The consumer is in control! Remember that rallying cry from the first decade of this century?
The advertising industry goes through so many fads so rapidly, you'd be forgiven for forgetting.
As it turns out, consumers are still in control -- perhaps even more so. Not only are they cutting cords and spurning print and skipping ads on TV, they're now screwing up the internet and mobile advertising ecosystems. The promise of a hyper-targeted, data-fueled ad environment that would allow marketers to sell their goods and publishers to squeeze some dimes out of digital? It's suffering from banner blindness just like earlier ads and, if recent reports are to be believed, an explosion in the use of ad-blocking technology.
The in-control consumer apparently has an insatiable appetite for professional, expensive content (and, let's face it, a lot of cheap garbage too), but not much love for the advertising that foots the bill.
The response to this has been somewhat muted up until now.
One reaction has been to insist that marketers make better ads. I laud this impulse. But let's not kid ourselves. Given a choice, consumers would rather not have their preferred content interrupted with advertising -- even good advertising. They typically endured ads because they had to, or because the alternative cost money. But now, thanks to technology, that's not so true.
Of course, marketers and publishers could also respond by sitting the consumer down for a very adult conversation about the implicit media contract in this country, the one in which they get all that content for free or at a steep discount in exchange for marketers running advertising in or near that content. It's a symbiotic relationship, really, and one that works out pretty well for everyone.
One way of conducting this conversation is restricting access to publishers' sites for anyone running ad blockers, and explaining nicely why this is being done. But it's a bad idea to believe that consumers care much about the plight of marketers or publishers. It's an even worse idea to explain that in the symbiotic relationship being discussed, the consumer is the freeloading parasite in the equation.
The worst possible response, however, is paying an ad-blocking company or an anti-ad-blocking company money to get ads past filters and in front of the viewer. The consumer has gone through a number of steps to say, "I do not want advertising," yet there you are, forcing it upon him.
It's also a bad idea because it sounds an awful lot like participating in your own extortion.
So what option does that leave?
I can't quite believe I'm saying this, but how about suing the ad blockers out of existence?
This sounds like crazy talk, I know. People don't do that sort of thing in the digital sphere, right? Information wants to be free! Besides, the kids -- the millennials and Gen Zers -- will never put up with it.
You know what else the kids will never put up with? Paying the actual amount of money it would take for media companies to make and distribute content without being subsidized by advertising.
Even the Interactive Advertising Bureau is considering the lawsuit option. It's only a twinkling of a possibility at this moment because, yes, it is a risky proposition in terms of optics, even before you get to the legal merits. But as WPP Digital President and Xaxis Chairman David Moore, who also serves as chairman of the board of directors for the IAB Tech Lab, points out, the ad blockers "are interfering with websites' ability to display all the pixels that are part of that website; arguably there's some sort of law that prohibits that." Mr. Moore was careful to add that he's "not by any means a lawyer, but there is work being done to explore whether in fact that may be the case."
I'm not a lawyer either, but I don't think it's a stretch at all to make some sort of case. Sorry ad blockers, I assume you mean well and you have a point about page-load times and ads junked up with tracking tools and Trojan horses and the like. But theft is still theft, even if it's dressed up as some sort of digital Robin Hood act. You're not just interfering with pixels, you're interfering with business.
Look at it this way: What would Hearst and its advertisers do if someone went around slicing ad pages out of magazines with an X-Acto knife? What would Clear Channel Outdoor and its clients do if someone ripped down all the subway posters or painted over billboards? They'd call the police, that's what.
And despite all the power bestowed upon consumers by remote controls and DVRs, what do you think CBS would do if someone started scrambling the ads during an actual broadcast of "Big Bang Theory" -- or the Super Bowl for that matter?
Hell, that might be the simplest solution of all. Convince the NFL that ad blockers are a threat to its revenue stream. The league will take care of the rest.
~ ~ ~
Ken Wheaton is the editor of Advertising Age. His latest novel, "Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears," was published in 2014.