Ad Blocking is TiVo for Online News

If you are like me, then your childhood memories will be studded with images, jingles, slogans and products from adverts you saw in magazines, in the cinema or on tv while growing up. Do you remember the Marlboro Man? The Gilette theme song? If I play you a few bars of Dinah Washington's version of “Mad About the Boy” can you tell me which brand used it in a now classic advert? If you're about the same age as me, I bet you can. And that's just three off the top of my head, I probably remember hundreds.

I remember those ads because they were good. Not necessarily artistic or aesthetic, though some of them clearly were, but good in the sense that they showed a high level of mastery in the unforgiving medium of advertising. They were either beautifully made, funny or aspirational – sometimes all three – and even, occasionally, inspirational.

I remember being a little sad if was late for the cinema and missed the adverts as a consequence of my tardiness. Imagine that. Sad to miss the ads.

But then I grew up in a world with virtually no outdoor advertising. Buses didn't have streamers on them, taxis were just cars with a light on top, train stations had art posters and billboards didn’t exist. Advertising was exotic! Raunchy even.

Fast-forward to today. We now inhabit a world, where marketing and advertising is so pervasive that we think nothing of our phones piezoelectrically massaging our thighs whenever we receive an email newsletter flogging some new product or service.

To say the supply of available advertising space and time has increased is a gross understatement. And as supply goes up, prices fall. When prices of running an ad or showing an ad on tv fall, a lot of new actors who could not previously afford advertising, suddenly can. But running the ad is only part of the equation, producing the ad is a creative endeavour where the correlation between price and quality is stronger. So when the price of advertising falls, so does the quality of the ads.

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Look at what happened to American network television through the 90s: as the number of channels grew, commercial space supply soared, prices and quality dropped. To keep the margins up with these new, lower prices, networks made commercial breaks longer and more numerous. It happened gradually over many years – and everyone was doing it, so if you wanted to watch tv, you just had to endure the incessant commercial breaks. And everyone did.

Until TiVo arrived.

Suddenly, anyone could hook up a little box to their tv, record whatever program they wanted - and TiVo would edit out all of the ads automatically. It was a little sliver og technological magic. What ensued was, if you've been following the media industry for the past twenty years, a predictable series of events. Lawsuits, countermeasures, name-calling and an appeal to a higher moral code. None of this actually works. Networks eventually had to concede that their one-size-fits-all business model wasn't up to muster in the face of disruptive technology.

The networks dug that hole on their own. Granted – there probably wasn't anything else they could have done at the time given the information they had on hand, but that does not make them any less responsible for the mess. They themselves made the tv-experience horrible to the point, where they opened a hole in the market for something like TiVo – and subsequently Netflix, HBO, Apple and Amazon – all of which offer prime content with no ads.

Now lets look at a different medium which is facing a strikingly similar development: Online news. Reading the news in a web browser today is actually worse than watching network television has ever been. Even if we set aside all of the ethical discussions regarding tracking and the wholesale invasion of privacy that is online advertising, then we've still got the absolutely horrendous user-experience of reading news through a letterbox-sixed rectangle of text completely surrounded by cheap, crappy, noisy ads for nasty products and services ranging from russian mail-order brides to off-brand viagra.

The news sites are slow, they're not aesthetically pleasing to look at when covered in advertising muck – and the ads actually detract from our ability to just read the damned articles. In other words, online news have dug themselves into the exact same hole: it happened gradually, everyone else was doing it, but it makes them no less responsible.

Those few brave outlets who began charging for their product were accused of putting up “pay-walls” – as if charging money for a product had somehow suddenly become an elitist concept and a danger to democracy.

And now, along comes a slew of tools that will remove ads from a page – some will simply grab the article and reformat it entirely into a pleasant experience; some will just blank out the ads – I'll call them all “ad blockers” for simplicity's sake. They've been around since the mid-2000s, but they have been gaining in popularity and are being added as standard features to some browsers.

This is the TiVo-moment for online news. Media outlets are so busy hoarding every conceivable data-point about their users and trying to make sense of it, meanwhile the rise of ad blockers is dealt with as a nuisance. I actually think it's today's most salient data point. What online news sites are delivering clearly isn't what people want. They are fighting back against the dreadful user-experience.

Don't, however, take that as a sign that consumers are suddenly ready to pay for six different news subscriptions. It just means they're ready to pay for a good user experience – and that this is probably more important than any concept of brand loyalty.

The last point I'll make is this. The desktop/laptop computer as a news consumption platform is waning. Everyone knows mobile is where the future of media is, going forward. This makes perfect sense – news is something you keep up with in those pockets of time between other activities – it's no longer a seperate activity engaged over morning coffee.

And who controls mobile? Google and Apple. And Apple has zero dollars hinging on advertising. They could pull the plug on online news' entire business model tomorrow if they wanted to by integrating add blocking into Mobile Safari. And they may have good reasons to do just that. I can think of three:

  1. It would hurt Google. Badly.
  2. It would improve the user experience of all Apple product owners immensely - remember they had no qualms about killing Adobe Flash on this basis.
  3. They have already been gunning for Google on privacy issues – they could justify the move as yet another way to protect their customers' privacy. And they'd be right.

Maybe. Just maybe. It's time to think about what a completely post-advertising news landscape would look like.

If the past is anything to go by, it's very likely that the successor to the fragmented multitude of news websites today, is going to be something like Netflix or Spotify - a bazaar of news from various sources. How that business model is going to work, I don't know. I do know that convenience always wins in the end. It's clear that ad blockers aren't going away - and we should embrace the message in that.


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