To the list of great ethical debates of our time – cloning, capital punishment, pre-emptive strikes – we can now add … ad-blocking? At least if the general uproar over Apple’s decision to enable software that blocks online ads in the latest version of its operating system is anything to go by. Fortune frets that this state of affairs may be ‘morally wrong,’ (http://for.tn/1LKqUAx) while the slightly more hyperbolic The Verge equates it with ‘hell’ and the ‘death of the web’ (http://bit.ly/1NzuvWC).
That’s an awful lot of fire and brimstone for the hundreds of millions of people who have already downloaded ad blockers to enjoy a less intrusive web browsing experience. The basic arguments remain the same: ad blocking opponents worry it will deprive content providers, online-only media outlets in particular, of a crucial source of revenue; to the tune of $21 billion this year, according to one recent study (http://bit.ly/1DHGnnd). The publisher of consistently excellent online journal The Awl estimates ad blockers could zap up to 85 percent of its earnings (http://bit.ly/1FPqUgO). On the other side are fed-up consumers who find online ads disruptive or even invasive, and are quite happy to nip them in the bud given the option.
What’s different this time around is that Apple’s move brings what was primarily a PC phenomenon squarely into the mobile environment. Some also see it as a cynical ploy to hit Google – which makes most of its money with targeted ads – where it hurts. The controversy has already produced a few casualties; the developer of one popular ad blocker recently pulled it from Apple’s app store after having a change of heart about its possible impact on publishers.
This is a tough one. On the one hand, publishers and content producers have an unquestionable right to be compensated for their work, just like everyone else – and every click counts in an era when many previous sources of revenue (like print ads) are drying up. But it’s also hard to assert that people should be forced to endure marketing that in many cases has grown more aggressive — think blinking banners, full-page hijacks, and autoplaying videos — in its efforts to claim attention. There are also completely justifiable concerns about the tracking and data collection around web ads, which these days act more like programs than the passive billboards of yore.
Beyond the moral question, it’s important to look at what the rise of ad blocking means — and we’d hazard a couple of guesses:
*Leaner times for mid to small-sized publishers — and perhaps Google, at least until they figure out a way around it (and they will)
*More content migrating to and being accessed through apps rather than standard web browsers. Publishers and advertisers alike will be motivated to make this shift, as apps like Facebook are essentially ‘walled gardens’ in which ad blockers presumably won’t be allowed to play
*More marketing taking the form of ‘native advertising’ — that is, paid-for content, such as a sponsored article on an issue of interest to readers of a particular news website, that’s integrated into the platform around it and is therefore not typically targeted by ad blockers (at least not yet)
Some might see native advertising as a sort of wolf in sheep’s clothing. And of course, we’re biased. But as long as it’s clear when content is sponsored or supported (and who’s supporting it), we’d humbly present native ads as a compromise that might be the best way to address the ad-blocking dilemma. Publishers and creators can earn a living, and audiences won’t have to suffer through seizure-inducing pixel-fests because more advertisers are forced to come up with content that’s (hopefully) tailored, engaging, and editorially sound. Perfect, no. But better than pop-ups — surely.