My internist is the ultimate geek. He has been lugging a MacBook from one exam room to another for years and is a pioneer at integrating software into every aspect of his medical practice.
So when I started a small community news site and offered him free ads for a year, he excitedly accepted. I designed and posted the ads but was puzzled when he didn't mention them on my next visit, even though he talked about other aspects of the site.
One day, he brought the site up on his laptop as we were discussing it and I realized why he hadn't seen his free ads: he was running an ad blocker. I said nothing but wondered how he would like it if I started running a payment blocker, something that would magically stop him from being paid for our visits. After all, how much does it take to give somebody a flu shot and lecture them about cigars?
This, on a much larger scale, is the dilemma now facing websites and their readers and advertisers. Websites, especially those that provide news and other content that is expensive to produce, need revenue. But readers are becoming fed up with the sheer number of ads and the obtrusive and noisy nature of many of them and are fighting back with ad blockers.
Survival threat -- or payback?
For sites already struggling to keep the lights on, this represents a real threat to their survival. But critics say sites have brought this on themselves by flooding their pages with huge pop-ups, auto-play videos and those follow-you-everywhere ads based on what Big Data thinks you're interested in.
Some sites are fighting back, installing software that blocks ad-block users. Others are putting together public relations and, yes, ad campaigns urging consumers to be a little more ad-receptive.
Ad-blocking is all anybody in the ad business is talking about these days. Last week, just in case you missed it, was Advertising Week, when the ad biz celebrates itself. But last week's conferences weren't quite as buoyant as usual, as advertisers and their agencies contemplated the prospect of consumers shutting them out.
Ideas bounced around just the way they do in the brain-storming sessions that produce the ads that fill our lives. Cries of, "better creative," "tighter targeting," and "ads people love" filled the air.
But AOL CEO Tim Armstrong shot down some of the more exuberant cries, berating his fellow media and ad execs for discussing the issue without any consumers in the room.
"Everyone is spending all their time talking about ad blocking right now," he said, AdAge reported. "Everyone should be spending all of their time talking about why consumers feel the need to block ads. ... Few things are more annoying than pop-ups on mobile."
Fox Networks Group President of Ad Sales Toby Byrne agreed and said publishers, marketers, and agencies should work to provide a "better ad experience."
Newspapers, which used to complain constantly about such things as the cost of newsprint, now grouse bitterly about ad blockers, denouncing them as just another form of theft. This ignores the sad fact that many newspaper sites are so packed with ads and subscription come-ons that news-hungry readers are being driven away -- to Business Insider, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and so forth.
Being a lifelong content producer, as we're now called, I have always eschewed ad blockers, regarding them basically as akin to stealing candy from babies. But duty calls, so a little while ago, I loaded a Google Chrome extension called AdBlock.
I hate to say this, but I should have done it years ago. Part of my daily drill involves looking at major newspaper sites, something that over the last few years has come to rival a dental visit. But today I whipped through five or six of the usual suspects in record time, even managing to look at a couple of Tribune and Gannett newspapers which have up until now been completely barricaded behind full-screen ad blitzes.
Not only are there fewer ads to sit through, the pages actually load like lightning, making it possible to see if there's anything worth reading before it makes the transition from news to history.
There's a lot more to this argument, and the giants of the Information Age are trying to figure out which side they're on. Consumers should do the same. Anyone who regularly reads, uses, or otherwise benefits from a site should be willing to look at a few ads or pay a few dollars.
But the reality is that, thanks to ad blockers, no one needs to voluntarily submit to a daily blizzard of ads that obscure the content and render the whole experience an exercise in frustration. It's up to publishers, advertisers, and marketers to figure out how to put out an appealing and profitable product.
Build it, as they old saying has it, and they will come.