game of thrones

My brother and I are huge fans of Game of Thrones. Yes, forgive us, our taste in TV entertainment isn’t particularly unique, but nevertheless we were jittery with anticipation for the release of the season 6 trailer earlier this year. One day whilst scrolling through my Facebook feed, the YouTube trailer pops up and I waste no time in racing to my brother, laptop in hand. He excitedly clicks on the link and, as usual, a commercial starts playing before the video. I wait patiently, but he rolls his eyes in exasperation.

“Typical,” he says, “Obviously someone as technologically illiterate as you, doesn’t have an ad-blocker installed.”

Now two things spring to mind. Firstly, I don’t take very well to being referred to as digitally un-savvy given that I just so happen to work exactly in that field. But secondly, and more worryingly, he has a point. How hadn’t I come across this phenomenon before?

After a 30 second wait whilst HBF tries to convince us to get health cover (for what my brother describes as “like an eternity in hell”), the trailer starts playing. It certainly does not disappoint as we dive into the dystopian world of Westeros and surface the storylines for the upcoming series. But throughout watching it, I am distracted by a world of quite the opposite – the thought of this seemingly advertising-free online Utopia, previously unheard of to me.

Unwilling to feel the wrath of my brother’s condescension ever again (though most certainly near impossible), I wasted no time in installing Adblock Plus on my computer.

And then my life changed.

Catching up on MasterChef episodes online has never been easier. What was previously a one and a half our episode with incessant, repetitive and irrelevant commercials now became a 55-minute video only inclusive of the content I actually wanted to see.

Browsing through news websites were no longer unpleasantly halted by Kia overlays leaving me guessing if I was actually a soccer mom with five kids who really needed a ‘7 seater family car like no other’.

And most importantly, I can now evade those scrummy adverts from the very (ahem) legal websites I stream GoT episodes from.

So basically ad-blockers remove many forms of online advertising, particularly video commercials, banner ads and displays ads that feature on content publicising websites. They are also able to remove some paid search advertising on Google as well as trackers, social media sharing buttons and a few other features.

Of course, this all doesn’t come without its consequences. The unfortunate reality is, a lot of online content is only made free to us because of advertisers. As much as we all despise wasting minutes of our lives on being promoted extraneous material, it really is core to the capitalist business model our society is built upon. Ad-blocking inundating the online world threatens the fairness of this system and potentially the future access to content. Additionally, by removing companies’ abilities to track users, whilst a win for privacy, is a loss on businesses’ ability to gain consumer insights. So whilst I do receive a great amount of satisfaction in ridding myself of crappy advertising, it’s not so great for content creators.

Secondly, I’ve got to admit it’s a bit hypocritical for a marketer to purposely avoid advertising but in a world where doctors smoke, politicians lie and teachers hate children, can you really judge me?

Consumers: A Storm of the Sour

When it comes to online business, consumers are sovereign and ultimately decide on how things play out. King Joffrey here, will form an excellent representation of consumers for my GoT analogy to ad-blocking.

Joffrey Angry

HBO

What do you mean I have to listen to some bladesmith sales garbage before the gladiator tournament?!!

Yes, perhaps Joffrey is a bit of a stretch from the billions of users online but whatever he says will go (unless you want your head on a spike), and it’s pretty much the same for when it comes to consumers.

By people choosing to keep their ads displayed, publishers continue to make revenue, advertisers deliver their message and content remains produced. On the flipside, by choosing to block ads, some parties gain but most will lose.

And badly they have lost. Disastrously is probably a more adequate descriptor for just how much advertisers and publishers have suffered as a result of software such as Adblock Plus and Adblock Fast. A 2015 report on the cost of ad-blocking highlighted that the estimated global revenue loss due to ad-blocking was $21.8B in 2015. And if they weren’t crying out in desperation already, the global growth of ad-blocker users in 2015 was a stomach-churning 41%.

Additionally, it’s not only networks and news/content publishers at risk. Internal search engines such as Seek, eBay and pretty much any other website that relies on banner advertising to support their free listings, are put in dangerous territory by ad-blocking technology.

Yet, some argue that advertisers and publishers are nothing short of deserving of this consumer backlash against them. The Lannister distaste for the Starks saw several of the latter’s family members meet a not-so-pleasant end. Users too, have developed a similar disliking to the annoying ubiquity of terrible digital advertising and have now found a solution to kill off as much as they can (just as brutal I know). Critics suggest that an abuse of advertising privileges have driven consumers over the edge and the only form of rectification is simply to make better ads.

In fact, it is likely that consumers don’t actually want to avoid all ads. Despite the Starks being a right pain in the Lannisters’ rear ends, Sansa Stark did come of use to Joffrey. For consumers, some advertising too, is perfectly worthwhile to them and actually it is only the immensely interruptive and completely irrelevant marketing that seems to create a problem. Good advertising, messaging that is non-obstructive, piques individuals’ interests and adequately targets their needs, is likely not the reason that over one million Australians have chosen to download ad-blocking technology.

All very valid points. But can you hear that? Yes, it’s the sound of thousands of marketers groaning at yet another moralistic claim to simply make even more appealing advertising. Remember that brief era on YouTube where advertising, in a bid to become more interesting, would turn meta:

“STOP. Don’t click the skip button. We know you want to do it. We know you’re thinking, I couldn’t care less about this ad. But trust us, you’ll want to hear what we have to say.”

It was unique and funny when the first commercial did it. It was even funny when a few others used the format. But after a while, viewers grew tired of the joke and once again, ads were skipped. Not to mention, ad-blocking software remained endlessly downloading.

So you might not need a degree in aeronautical engineering, but delivering quality marketing content actually desired by the viewer is pretty much like rocket science.

Joffrey on Throne

HBO

Unless you’re going to demonstrate by flaying a peasant with that blade, I couldn’t care less about your 30% discount on all Valyrian steel.

One suggestion to combat the problem has been native advertising, a form of advertising disguised as content which is in fact often relevant to the user. For example, Dominos may decide to promote their pizza by creating an article titled ‘Top 10 most unique pizza toppings’ and sneakily embed branded messaging within the text. Forbes and Buzzfeed are classic examples of websites that feature such sponsored branding in their articles. This type of advertising has been revolutionary to say the least. At last, consumers are getting what they want with content that is applicable and interesting to them. Finally, advertisers are realising they can’t just bombard people with unwanted messages but instead must invite them in, and in turn also achieve a more targeted audience. Really, it’s a win-win situation.

However, in a recent discussion on ad-blocking involving some of the industry’s key players, Ben Williams Communications and Operations Manager at Adblock Plus, threw a spanner in the works. He stated that native ads that are served could most certainly be blocked.

As a result, many native ads are in fact vulnerable since, as opposed to being published, are ‘served’ across sites in the same way that advertisements are. Some would go on to suggest that advertisers should therefore strive to only create content that sites would willingly publish. Red Bull’s viral campaign where Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner made a freefall leap from space 128,100 feet above Earth was a classic example of this. The company was able to satiate the media’s hunger for an inspirational story and subsequently drove immense awareness for the Red Bull brand.

But not every company is a multi-million-dollar business. Not everyone can afford to invest pools of money into testing and training for a man to jump from space. So if consumers are king and their demands are always met, how then to foil the king’s plan?

Publishers: A Clash of Counteractions

Publishers have a duty to ensure that consumers are not unfairly barraged with irrelevant advertising when visiting their websites. For them, sympathising with ad-blocker users is just about as tough as empathising with Joffrey. But as hard as it may seem to avoid viewing these users in a negative light (aka as ‘freeloaders’), this is an essential perspective needed to combat the problem of ad-blocking. Users are ultimately a businesses’ assets and they vote with their software choices because of the way in which websites sometimes abuse boundaries of excessive advertising. Publishers must therefore keep in mind that they need to limit the invasiveness of commercially targeted material.

However sometimes, consumer expectations are too unsustainable to meet.

The Small Council is a body that advises Westeros’s King of the Seven Kingdoms. As the council served (or at least attempted to serve) Joffrey, publishers serve consumers. They provide them with the information they want, most often free of charge. Yet sometimes consumer demands can seem as ruthless as those of Joffrey. Many people believe that they should receive content for free with zero advertising, often unaware of the significant consequences of this adamant belief. After all, consumers don’t want a world where large publishers, in their oligarchical ways, decide to band together to enforce pay models on their platforms right?

But ah! That is indeed one of the solutions. Bitcoin has recently become a suggested facilitator of micropayments for accessing advertising-free content online. Sure in the past, paywalls have been criticised for the simple fact that people are stubbornly against paying for something that they previously received for free, but in an increasingly digitised world, this hurdle can somewhat be overcome. The physicality of money is diminishing, as cash payments have transitioned into credit card swiping and now contactless payment such as PayPass and Tap & Pay dominate the form of exchange. Alongside such changes, the care for expenditure too diminishes. Bitcoin, as non-traditional currency, further enhances the dissociation between spending and the feeling of spending. If consumers don’t take significant notice to the payment they make for content, then this does indeed present a potential solution to the problem. Now if only the Master of Coin could come up with a quick fix as good as that!

Small Council

[/media-credit] In order to proceed with today’s meeting, we require 5 sacks of gold.

But let’s just say that for now, the idea of pay-to-access is in its early days. What else can be done?

Australian TV networks have taken to implementing ad-stitching, also known as server-side ad insertion (SSAI), as a method to bypass blockers. SBS recently utilised this technology through Switch Media’s Ad Ease software to overcome threats to their advertising monetisation. Through this technique, publishers are able to place ads on their video content through the cloud as opposed to using third party servers which are vulnerable to being blocked. Ad blockers work by blocking domains that lead to these third party servers. As such, they are able to block ads yet reveal the publisher’s content at the same time. Through publishers integrating ad serving and content publication into one stream, this limits the chances of ads getting noticed and blocked.

However as with any solution, there are of course limitations to this technique. SSAI essentially increases the difficulty of maintaining a website due to the fact that most current ad technologies are largely built on the client side (i.e. the browser) as opposed to server-side. As a result, developers have to implement client-side code in order to support users’ experiences in viewability, interactivity, clickability and so forth, which makes things quite complex for website operators.

It’s probably also important to note that undoubtedly, ad-blockers will fight back with software of their own that overcomes ad-blocking prevention. In fact, there already exists tools on the web such as Anti Adblock Killer, which do exactly this.
Several publishers have also taken to begging, I mean er… requesting that users turn off their ad-blockers before reviewing content on their site. ‘We notice you have an ad-blocker enabled. Would you consider supporting our work by switching it off?’ Reeks a bit of desperation and passive aggression doesn’t it? But playing the victim definitely will do you no harm if you’re a well-loved brand. In some instances, publishers even give the option to either turn off ad-blocking or if not, subscribe to their newsletter. Admittedly this is actually a very smart way of turning a tough situation into a positive outcome. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if those email databases were filled with a lot of begrudging contacts.

So, if there’s something Bob the Builder couldn’t easily fix, it would certainly be the perils of this unrelenting technology. Obviously the whole scenario isn’t as straightforward as publishers and advertisers would hope for. It’s much like a never-ending game of cat and mouse where each side’s solutions are repetitively one-upped by the other. Yet, publishers have no choice but to continue the battle or potentially meet their demise.

Advertisers: A Dance with Distribution

The hand of the king, after the king himself, holds the most powerful position in Westeros. With an abundance of wealth to his family name, Tywin is placed at the centre of decision making to continue the Lannister reign. Advertisers too, wield a lot of power in the online world. They are the ones that ultimately decide how to allocate their budget and content in the most effective way possible.

Joffrey and Tywin

[/media-credit] Joffrey, you should check out Lannister Bannisters. I’ve heard they’ve got the sturdiest range in King’s Landing.

The Lord Hand is an inherent part of the small council and the same applies for advertising within publisher websites. Without marketing as a means of monetisation, publishers would crumble.

So undoubtedly publishers suffer a lot when it comes to the problem of ad-blocking technology. However, there has also been some debate on the financial loss that advertisers themselves may face. The good news is that if their ads are blocked, they are unlikely to pay for them even if served by the publisher.  Recent studies indicate the dangers of ad-blocking to advertisers’ media budgets and identified that in over 9, 500 tests of blocked ads, not one was registered as viewable and therefore they were not charged. Even ads that are not blocked but simply ‘hidden’ from the viewer do not pose significant risk to budgets.

But that’s pretty much where the positives end. In consumers choosing to cull digital marketing, advertisers are unable to get their message out to the masses. This is particularly worrying for the online platform which already is far more fragmented than its mass media counterparts in television and radio. Without reach and frequency, advertising will fail. Online marketing campaigns may begin to see dwindling results when it comes to click-through-rates and conversions. Already, the success of several PPC campaigns have been diminished by declining impressions. In fact, some blocker software is so extreme, websites’ own calls to action are eclipsed from the viewer. This would likely cause you to question the ethically paraded claims that ad-blocking software simply provides consumers with what they really want. How can this be true when some software goes so far as to block information customers may actually want to see? The technology has become so advanced that online advertising is now much like a seal in shark infested waters.

Social media has been a controversial answer to this predicament for advertisers. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are less defenceless to ad-blocking software, especially when it comes to their in-feed advertising. Secondly, as has been so far, ad-blocking usage is relatively low for mobile devices versus PCs. With a large slice of social media entities’ user base existing within the mobile platform, they have yet to be burdened significantly by this issue. Even so, many argue that the ‘walled gardens’ of social media sites allow for them to have overbearing control on advertisers through content and segment restriction.

And now, even these major players can no longer bury their heads in the sand as ad-blockers continually update with a new-and-improved vision to, just like a delirious Tyrion with a crossbow, annihilate anything in their path.

Tyrion Crossbow

[/media-credit] Sorry Dad, I was sick of all your Lannister Bannister crap.

Furthermore, with Apple’s recent announcement that its new operating system, iOS 9, will allow Safari to block ads, things are only going to go further downhill. Facebook has even acknowledged the threat of ad-blocking to their revenue model in their annual 10K filing, highlighting that mobile blocking could potentially harm their financials.

Amidst all the panic, some have argued that ad-blocking couldn’t be better news for advertisers. Proponents suggest that this online revolution pushes digital advertising to reach new limits where advertisers must work to make their promotions attractive and suited to the user. Why waste money on trying to get impressions for those who have no interest in seeing them in the first place? To turn down a route of economics, advertisers now must pull in their customers instead of pushing information onto them. They are also likely to witness greater conversions as many unqualified consumers have been shelled by their choice to use blockers.

On the other hand, people who decide to block online advertising may in fact also be excellent customers to target. If you studied marketing in school, you’d probably tire of the saying ‘break through the clutter!’. But ad-blocking in fact enhances the means to accomplish this. Advertisers who are able to target this segment with ‘premium content’, will undoubtedly stand out from the crowd. Why? Brands that are able to bypass blockers and become seen, will have more traction among ad-blocking users than standard users. As they experience less ads on average, these individuals are more likely to interact with advertising that reaches them.

Don’t worry, yes I can still hear the frustrated groaning of marketers all around. How exactly does one bypass ad-blockers?

The ad-blockers call it quality.

The rest of the industry calls it money.

Ad-blockers: A Feast for CEOs

Do ad-blockers as they say, really have consumers’ best interests at heart?

To suggest that the topic is controversial, would probably be the understatement of the century.

In actuality, ad-blockers generally don’t block all ads. Take Adblock Plus. The company enforces an ‘Acceptable Ads’ program to deem ads that meet certain perquisites as satisfactory for display. They acknowledge that not all online advertising is necessarily intrusive and the acceptable ads permit is a way of finding common ground with publishers and advertisers who require revenue for content to remain free.

“We hope that the initiative encourages the ad industry to pursue less intrusive ad formats and thus have a positive impact on the Internet as a whole” they state on their website.

Cue the eye-rolling.

But there’s more:

“It provides us with a viable source of revenue, which we need to be able to administer the Acceptable Ads program and continue development of a free product.”

Cue the scoffing.

In other words, yes you can have excellent advertising that meets each and every piece of their criteria on size, placement, content, etc., but don’t be expecting any of your ads to be unblocked without a sizeable bank account to fit.

Furthermore, entire websites can be whitelisted, essentially have none of their advertising blocked, by entering into agreements with the software producer. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these ‘agreements’ require a certain amount of financial resources from the publishers’ end. But with advertising forming nearly the entirety of their revenue sources, some may consider it a necessary price to pay.

Sound familiar to you?

The publishing industry has certainly not shied away from their feelings on the matter. Extortionists and hypocrites are popular insults hurled at ad-blocking companies because of the way in which they siphon money from ad spend. Many argue that CEOs of these businesses have found a way to divert marketing budgets into their own pockets. Additionally, the irony of needing money to sustain the delivery of a free product whilst stripping the means of revenue from other free products is for many, simply outrageous.

The internet in its pervasiveness, enormity and brilliance falls greatly victim to unethical practices that are tough to circumvent. Putting on a façade of morality in ‘delivering better advertising for consumers’ whilst holding ads ransom for monetary gain is understandably infuriating for publishers and advertisers. More significantly, consumers are likely to face the consequences as a result.

So ad-blockers – the king’s army or the king’s enemies? In other words, do ad-blockers exist to serve users or ultimately serve themselves at the users’ cost?

Tyrion never really had Joffrey’s true interests at heart. Through presenting himself as an ally, his feigned love but actual hatred of the Joffrey rule, was only second to that of the Tyrells.

Tyrion Joffrey's Wedding

[/media-credit] Oops, well he certainly had that coming.

The Lannister dwarf might not necessarily have been directly involved in Joffrey’s death but that’s not to say he didn’t reap the benefits. Could the ramifications of ad-blockers also give rise to the end of the consumer sovereign era where they no longer dictate the rules of content access and rather these software producers do instead?

That being said, not all ad-blocking businesses require money as a means to allow acceptable ads. For some, such as AdBlock Fast, the focus truly is on making a stance against unreasonable online marketing as opposed to earning profit. Even on Adblock Plus’s website, they claim to have a team of volunteers on board to review program applications from small and medium publishers unlikely to afford paying for whitelisting. How much of this is just another mechanism to shroud themselves in ethical reasoning and hide from their capitalistic motives is questionable. But it does at least indicate that some companies will be willing to take a bit of initiative to reach a level of compromise.

Ad-blocking parties are also quick to retaliate to the constant criticism of their ethics. They state that publishers have no moral high ground to stand on with a history of rampant invasive advertising that completely disregards consumer interests. In the end, consumers should be able to decide what they want to be exposed to and if that doesn’t include advertising, then that’s good enough a reason to have it removed. If one can channel zap through radio and television to avoid messaging they don’t want to receive, then they should be able to make those same decisions online.

But perhaps the greatest hilarity of this whole scenario is that several ad-blocking companies are known to buy advertising to drive downloads. Those with incentives for large user bases, i.e. those that can profit from publishers’ fears of them, invest greatly in promotion of themselves.

And that right there folks, is the textbook definition of irony.

A Game of Unknowns

So the fact that my 16-year-old brother knew more about ad-blocking before I did is worrisome. Why? If digital marketers were hoping that this whole online catastrophic change was just a phase, they’d be greatly mistaken. The younger the generational segment, the lesser their attention spans and the greater their technological savviness. If the current generation can’t put up with the existing state of digital advertising, the next certainly won’t. In the very near future we could see installers of the software reaching 80%-90% of total users and undoubtedly, the technology is well on its way to becoming a household staple.

There are really only two paths that can be taken. The first is that publishers take matters into their own hands, pull a Donald Trump, and sue everyone. Copyright laws have been suggested as a way of arguing this claim. Some ad-blocking software modifies publishers’ webpages which are against the laws of fair use. Blocking also epitomises the concept of anti-competitive behaviour, particularly when it comes to certain software companies’ whitelisting processes.

The alternative is that the way of the web is going to have to change. Whether that is through pay models, increased subliminal advertising or the revolution of marketing standards online, something is bound to happen when loss of revenue is no longer sustainable. Who knows, we may even regress back to the caveman era of only having magazines, newspapers and encyclopaedias for information! (Don’t worry, I’m only kidding).

And so the tug-of-war continues. Ad-blockers continue to push their ad-blocking technologies to the online world, publishers continue to try and thwart them, ad blockers retaliate, and so on and so forth. Realistically, the fight between blockers and online advertising cannot persist forever. Ultimately, it is likely that only one can triumph. But for now, the future is only unknown.

Cersei

[/media-credit] When you play the game of ad-blocking you win or you die.