In Sponsored Content, a brilliant South Park episode, which satirised online advertising, student editor Jimmy insists on the school newspaper being editorial independent and ad-free. He then delivers these newspapers door-to-door to the delight of parents who are finally able to read news stories in peace.
One of the parents rants about the insanity of browsing through online news channels thus: “Do you know how long it’s been since I was just able to sit back and read the news? I got so used to getting news off the internet, but I feel like I’m always trying to chase the news somehow.
It’s like I’m in a black void trying to reach the news story, but then the next thing I know, I’m reading an ad for Geico. So I click out of that and try to read the news story, but it’s not a news story, it’s a slide show. And I’m looking at the worst celebrity plastic surgery jobs ever. So, of course, I want to see the next slide of plastic surgery gone wrong, so I hit the arrow. But then the arrow wasn’t the arrow for the next slide, it was to take me for an ad for face cream. I wanted to get a new story, but I’m reading about face cream, and I try to click out of it but the ad is following me. It’s following me all over the screen! No! So I click on the close button, but it wasn’t a close button, it was another slide show! And I just want to know what’s happening in the Middle East, but instead I’m looking at the ‘Top 10 scariest movies of all time’! And that’s not the arrow for the next slide, it’s for another ad. Ahhh! But this, this is just news, and I don’t get lost in all the bullshit.”
Pop-up windows and videos on an ever-lasting auto-play mode bog down our browsers, drain batteries and even infect our devices with viruses. Websites and their ad-publishers, in a desperate attempt to maximise income from online viewers, have introduced intrusive ads and far more intrusive ways of tracking the activities and identities of these viewers.
Lying on the coattails of our search history to collect data, they sometimes sneak into private conversations. The ad abuse is worse while using mobile phones: ads appear larger, given the small screens, and are harder to ignore, they slow down page-loads, burn battery power, cellular data charges hit the roof and worse of all — they bring in malwares. Given the incessant nuisance, it comes as no surprise that ad-blocking apps came into the picture and then came a bitter war between advertisers and developers of ad-blocking apps.
Ad-blocking browsers are particularly popular in China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan. According to a study by PageFair, (whose mission is to sustain the open web by re-establishing a fair deal between users and content creators by developing technology which would display respectful ads) in partnership with Adobe, the use of ad-blocking software grew 41 per cent last year, with 198 million active users worldwide.
Those who support the use of ad-blockers argue that it allows people to have access to the required content without having to suffer through unwanted advertisements while opponents, mostly the companies which rely on advertisements for a major chunk of their revenue, argue that viewing ads is part of the package — browsing through online content will remain free for users as long as it is paid for by digital advertising. Marco Arment, an iOS developer and co-founder of Tumblr, launched his own iOS 9 content blocker called Peace last September “to bring peace, quiet, privacy, and — as a nice side benefit — ludicrous speed to iOS web browsing.”
Two days later, he withdrew Peace from the App Store for reasons which merit consideration — “Ad-blocking is a kind of war — a first-world, low-stakes, both-sides-are-fortunate-to-have-this-kind-of-problem war, but a war nonetheless, with damage hitting both sides.” While he still believes that ad-blockers are a necessity in today’s world, he expressed unease over being the arbiter of what ads are to be blocked.
The main trouble with ad-blocking appears when one looks over to the side; until then it seems deceivingly black and white. The reason the web has become so slow is because of the sheer volume of stuff that has to be loaded onto a web page in order to show it to a reader and still make money from it. Yes, they need the money (all of us do). Websites which rely mostly on online ad-revenue to pay for resources and staff will have devastating impacts due to ad-blocking — staff lay-offs, less content, low-quality content etc. It can also put sites into an advertising death spin. As ad-revenue goes down, many sites are lured into running ads of truly questionable nature. By using ad-blockers, we are simply choosing to not pay for a service we are receiving and in the process, the sites we love go into a financial crunch with ruinous effects.
The most respectable solution to the problem is for the users of online content to meet advertisers halfway. We need to remember that even in an age where access to abundant online content is easy, there’s still no such thing as a free lunch, while advertisers need to understand customers’ tastes and preferences and try to find common ground between their need to sell and customers who aren’t particularly interested in what they’re selling.
Instead of relying on softwares to by-pass ad-blocking apps, the online advertising industries could instead rise up to the challenge in hopes of making compelling ads and meaningful connections.
Rishika Pardikar is a Chartered Accounatnt