Is Using an Adblocker Just Being Honest?

There's a debate raging in tech circles right now. To adblock, or not to adblock? Sites load as much at 10 times more slowly without the adblockers. Ads can be a source of click-jacking, even security attacks. The ads are annoying ,distracting, intrusive. What's wrong with blocking them?

20 years of going to web sites. One banner ad purchase.

20 years of going to web sites. One banner ad purchase.

A lot, according to some. Many content producers will tell you that they just can't go on producing high quality content without that ad revenue. When you block an ad, you're taking money out of their already tight budgets.

To quote Leo Laporte from Security Now, Episode 521. If you find the ads on a sight incredibly annoying...

I think you have a moral obligation not to return because you don't want to pay that site for the content. It's you're stealing. It's like going into a store and taking a candy bar. How am I supposed to know? Well, because you have a moral obligation to pay in the way the merchant asks you to pay. Don't you?"

I can certainly see where he's coming from. There are many outlets that are suffering because of adblockers, and will certainly suffer more as they become more mainstream. Worse, people are still consuming their bandwidth when they go to the site, but not generating any revenue for them.

However, I think there is a bigger picture. To quote Leo again (from Macbreak Weekly 470),

Sometimes people say 'well I don't click 'em so what does it matter?' Well that's not how you get paid. You get paid because people see them.

I think having a lot of people see the ads that they will never click does matter. It matters to the people paying for them. There are companies spending money on "impressions" that are being ignored and will never translate into a sale. They are wasting money. Maybe they've made bad decisions, or maybe they've been actively defrauded; sold a cheap bill of goods for a premium price.

Let's use a specific example. Mr. Ford has a new car he wants the world to learn about. He pays Google $200,000 for 1.8 million impressions. At the same time, gimmemorecars.com signs up with Google Adwords and puts a banner on their site. Google then puts a whole bunch of impressions of Mr. Ford's banner on the site and pays Ms. Morecars for those impressions. If I'm frequenting site, but like most people, have learned to ignore all but the most egregious ads. You could say that putting at adblocker on is stealing from the site, but you could also say that not having an adblocker, but ignoring the ads, is defrauding Mr. Ford. I'm making him pay for ads that will never earn him a sale. Is my adblocking not creating a more honest count of the actual value to Mr. Ford?

I think this is the elephant in the room. Has advertising ever been as valuable to the people and companies paying for it as the advertising industry would have them believe? Sure, if you have a new product, you need to let people know you exist. If you sell sugar water and other cheap products subject to impulse purchases, keeping your brand in the public psyche might make sense.

Those two cases cover only a tiny percent of brands, however. In the age of yelp and google, getting people to buy your router with a banner ad, rather than letting online reviews, feature lists, and forums show your merit for you almost seems dishonest. Worse (for you) it's probably a waste of money, because most products won't sell that way.

This is my hypothesis: It's not the case that the evil adblockers are stealing well-earned money from the hard working content producers. It's more the case the hard working and deserving content producers have based their business model on a fallacy. The destructive change isn't adblockers, its the tracking data and other metrics that prove that the business model was always flawed. I think it's possible that the emperor has been strutting around naked for over 100 years.

I'm sorry Leo, but I think you're now in the same boat as the music labels, book publishers, and newspapers. The world has moved on. You can complain about the things that are most directly hurting you, but they're only proximal.

Unfortunately, my hypothesis only points to the problem, but doesn't offer a solution. I like the kind of content I have available today. I wish there were more of it. I'm just unconvinced that showing banner ads actually has value to most of the companies paying for them. Of the thousands I've seen. I can think of perhaps half a dozen cases where I've clicked on one of those ads. I only actually bought a product (Tile) once, and that was because I'd heard a review of it elsewhere (probably on the Twit network). The only solution I see is that we, as content consumers, learn to start paying for our content, or we just accept that there's going to be a lot less of it in the future. Probably somewhere in the middle. Here's hoping it's closer to the former.