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Ad Industry Powers Consider Adopting Ad Blocking on a Wide Scale

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The biggest players in advertising and tech are mapping out a strategy to kill off the digital ads that have been deemed as the absolute worst by consumers.

The most likely approach is the adoption of a "technology" -- the term "ad blocker" has baggage among many of the participants in talks on the subject -- that would prevent browsers such as Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge from displaying autoplaying video ads with sound, pop-up ads and ads that quickly flash or change colors.

The discussions are taking place among members of the industry's Coalition for Better Ads, including Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, WPP's ad-buying giant GroupM, Facebook, Thomson Reuters, The Washington Post, the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Association of National Advertisers, according to Stu Ingis, counsel to the coalition and attorney at Venable LLP.

"The end game here is to remove these types of ads which are undercutting the consumer internet experience," Ingis said. "Truthfully, those ads can potentially and seriously undercut the broader internet ecosystem."

A "blocking mechanism" or "technology" to prevent such ads from appearing will be put into place before the end of this year, Ingis predicted.

Google said it does not comment on speculation, but said it's been working closely with the coalition for Better Ads and its members. The IAB declined to comment. GroupM, Facebook, Unilever and P&G could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier this year, the Coalition for Better Ads paid some 25,000 participants in the U.S. and Europe to rate 104 different ad experiences on desktop and mobile. Their findings, released in March, revealed what many already know: Consumers don't like autoplay video ads with sound, pop-up ads and ads that quickly flash or change colors.

Though the findings seemed obvious, the coalition was partly trying to create a ranking of sorts to inform its effort to stop the worst ads.

An independent monitoring group would be required should the coalition decide on adopting ad blocking technology, Ingis said. "I don't see a scenario where there is a technology solution, but there isn't oversight," he said. "Oversight is needed to make sure the tech is doing what it is supposed to. Oversight is needed so no one company is by themselves in setting or making determinations."

Ad blocking tech would elevate premium publishers that don't sell annoying ad formats and protect them from actors that will sell anything possible, Ingis said.

Hamish Nicklin, chief revenue officer at the Guardian, said the idea was promising. "We welcome any initiative that helps to create an open web where the experience of readers is put first, and in which publishers like the Guardian -- which has long believed in a fewer, better approach to the ads we place across our products -- can prosper," Nicklin said.

Questions about implementation remain though, he added. "While these developments will help to promote good formats, it's unclear how they will deal with the gaming of good formats, with bad dynamic creatives, which we have seen being served through mainstream programmatic exchanges," Nicklin said.

As it stands right now, no solution has been adopted. In fact, the Coalition for Better Ads is still in the process of drawing up its roadmap, something it says will be complete within the coming weeks. From there, coalition board members will decide on what solution they will use to stop annoying ads from surfacing. That decision will likely come in September or by the end of this year, Ingis said.

"What I would say is stay tuned, because I think as we really develop this, the consumer is going to see a rapidly improved ad experience," he said. "If the question is, 'Isn't this motivated by self-interest,' the answer is absolutely it is driven by self-interest."

"The ad industry has a self-interest to make sure the ad supported internet that consumers love continues," he added. "The incentives of the ad industry, from my view, are exactly right. And they are perfectly aligned with what consumer interest would want."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article erroneously attributed information about the talks at the Coalition for Better ads to Chuck Curran, counsel to the coalition and attorney at Venable LLP. The speaker was Stu Ingis, also counsel to the coalition and an attorney at Venable.