I loathe web ads as much as anyone. I gave a talk in 2013 where I suggested that the dominant economic model of the web—advertising—was inhibiting design excellence.
Why? Because web advertising is a bad business, and it’s only getting worse. Design budgets are declining with it. And though this is bad for web designers—as I said then, it means their work is getting
I’m far from the only one to make that observation. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to make this next observation. But it will have to be said more than once.
I’m grateful for ad-blocking technology. I use ad blockers in all my desktop browsers. And like the rest of iAmerica, I’m eager to use the ad blockers enabled by the new iOS update.
But I’m skeptical that ad blockers have the effect we like to think they do. Let’s call it the
A logically coherent justification for blocking ads. But it has three significant flaws.
I agree that web ads are getting more intrusive—but are ad blockers the solution, or the cause? This arms race has been going on for years already. At the outset, advertisers merely wanted a strip at the top of the screen. For instance, here’s the web’s first banner ad, from 1994—
But we didn’t even want to let advertisers have that. So countermeasures ensued. And countercountermeasures. Maybe if we had just clicked right THERE, right then, none of this would’ve happened.
You could say that the rise of ad tracking and surveillance is an independent phenomenon. I’m not convinced. Print, radio, and TV ads aren’t targeted to the same degree. But they’re also not blockable to the same degree. Because web ads are often blocked, they’ve had to rely on surveillance to add value and preserve their small profit margin. As the margin has gotten smaller, more surveillance has been needed, and so on.
On that view, we can already predict what effect this next round of ad blocking will have on the web at large: it will make things worse, not better. Did you think publishers would abandon ads en masse?
“Finally,we see the error of our ways!”
Of course not. Instead, they’ll simply redirect their attention toward whichever readers still aren’t using an ad blocker. In turn, the writing and content on these sites will increasingly be targeted to these readers. Web ads are now a form of regressive taxation. As a result, the average quality of the web—design, writing, everything—will continue to suffer.
You’re right—as ad-blocking software becomes more popular, that’s a downward spiral that can’t go on forever. But fellow ad avoiders, we must appreciate the cost of our disobedience. The first victims of ad-revenue starvation aren’t going to be dreck like Game Informer or Family Circle. They have the reserves they need to survive. Instead, the victims will be the sites we like, which will either shut down or
“pivot”to appeal to a different kind of reader.
In the end, the conversation about ad blocking is really a conversation about how we create a sustainable model for web publishing. It’s an important conversation. And it touches everyone who puts writing on the web—from individual authors (like me) to behemoth news organizations and book publishers.
But as often happens on the web, most of the energy so far has been focused on griping about the bad thing, rather than making productive steps toward replacing it with something better. The only thing that can really put a dent in web advertising is a better economic model. As long as ads are the only game in town, ad blockers will just make things worse, as publishers have shown they will chase every ad nickel, down to the last one spinning on the edge of the drain.
Am I saying you should refrain from using an ad blocker? No. But consider offsetting your act of disobedience with an act of affirmative support. Vote with your wallet. Put some money behind the writing you like—whether it’s a website or a magazine or a newspaper.
You won’t go wrong with a print or digital subscription to:
The Guardian Weekly
The New Yorker
New York magazine
Virginia Quarterly Review
your local daily newspaper
17 Sept 2015