Ad blockers gain ground as consumers say 'Enough'

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What does the growing adoption of ad-blocking say about today's digital advertising?

The use of ad-blocking software is growing as Internet users try to deal with the swelling number of ads delivered programmatically and the pervasive tracking of their online behavior.

This growth has set alarm bells ringing within the online advertising industry, with concerns that the use of ad blockers could damage publishers' online revenues. Just last week it emerged that two groups of publishers in France are considering a a lawsuit against, Eyeo GmbH, the maker of AdBlockPlus. 

While behavioral advertising ideally makes advertising more relevant to viewers, some people find it "creepy"; data shows that last year’s revelations of the National Security Administration’s attempts to track citizens online has made them warier than ever.

Sarah Baehr, group director of digital strategy at Carat USA, says ad blocking is not one of her major concerns: "Everyone is caught up with bot fraud and viewability right now." However, if agencies see ad blocking as a consumer demand for better online advertising and respond, Baehr sees it as a positive development.  "Will it prompt Creative to think differently about what is appropriate or valuable based on the screen being viewed? I hope so," she adds.   

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Randy Giusto, who analyzes advertising, ad tech and media as VP-Practice Leader at Outsell, agrees that ad fraud and viewability issues justifiably concern agencies, but he sees ad blocking as part of an issue that he predicts will become more important in 2015—online privacy. "Privacy has a lot of different faces and advertising is connected to it," he says. "People are worried that information collected while they are online is being sold to advertisers, and, on the flip side, the result of that is being inundated by ads."

Avoiding the annoying

The prevalence of ad-blocking increased 69 percent worldwide between the second quarter of 2013 and Q2 2014, according to the recently released report "Adblocking Goes Mainstream" from Adobe and PageFair, a two-year-old Irish company that measures the use of ad blocking by visitors to publisher websites and provides technology to display "non-intrusive" ads to those users.

Although the study did not break out growth in ad blocking by country, Adobe and PageFair surveyed a sample of 1,621 U.S. Internet users to find out their characteristics and ad-blocking motivations. More than one-quarter of respondents, 27.6 percent, reported using ad-blocking software, although only 45 percent installed an ad blocker because they did not want to see any advertising.

Of the remaining respondents, 49 percent wanted to "remove ads they found especially annoying," and 31 percent expressed concerns about their online behavior being monitored, saying they had installed ad-block software to prevent third-party cookie tracking or "remove ads that seem to know which websites I visit."

Of men and millennials

Demographically, the survey found that men and millennials are most likely to use ad blockers. Men are 48 percent more likely than women to block ads, and 41 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 reported using the software. "This shows a generational mindset shift," Giusto says, pointing out that young people will likely continue their ad-avoidance behavior as they grow in buying power and influence — a serious problem for the advertising industry in the future.

The Adobe/PageFair study drilled down to see which types of advertising ad-blocking consumers found most and least acceptable. Two-thirds of consumers using ad blockers were willing to view display ads with text and/or still images, but display ads with audio, non-skippable ads within videos (mid-roll) and popovers were the most unpopular, with 78 percent, 81 percent and 83 percent, respectively, reporting they were "completely unwilling" to view them.

"There have always been and always will be annoying ads; the irony is that they sometimes work," points out Andrew Frank, vice president-distinguished analyst at Gartner. "Changes in consumer behavior are already forcing ad agencies to evolve and consider new approaches to engaging consumers with compelling content," he says, adding that the use of data in decision-making will enable agencies to respond effectively whenever their target audiences are not engaging with their advertising.

While Frank does not expect ad blocking, by itself, to have much effect on the performance of advertisers or agencies, "the larger trend of ad avoidance may be cause for concern."

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