Advertising in the Era of Ad Blockers: A Brief Introduction

Ad blockers have become something of a staple for regular internet users, with plugins such as Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin having more than 17 million downloads between them on Google Chrome alone. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time online, as advertising is simply everywhere, from insidious advertisements on the tops of web pages to more intrusive forms such as the notorious pop-up.

According to a study cited by advertising company Pagefair, there were approximately 198 million active ad block users globally. These users put an alleged $22 billion dent in publishers’ potential profits in 2015. In response, many groups are overhauling their websites to bypass the use of ad blocking software to deliver advertising regardless of whether the user in question has such software installed. In 2016, Facebook rewrote the HTML code of their web ads to make it impossible for ad blocking software to distinguish between the “real” content of the site, and the ads. According to their Q3 earnings call in 2016, this change produced an 18% increase in ad revenue from desktop users year-over-year within that quarter.

Perhaps taking inspiration from Facebook, the popular streaming website has begun to roll out a harder-to-block system for video ads named SureStream, allegedly hoping to attain “broader reach and more reliable delivery” of ad content. While they claim that this system was not necessarily an attempt to circumvent ad blocking, it seems highly unlikely that this goal did not play some part in the decision to implement this new way of serving ads.

If this type of digital advertising becomes the standard, are we simply going to see a new generation of software to combat these ads? Will the format and content of these unblockable ads be significantly different than their blockable brethren, given that they are being served to people who are known to not wish to see ads in the first place? What is the marginal revenue generated by creating unblockable ads specifically to reach those using blocking software? Are unblockable ads inherently more valuable to advertisers given that they are capable of reaching a previously unreachable audience? Is it ethical to block ads on a free platform in the first place? These topics (and more) will be addressed in an upcoming multi-part series which will explore the shifting landscape and inner workings of the digital advertising industry.

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