after 3 days as the top seller, I assume, with a last-minute guilty conscience.

He said: “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

I believe his observation is mostly correct but his response was wrong. And his kids will probably hate him someday for leaving a sizable portion of their inheritance to someone else’s family. To wit, other excellent ad blockers have already moved in happily.  At least he hopefully slept better that week.

Then there is the new “AdBlock Acceptable Ads Program” where the previously dependable ad blocker now whitelists so-called ‘acceptable ads’ – allowing these ads through by default.  They define acceptable ads as adhering to a manifesto they’ve concocted which attempts to qualify approved types of interruptions.  I commend the attempt – but it is critically flawed,  a fundamentally incomplete manifesto, that sits precariously on an arbitrary portion of the slippery slope.

In an article posted to the Verge, Walt Mossberg wrote: “browser ads represent both an unwanted intrusion and a broken promise”. I read that and wanted to virtually high-five him since I momentarily thought he shared a core belief. But then I kept reading and discovered that the only ‘intrusion’ he referred to was the surreptitious collection of your information, and the ‘broken promise’ was the delivery of ads that weren’t as personalized and useful as he felt should be possible.

Well, ok he has a point, a reasonable one, but completely misses THE point. He’s a Kool-Aid drinker debating flavors.

So, What Is the Point?

Those of you who have read this blog in the past know that my world view of interactive media has, since the early 90s, been based on a small handful of very stable principles. Interactive Axioms.

The most sweeping of all, what I call “The First Axiom of Interactive”, is that the user is, by definition, in control. “The User is your King. You, the creator, are merely a subject.”

People don’t often acknowledge that this medium would simply not even exist if delivering control to the user was not the singular top-most goal.  There is nothing inconsistent or squishy about this reason for being.  Any functional capability you can point to will distill upwards to the quest for control.

The sheer existence of an affordance, a button say, anywhere on a remote control, or a website, or app, is a promise. It’s not one that we talk about much. But the obvious, unspoken promise is that it will react predictably and instantaneously.

The medium itself is an affordance – and the expected result of that affordance is control.

THAT is the promise.  Said another way, the medium itself is an affordance – and the expected result of that affordance is control.

If you remember DVDs and you happened to be in the USA, you might recall the FBI Duplication Warning at the start of every movie. Upon seeing these warnings, every one of us pressed the “skip” button. And then we subsequently experienced a moment of inner outrage because the button had been temporarily disabled requiring us to view the FBI warning in its entirety.

The promise of control had been intentionally wrested away from us. And it felt like a violation.

Because it was.

Today interactive media is based on an even wider and more articulate provision of such control. It is a ubiquitous and fundamental condition of the medium. As such, any time anything happens that is not what we wish, we feel something similar to a sense of injustice. A violation of the medium.

So, yes, of course Walt Mossberg is right, spyware and irrelevant ads sit somewhere on the spectrum of broken promises. But what he does not acknowledge is that the mere existence of interruptive ads in the first place, ads that were not explicitly requested, is the spectrum.

That’s further the problem with the Adblock Acceptable Ads Program manifesto.  It attempts to carve out a little plateau on the slippery slope that allows for *some* control to be wrested away from you.  But they miss the point which is that sheer interruption of any kind, not degrees of interruption, is the violation.  My rewritten manifesto would be very simple and would contain only one test, “Acceptable ads do not, in any way, interrupt the user’s attention.”

Acceptable ads do not, in any way, interrupt the user’s attention.

That would be acceptable.

But the problem for advertisers, then, is that such an ad will take up no screen real estate.  It will call no attention to itself. It will not seek to draw the user.

In short therefore, it will not exist – until explicitly sought out. That is an acceptable ad, because that is an ad that honors the promise of the medium.

John Gruber occasionally points to his ad partner The Deck, as a viable ad model, intimating that it is less invasive, and more relevant, and therefore an appropriate ad format. Ads, but not “garbage”. He claims not to understand someone who wants to block ads. But I hope you can see that he is still defining the Deck’s format merely by contrasting it with the grosser violations of other advertisers. Yes, it’s a degree less offensive, sure. A comparison to “garbage” ads actually makes sense because they are, after all, genetically closer, interruptive cousins. But we are not comparing it in context to, say, the content the user sought out in the first place. Because if we did that we would see that such an interruptive ad is still quite a lot further away.

If you’re an advertiser, or an interruptive-ad-funded writer or publisher, I’m sorry if your livelihood may yet suffer as a result of ad blockers. That’s no one’s goal. But it’s you who’ve chosen to base your livelihood on such a patently inauthentic payment format, one that defiles the very medium it exists in. Tidy and convenient though it may have seemed for you at the start.

It’s a kind of Faustian bargain. Content creators agree to include interruptive advertising to afford creation of their content or derive wealth. But the ads are, by definition, not the content. I seriously doubt a single one of these content creators would choose to include an interruptive ad on the merit of the ad alone. Which reveals a truth.

That interruption in the user’s quest, the user’s wishes, is not allowed in this medium. If you break this rule – you must accept the penalties.

You say, “But ads are the necessary cost of receiving content!”  No, actually they are not. It’s the cost of receiving your content. And if you stop, unable to afford creation of your content any longer, don’t worry, someone else will be there to take up the slack.  And I think you know that.

“But ads are the necessary cost of receiving content!”  No, actually they are not. It’s the cost of receiving your content.

Do you seriously think that without advertising content creation will go away?  Please. It will result in industry upset perhaps. It will inspire more authentic payment systems, or not. But it won’t go away.  Fees from advertising is not a prerequisite for creation of content.

All these publishers and content creators who complain about the bluntness of the ad blockers, arguing about which interruptive ads should be blocked, are already working way outside true-use of the medium. Ignoring the basic fact that they stand on stolen ground to begin with. They rather seem to be suggesting that there is a way to break the law of the medium in a good way. They remain hopeful that they can remove maybe just a little of your control. And that should be totally ok with you.

Well, sorry, I appreciate the work many of you do – but you’re wrong. It’s not ok. You have merely gotten away with the violation until now.

Authentic Advertising

Authentic advertising (if you can even call it advertising) requires an advertiser to be part of the very business it’s selling. To promote the product through authentic interaction with the product itself (I’ve written about this before). And/or to create something that is so inordinately valuable and powerful that it will be sought out. To become the very content, services and products that people want.

To create authentic advertising you must embrace that you must be CHOSEN (or ignored) by the King. If you interfere in any way in your King’s journey to suit your own interests – even daring to appear when the King doesn’t wish it – you are a violator. A criminal.

Since you are not allowed to present yourself until invited, authentic advertising is hard. Much harder than the ad industry is accustomed to.  Traditional interruptive ads need only be good enough that users maybe won’t look away after their control has been wrested away. That kind of traditional, interruptive advertising of course is much easier to produce.

But rather, honest to god valuable content that people might be willing to pay for, or invest their time and networks into, takes the same effort, risk and expense that developing a successful product does.

Interruptive ads need only be good enough that users maybe won’t look away after their control has been wrested away.

Do not confuse this with so-called ‘native advertising’ as it’s been disingenuously referred to, which is little more than a cheap ad aping the appearance of content.

Authentic advertising in interactive is not easy to produce, and it’s often the subject of inordinate luck. This means advertisers wishing to defensibly game that system have to resort to great expense and extravagance. And precious few are willing to do that.

Conversely, interruptive advertising requires little to no luck, and demands roughly the same work and expense that advertisers are used to applying. The difference is that these advertisers are still, unbeknownst, spending wildly. The resource these advertisers have been spending rampantly without qualm is your goodwill. Your willingness to continue to tolerate their violations.

Well advertisers, you’re in a deficit now. A really big, fat overwhelming deficit. Hope you enjoyed the ride, because interruptive advertising has drawn down your accounts and built tremendous debt.

And ad blockers are just the latest means of putting holds on your well-worn credit cards.