Ad Blocking: Theft Or Fair Use?

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josh-dreller“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today’s column is written by Josh Dreller, Director Client & Industry Solutions at Visual IQ

Most people aren’t fans of advertising -- online or offline. They’re clutter. They’re distracting. And I’m not even talking about the barrel-bottom stuff like pop ups or flashing aliens. Who wants to wait fifteen seconds for a pre-roll to finish so you can watch the video you thought you could just click and see?

I get it.

Shortly after the first ads appeared online, coders began building ad-blocking software to keep the Internet ad free. In fact, a simple search for “ad blocking” in Google reveals link after link to various tips, tricks, apps and plug-ins to help consumers block ads. These technologies have been around for a while, but the conversation spiked recently with an article in the New York Times, Ad Blocking Raises Alarm Among Firms Like Google. The piece details a French Internet Service Provider that made waves by publicizing it would, as a default setting, block Internet advertising as part of its new software rollout.

How widespread is ad blocking? In a post last year, Zedo noted,

“ClarityRay reported [in May 2012] that the overall rate of ad blocking by users was 9.26% in the U.S. and Europe. The rate ranged from 6.11% for business and finance sites to 15.58% for news sites and 17.79% for tech sites. For some sites, ad blocking reached 50%. Ad blocking is highest in Europe, where Austria is tops with a 22.5% ad blocking rate. The U.S. is slightly below average at 8.72%.”

Let’s do some quick math: a 9% ad block rate in the U.S. applied to Forrester Research’s 2013 forecast of approximately $15B in annual online display spending (banners, video ads, rich media, etc.) could potentially mean $1.5B dollars in blocked advertising per year. Projecting a conservative 3:1 return on investment, that’s $4.5B in lost revenue. Of course this is all fuzzy math. It’s very possible the people blocking ads wouldn’t have purchased from those advertisers anyway, or purchased from those brands via other channels. Regardless, if the numbers are anywhere close, it’s a major issue.

Ad Blocking = Stealing

I bet most users would applaud an ad-free Internet. However, if ad blocking were considered “stealing,” would most people pause and reconsider? I believe so.

So let’s call it what it is. Circumventing the fair value exchange of free content on a website is basically like downloading pirated music or jumping over the subway station turnstile. Users “pay” to access content by allowing ads to be shown adjacent to the free content they’re consuming. I doubt the Internet users who can’t wait to block ads would also then pay $5/month to read ESPN.com, IMDB.com, etc. Many people would probably pay for Facebook, but not the billions that are on the social network now. Can you imagine people paying per video on YouTube?

But Pandora’s box has been opened. Now, it’s up to publishers and advertisers to educate the world about the long-term implications of widespread ad blocking and how it would go hand-in-hand with the loss of free content. If people understood this, I believe most would feel compelled to NOT use blockers. As with many issues, education is the best first step toward the solution.

Ad Blocking And Attributed Measurement

Ad blocking affects more than just consumers. It’s also sparked concern among marketers regarding their ability to accurately measure display advertising performance. Is a particular online buy not working because the creative isn’t resonating with consumers? Or simply because that site has a high percentage of users blocking those ads? Ad verification can determine if an ad was actually served, but it doesn’t speak to the value of the ads that were actually seen.

Attribution management solutions solve the measurement challenge posed by ad blockers by giving partial credit to each ad within the sales funnel based on the detectable degree of influence it has on a consumer’s decision. Therefore, if an ad is blocked, it obviously has no influence on the user, and will not receive any credit for producing a sale or conversion. Conversely, if an ad wasn’t blocked (and was even seen in the visible space on the page for over a minute), its influence can also be calculated by attribution. So for those marketers leveraging an attribution solution, life goes on as normal.

A Request

Ultimately, I would like ad-blocking proponents to weigh in on the problem they’re really trying to solve. Maybe they’re concerned about issues related to online privacy and think ad blocking might help. From my experience, I can tell you that 99% of marketers want to target ads better (e.g., showing running shoe ads to users who have been reading articles on running), but they’re also consumers and don’t want to interfere with anyone’s privacy either.

If it’s really just about not seeing distracting ads, then where is the ethical line drawn with regard to bypassing the fair value exchange of free content to advertising exposure? Why is it okay to “not pay” for the videos they’re watching, the articles they’re reading, or the social networks they’re using? Even user-generated content sites like YouTube have millions of dollars in annual expenses to keep their domains running.

If ad blocking isn’t stealing, then what is it?

Follow Josh Dreller (@mediatechguy) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter. 

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23 Responses to “Ad Blocking: Theft Or Fair Use?”


  1. Casey says:

    I thought the business of advertisers was to attract buyers to particular products and services. According to you, however, in the online world attraction doesn't even have to enter into the equation. It seems that guilt tripping may be the first order of business, since marketers are losing as much as 30 to 40 percent of revenues to ad blockers.

    Here's a definition of ad blocking you may not have considered. Ad blocking serves to relieve me of the multiple offenses I have to witness every day, all day long, from all media sources. Most ads are ugly, tasteless, lie-filled, loud, ignorant, condescending wastes of time built by people who are amoral, manipulative and intellectually under-endowed.

    I've seen and appreciated many ads, you know, where the agencies have actually done their job? They are funny and/or clever in one way or another, and I know the name of the product they're pushing when the ad is done. Unfortunately, most admen don't understand what they are on earth to do. They've been TAUGHT to lie and cheat, and if that doesn't work, to guilt consumers into believing they actually OWE it to the advertiser to tolerate their insulting nonsense in exchange for the info/entertainment they are enjoying at the moment.

    If this tactic works, it will be the single greatest deception ever foisted on consumers - never really said out loud, or stated as a policy, just referred to here and there, and, apparently, actually swallowed by some gullible types out there. Interesting that ad blocking occurs more and more as the apparent education level of the consumers increases.

    People like you who study marketing, and all the marketers out there need to understand that they must deal with the sorry state of their product. Why should I give you my attention when you are very likely to offend me? It is YOUR JOB to entice me into taking a look at what you are offering, not mine to LET you invade my space.

    I think most reputable web sites have written off the ad blockers, thinking it is a constitutional issue, something they can't control, and, let's be honest here, they probably use blockers themselves.

    The advertising industry needs standards and monitoring, by itself of course, so that web sites and other media can be assured the advertising they are accepting will not be a disgusting pack of lies, ugly and/or offensive to one's intelligence. I expect NEVER to see this happen. Free speech and all that. Fine. Then let me block ads to my heart's content. It's not my problem. It's yours.

    • Anthony says:

      "Ad blocking serves to relieve me of the multiple offenses I have to witness every day, all day long, from all media sources. Most ads are ugly, tasteless, lie-filled, loud, ignorant, condescending wastes of time built by people who are amoral, manipulative and intellectually under-endowed."

      Good sir, with all due respect I think you are being a bit dramatic. Yes some ads are tasteless. But if tasteless ads keep you up at night and you need to be RELIEVED by ad-blockers, then my guess is that you are over-sensitive. I am not trying to be offensive. I am just saying that as Mr. Dreller mentions in his article, a little annoying flashy advertisement at the bottom of my page is a small prize to pay for the free materials I get on a website.

      People have taken the internet and its free AMAZINGNESS for granted for too long.

      • Josh Dreller says:

        Casey, I appreciate your candor and totally see where you're coming from. Of course, you have the complete right to ad block away. But, honestly, the free content you consume is being underwritten by advertisers. I'm sorry if most ads annoy you.

        Personally, I find that your following comment is a tad bit over the top: "Most ads are ugly, tasteless, lie-filled, loud, ignorant, condescending wastes of time built by people who are amoral, manipulative and intellectually under-endowed."

        Rereading that quote, Casey, do you still feel that strongly? Not sure how you would market your corn flakes or your new headphones but not every ad can (or should be) pieces of art.

        So, the core question I have posed remains that I would love to hear your opinion on. Is ad blocking stealing? Forget if ads are cool or not... Is ad blocking stealing, yes or no? If you're getting something for free and not "paying" for it (paying in this sense is allowing the advertisers to advertise to you), then is that stealing? If you don't think it's stealing, then what is it? If it is stealing, is your annoyance of ads really justify stealing? Why not just boycott those sites and get your content elsewhere?

        My point was I think most ad blockers don't think of it as stealing. My hope from this piece would be that a select few of current ad blockers may, in fact, decide to stop ad blocking once they thought of it in this context.

  2. Jos Pamboris says:

    In the case of the majority of adblockers available, from a technical point of perspective an adblocker blocks the call to the third party adserver's domain.
    Assuming that the agency is being billed via their own third party ad-server's data, then the advertiser won't actually end up paying for the blocked ad (for CPM or CPC based buys). No call=no impression served=no payment to media owner.
    If the biggest issue in regard to ad blocking is in media owner's lost advertising revenue rather than the advertiser paying for those blocked ad impressions, then it should not affect the ability to measure attribution (or-last click) accordingly.

  3. Sam Dodsworth says:

    The problem for me, as a heavy and habitual user of ad-blocking software, is that I find adverts unbearably annoying. You do not have a right to my attention, and if the final effect of that is the demise of the commercial Internet then that's a price I'm happy to pay.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I first installed an ad blocker to protect against the rash of malware that was invading millions of machines via ads. It worked. Perfectly. No ads = no malware via ads. Period.

    I kept it installed because not only did the industry turn their collective heads away from the realities of their insecure network, they continued to plant more and more and more trackers and mechanisms for nefarious activities with each page load. Each and every page view became a game of Russian roulette - spin the wheel and see, is it a malware install?

    There are a massive number of non-sanctioned trackers and beacons that attached to each and every page view- sometime as many as 60 different "bugs" are there to spy, peek and track every single action... All placed without consent or disclosure - all there for a single purpose (profits for the middleman) which has nothing to do with my relationship with the content provider. And you have the nerve to accuse the viewer / consumer of a moral violation??? My god, no wonder the avg person HATES online ads.

    Stealing? How about the massive amount of private information that these advertising tech companies steal from the users? They track, spy, sell and re-sell these people as if they are commodities - all without a single request or declaration of intent. And you call the spied upon the criminals... Sorry but you're exactly the problem with modern advertising and the very reason your argument falls flat. You cheat people and then you want them to trust you...

    The publisher and the publisher alone is responsible for this issue. They ignored the obvious and instead created an environment that neither fosters trust or builds report, instead they have destroyed that trust and must work very hard to re-build and or establish it again. If you want advertising to flourish you will need to focus on its true goal - to use creativity to triggers emotions in order to convert an idea into an action. No amount of algorithms or trickery is going to overcome the fact that creativity and scarcity will drive more actions than any machine learning… we have abandoned this basic principal and have created the problem ourselves. Focus on the experience and people will embrace.

    • I think you've missed the point. Blocking ads and ad tech companies' tracking practices are 2 different issues. Josh's article is only focused on the first issue.

      The fact is, ad blocking = stealing. It is stealing from the publishers that spend a lot of time, energy and money on producing content. If a publisher wanted their content to be distributed freely then they would not sell ad space on their site. But for all of those that do sell ad space, it is how they are able to maintain producing the content.

      I see no difference in someone reading a blog with ad blocking software turned on and their walking out of a bookstore with a book or magazine without paying.

      • R Dean says:

        If ad blocking is stealing, then so is purposefully ignoring ads, or getting up to go to the kitchen/bathroom during a television break, or arriving at the theater late, after the pre-film advertisements are done, or not looking at the billboards on the side of the highway (despite the safety hazard of doing so).

        The fact of the matter is that advertisers need to find consumer-friendly ways to engage, so that both sides can win.

      • @R Dean - choosing not to engage an ad and preventing it from being displayed are also two different things. I ignore ads all the time, but unless the publisher gets paid on a performance basis, they'll receive credit for having served the ad during my visit.

  5. Ravi says:

    Most adblock proponents are not against advertising, they are against annoying and intrusive ads. Adblock plus, the most popular ad blocker, comes with a whitelist that is turned on by default. The white list is open to ads that aren't annoying, e.g: are static, unobtrusive, clearly marked, etc.
    https://adblockplus.org/en/acceptable-ads

  6. Pierre says:

    If you want my attention, show me good, funny, informative ads. Heck, I _seek out_ good ads. I used to regularly go to the "Hi I'm a PC/I'm a Mac" Website to view the ads over and over, they were so funny and perfect. And I'm a Windows user!

    On YouTube, I will search for funny ads and watch them, even if they are for products I can't buy in countries I don't live in.

    You expect me to watch the same mediocre claptrap, numerous times? Sorry, you have to do better than that. My YouTube viewing has declined because of that stupid ad I have to watch repeatedly.

    I don't go to the movies anymore because of the obscenity of theatre advertising.

  7. What the advertising industry fails to understand when it comes to Europe is this. In Europe, you legally own the data related to your person, it is your property. Just like you can not sell yourself into slavery legally even if you wanted to, you can not sell perpetual rights into data about you. The contract with compaines collecting personally identifyable data is not about "perpetual, transferable and irrevocable" rights. The deal is about a time-limited lease to process my data. I can opt out any time.

    Now advertisers and their wish do personalize ads leads to their wish to profile me ever better. I do not mind the advertising part of it, but the tracking and profiling part. I do not wish to be tracked and profiled.

    So my only way to prevent this is to block the ads. Give me static, non personalized ads and I will watch them. Add callback logic to monitor my behaviour, I am no longer willing to accept ads because of the invasion of my privacy - not because I find them intrusive w/r to content. Ads are fine, but keep them at the "no callback" level they have on feedback. You want to talk to me, but I am not interested to talk back and have that monitored.

    Currently my only option is to block all ads, as tracking and ad presentation is intervowen. Ad blocking is technical self defense of my, at least in Europe, constituionally protected right into privacy.

    Give me a better way to defend my privacy and I will happily start to look at ads again. Until then, I have to weigh interests, and choose my own privacy to be the good I am most interested in.

    It's that simple.

  8. Björn Rosander says:

    Stealing? hinted > subject to some form of punishment/cost

    Is switching channels or going to refill the coffee during a TV commercial also stealing?

    Is "banner blindness" (well known phenomenon) a habit that people should be forced to go to rehab to get rid of?

    Stick and/or Carrot - How about the rewarding aspect?

    If you get an email or Facebook share of an engaging and funny ad video and you share it on - shouldn't you get paid for that?

  9. I think everyone is forgetting here that it is the publisher that is being stolen from. Sure, the advertiser has a revenue opportunity loss, but it is the publisher needing ways to pay for the content being produced.

    Reminds me, it is pledge time on my local NPR station. Pledge drives are annoying as hell to me, but I know they are required. If I listen all the time and never donate anything, I am a free loader.

    Josh - I'm really glad you write this post. I've been making a similar argument for years.

    I think it would be smart for publishers to start blocking their content when users running ad blockers are enjoying their content for free (that is underwrited by advertisers).

    I am going to get this code written and make it freely available to all publishers. Anyone see any problem with that?

    • MJ says:

      The publisher needs to acknowledge that reminant ads, trackers and beacons that spider to hundreds from viewing 3 pages is what needs to be fixed. People shouldn't be forced to understand every activity the developers employ to get your information and follow you around. Isn't that called stalking? As far as I'm aware it isn't illegal to block adds or even stealing. So until it is lets not make accusations.

      I like ads as well when they are well crafted, not some "This one trick saved insured people of ?? over $400", A pop-up ad that you have to close with every page advancement, a take over ad on every page advancement or the annoying ad that starts playing sound over your music when you have numerous windows open that you have to systematically seek out to mute.

      Treat us with respect and stop seeking the short money tactic ads as your method of revenue and I'll turn my ad-blocker off to view the ads.

  10. John says:

    Ad driven business models are only one way of doing things. It is not a right to intrude on someone's consciousness or to track them either. Nor should it be.

    The services that sell real products will survive without ads. The services I care about enough that don't directly sell a product, I pay for anyway (vimeo, soundcloud, new scientist magazine). There are plenty of other non ad driven models too I could list.

    The thing is, this ad driven models tends to produce heaps of content that people will read/watch/listen just because it is there but don't really care about a whole lot actually. They won't miss it really.

    Businesses and advertisers want to believe this stuff is valuable to people, but it is mostly not. Much of journalism has now decended into churnalism and life style editorials blah. I will read that stuff if in a cafe having a coffee but there are plenty of other more important choices. It is mostly for time wasting.

    You have an opportunity to make money from advertising if you can but not a right.

    If you feel otherwise about ad blocking, you can simply block access to users who use ad blockers. Easily done. Then you will get real feedback on how many people really value the content (they will turn off their blocker for that site). Pop up a box asking "You can turn off your ad blocker, leave or pay a subscription to get ad free".

    The ad and content industry are simply deluding themselves with false feedback i.e. number hits is not actual value. It is ego that makes them believe otherwise. Now they think they deserve a right to my brain. They don't. Respect must be earned.

  11. Willie3 says:

    I don't know about ya'll, but I PAY for Internet service.
    To allege that I am stealing from advertisers if I block them, I would offer an alternative solution.
    How about you reimburse me for intruding on a timed, metered service I subscribe (read: pay) for.

  12. nak says:

    "Most ads are ugly, tasteless, lie-filled, loud, ignorant, condescending wastes of time built by people who are amoral, manipulative and intellectually under-endowed."

    "to use creativity to triggers emotions in order to convert an idea into an action. No amount of algorithms or trickery is going to overcome the fact that creativity and scarcity will drive more actions than any machine learning… we have abandoned this basic principal and have created the problem ourselves. Focus on the experience and people will embrace."

    "If you want my attention, show me good, funny, informative ads.."

    This is the crux of the biscuit here. When it comes to online marketing + advertising, agencies abandoned creativity in the pursuit of aggregate data. Funny, creative, ironic, intelligent ads on the web are few and far between. It is not for no reason that the Old Spice commercial which originated as a TV ads became one of the most popular ads on the Web, it was brilliant, funny, sexy and the appeal crossed many demographic lines.
    (Four Old Spice Ads Make YouTube's List of Most Popular Ads of 2012)

    Great advertizing takes creative talent, vision + commitment. The advertising agencies have not focused key resources to produce effective advertizing on the Web. 99% of the ads on the Web are utter crap. They do not create any incentive to engage on any level. Your attempt to blame ad blockers is disingenuous, you argument claiming ad blocking is stealing is bizarre and an example of 'lazy logic'.

    When was the last time you actually clicked a banner ad? Recent stats on banner ads show that it is more likely to be hit by a meteorite than to get a user to click a banner ad.

    Privacy issues aside, the 'old skool' advertizing + marketing model is as dead as a proverbial doornail.

  13. Bruce Wheelock says:

    First, here's my practice for watching TV ... everything I want to watch is recorded on my DVR; I never watch anything live. I have a button programmed on my DVR remote that jumps the video forward about 3 minutes (without displaying the video it jumped over); that's approximately the length of a commercial break; a brief FF or REW zips me to the exact spot from there.

    If my use of an ad block add-on is stealing, then surely using the FF button on the DVR remote to skip over commercials is stealing. Beyond that, use of my "jump" button must be the broadcasting equivalent of a TV felony; even fast forward still runs the images past my eyes, even at an accelerated rate ("blipverts" anyone?), so they make an impression of some sort, but "jump" keeps them from ever passing before my eyes.

    Anyway, I'm paying Comcast a boatload of money. I'll ignore what I darned well please. On the TV they sell me and on the high speed Internet they sell me.

  14. AT says:

    Why don't you guys get a simple thing. See, I am a consumer, I like to see ads sometime, and quiet often click on the offers as well. But then, ads are not the primary reason I am using the net, or e.g. am here to read this article. What happens is that during the time I am doing something else, like reading and article or watching a video, that extremely annoying ad with blinking buttons and what-not convinces me to block Ads till the next time, when I again want to see a few ads and whats on offer, but quiet often, and often pretty soon, the ads are able to annoy me enough to enable my Ad-Blocker again. Thats all there is to it. Get it ?

  15. Josh says:

    How is blocking ads I never click stealing? Ok, I'm sure you have your answer lined up but I don't care. For me it's like saying 'oh that thing you never wanted shoved in your face to begin with? You have no right to swat it away'. If a site survives on ads, it either becomes worth paying for or it dies, there are always alternative websites I can get th same information from. I'm perfectly happy with a pay wall or donation if it's worth paying for

  16. Shawn says:

    Ad Block is Theft. Content that is viewed by the grace of the hoster who utilizes ads in order to show the content in the first place needs that ad revenue to keep up with costs associated with hosting the website, creating content, and spending time to create that content. I once used ad block regularly thinking they were some sort of government or business mandate that was required on websites to make extra money at the expense of the consumer only. But I quickly found out that was not the case at all.

    It is theft, pure and simple. People that think one view won't be missed are wrong and should feel terrible about what they have done just to save 30 seconds of their time. Time is a currency, a currency we spend every day on the internet, a currency we "waste" by spending hours chatting with friends, blogging, doing other inane things that serve no practical purpose off line. Pretending that time is free is nothing more and nothing less than a shame.

  17. Mike Loeven says:

    Personally i believe that ad blocking is a fundamental right of a user. however ad blocking is a symptom not a cause of the problem. the problem is that advertising companies bring this on themselves by the way they make and distribute advertising. for example most people do not mind banner ads these are perfectly normal and in fact my own ad block program is only configured to block a very few specific types of advertising.

    the only advertising i block are embedded video advertisement and flash advertisements that contain sound.

    to be honest if advertising companies stopped being obnoxious and used passive advertising more people would be likley to buy their products. to be honest i buy alot of games. an example of advertising done right would be the way steam implements it in their client. when you first log in you get a simple windows with a list of on sale titles no music no sound no animations. a perfect advertisement that is relivant to the activity your performing in this instance playing a game.

    when you start blasting music or injecting advertisements into a movie your violating a users rights to control what they watch which might actually be damaging or traumatizing in some cases while TV advertising at least has some standards and controls the internet lacks the censorship needed to protect users from objectionable content.

    say for example that your watching a g rated movie with your young child and an unskipable ad comes out of nowhere with a trailer for the new R rated slasher flick complete with blood gore swearing and other objectionable content sure you might not care but what can those images do to a 5 year old kid. The main issue is that not only multimedia advertisements more annoying than simple banners but that they are often randomized from a ad server and inappropriate for the location that they are shown when coupled with lockouts and other tools to prevent a user from skipping them ad blocking becomes the only way to keep your advertising to a sane level.

    if they passed a law forbidding embedded video ads and ads with sound on web pages i would get rid of the ad block until that time i have a right not to be harassed.

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