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New Ad Coalition Won’t Dent Ad Blockers — And They Know It

Will the new “Coalition for Better Ads” lead to, well, better ads, and encourage people to turn off ad blockers?

The answer to the first question is a heavily qualified “maybe.” The answer to the second is . . . excuse me while I RO the F, LMAO. In other words, even if the effort does result in better — that is, less awful — digital advertising, it won’t slow the ad blocking tsunami. And that’s because the ad industry is willful blind to the real reason people use so-called ad blockers.

The Coalition consists of “leading international trade associations and companies in the online media ecosystem,” including Google, Facebook, P&G, Unilever, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), and the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA). (The latter, according to Business Insider, represents marketers at brands that are collectively responsible for around 90% of global advertising spend.)

The initiative was announced last week at the Dmexco show in Cologne, Germany — not coincidentally, the home town of Eyeo, the creator of the popular Ad Block Plus, and the nemesis of every coalition member.

According to the charter, the Coalition will use “research and consumer views . . . to learn about consumers’ evolving preferences regarding their online advertising experience and develop practices that are responsive to these preferences.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? But things go awry as soon as the charter outlines how they’ll accomplish this consumer-friendly goal:

[The Coalition will] create consumer-based, data-driven standards that participants in the advertising and media ecosystem can utilize that improve the consumer advertising experience. The standards will be developed with participation and input from across the multitude of geographies, stakeholders, and participants in the advertising ecosystem, including publishers, advertisers, agencies, and buy-side and sell-side technology providers.

Catch that? The Coalition sweeps the globe to indentify and include “stakeholders and participants” to develop “consumer-based” standards . . . and just happens to leave out consumers. Oops.

The truth that cannot be aknowledged

But then, if the Coalition members and other inhabitants of the digital advertising ecosystem did get real input from consumers, they’d have to face the fact: It’s not ads that people want to block, it’s tracking.

Make no mistake: Most digital ads are intrusive (pop-ups, video pre-roll), irritating (“retargeted” ads for products you don’t want or have already bought), and bloated (slowing performance and causing you to pay with data charges for the pleasure of viewing them). There’s a lot of room for improvement, and the Coalition’s “better ads” are more than welcome.

But even if every digital ad knocked lightly, asked permission to enter, offered amusing anecdotes in a soft, melliferous whisper, and extended a pinky while sipping (its own) tea — people will still use “ad blockers” to avoid tracking.

Evidence? Doc Searls has charted how the explosion of interest in ad blocking began in 2012, “when ad-supported commercial websites, en masse, declined to respect Do Not Track messages from users.” That is, the industry wouldn’t cooperate with the voluntary program to avoid tracking, so consumers were forced to weaponize their browsers in self-defence. (As analyzed by outgoing FTC commissioner Julie Brill here.)

More evidence? As I noted in DCG’s report, “Get Ready For the Personal Data Economy” (freely available here), the anxiety about tracking was further fueled by the “Snowden Effect.”

Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance by the U.S. and other governments – as well as the complicity of many telecommunications, technology, and internet firms – came to light in the summer of 2013. At the end of 2013, the Orange survey [of European consumers] found that consumer trust in a range of vertical sectors suffered a substantial net decline compared to late 2012.

Finally, Searls also cites data from a 2015 report by Pew Research, noting that:

93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important, that 90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important, . . . that 88% say it is important that they not have someone watch or listen to them without their permission, and that 63% feel it is important to be able to go around in public without always being identified.

Consumer hostility in the alleged “age of the customer”

In short, if the industry really wanted to “be responsive to consumers’ evolving preferences,” they’d form a Coalition to End Tracking. (That is, to end tracking without explicit and fully informed permission in the interest of a mutual exchange of value — which is basically what the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now demands of companies that interact with EU residents. See my last blog post.)

However, the inimitable and invaluable @AdContrarian, Bob Hoffman, neatly explains why the (voluntary) end of unfettered tracking is impossible:

If they just got rid of tracking, a great many of the problems consumers, publishers, and advertisers are facing would evaporate. . . . But this coalition will deal with everything but the problem. The reason they will not deal with the real problem is that the people who own the internet — Google and Facebook — will never allow it. . . . [They] will never accept the suppression of tracking because surveillance is their business. Dracula is guarding the blood bank.

Contact us to learn more about balancing privacy and business value, including workshops on the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).


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