By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:41 am
Last week, I blogged about a post over at Windows IT Pro that posited that all browsers would include ad-blocking as a standard feature within five years, and that it would be turned on by default. My post inspired some interesting debate both on this site and off it. I also included a poll: A plurality of the people who took it thought ads should be blocked by default, and a majority said browsers should include ad blocking as a standard feature.
I still don’t see any scenario under which the companies behind today’s widely-used browsers start blocking ads automatically. Google is the biggest company in Web advertising, Microsoft is spending a fortune to take Google on in that field, Apple is a major consumer advertiser, Mozilla and Opera make millions of dollars a year from the searches performed on their browsers’ home pages. They all simply have too much to lose on an ad-free Web.
Of course, something unforeseen could always happen. Maybe all these browsers will lose favor to one or more from one or more companies not so profoundly invested in Web advertising. Let’s engage in a bit of Twilight Zonesque speculation about what might happen if ad-blocking did become the default state of the Web. (At least for most folks–in a world in which some people will still be using IE6 in 2014, we’re not going to get to 100% ad blockage no matter what happens.)
As the proprietor of a Web site that’s mostly supported by advertising, I can’t claim to be a dispassionate bystander here…but I hope that at least some of the scenarios I outline below (not all of which are mutually exclusive) make clear that I’m not trying to prove a particular point.
Scenario #1: Ads would go away. There is, of course, precedent for the idea of browsers instituting automatic ad-blocking: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Web was overrun was truly aggravating pop-up and pop-under ads (remember X10?). Then browsers started blocking them by default, and they basically died as a form of advertising. (Every once in awhile, I turn off ad-blocking just for yucks. I see a few pop-ups–Netflix still seems to like ’em– but just a few.) If all browsers instituted blocking of all ads that was as effective as that of the Firefox add-in Adblock Plus, maybe ads would simply disappear. (More on the implications of that in a moment.) However, other scenarios are far more likely, such as…
Scenario #2: Ads would get more annoying. Traditional pop-ups may be largely extinct, but the idea of covering up content with advertising didn’t go away–in fact, advertising companies simply came up with new ways to cover up content (such as the page peel) which appeared right within your primary browsing window, where they’re harder to defeat. The prestitial or roadblock, which occupies the entire page, was also borne of the demise of pop-ups. If Adblock Plus-type blocking proved effective, advertisers might come back at us with new in-your-face formats that couldn’t be blocked, at least at first.
Scenario #3: Ads would get less annoying. The surest strategy for preventing people from blocking ads is to make them useful and/or pleasant. And at the same time that pesky new ad formats appeared on the Web early this decade, Google was in the process of becoming a billion-dollar behemoth based on tiny little text ads that appear next to its search results.Maybe at least some advertisers would react to hardcore ad blocking by turning Web advertising into something that all but the most obsessive anti-advertising absolutists would tolerate, if not actively welcome.
Scenario #4: Ads would work their way into content. The emergence of DVRs that make it a cinch to ignore TV ads without leaving the living room for the kitchen or bathroom helped usher in the icky era of prime-time product placement we now live in. Product placement is presumably the toughest type of advertising to block–if I were to suddenly start rhapsodizing about the Potato Salad P1000 laptop in every other post, you would get immediately suspicious, but your browser probably wouldn’t notice. Product placement already exists on the Web, and already causes controversy. Actually, now that I think about it, this is less of a scenario and more of a reality–but one which would accelerate if traditional ads went away.
Scenario #5: People would choose to turn ad-blocking off. Eighteen percent of the people who took my poll said that they didn’t think browsers should incorporate Web-blocking as a standard feature, because it would destroy the Web as we know it. Maybe those folks would turn it off. Maybe they’d be joined by lots of others, if formerly ad-supported content started to vanish,. Right now, though, this scenario seems almost as implausible as ads being blocked by default in the first place does.
Scenario #6: Professional content dies almost immediately. Let’s say that almost all Web advertising goes away, and consumers don’t want to pay for much of anything. Isn’t the most likely outcome that nearly all content produced by real people doing it full time goes away? With the magazine and newspaper businesses on the ropes, wouldn’t most of the iconic American content brands that didn’t make TV shows or movies simply have to fold, or at least grind themselves down to a form that could be produced by a handful of poorly-paid people, possibly in some other country?
Scenario #7: Volunteers and charity cases would take over journalism. Some of the best blogging being done anywhere isn’t done for money. (Related note: Many of the people who comment on my posts here are at least as smart and articulate as I am, even though they aren’t in it for the money.) People are already wondering whether media titans such as the New York Times and Boston Globe should consider becoming nonprofit institutions. Consumer Reports (whose editorial director, Kevin McKean is my friend and former boss) is a nonprofit institution, and has one of the few large sites that lots of people pay for. If Web advertising went away, maybe most of the big for-pay sites we know would disappear, but the slack would be taken up by folks who weren’t in it to turn a profit, and who could seek donations in NPR-like fashion. Or just do it for the sheer pleasure.
Scenario #8: Professional content would adjust, and flourish. It may be a scary time for people in the (ahem) media business, but it’s really a pretty resilient group of industries. Radio didn’t kill magazines and newspapers; TV didn’t kill radio; cable didn’t kill broadcast TV. If Hollywood can figure out how to pay Sylvester Stallone $20 million to star in a movie I don’t even remember hearing about without going bankrupt, maybe old media can come up with a survival strategy even if its principal source of revenue disappears overnight. For instance, it’s not utterly inconceivable that…
Scenario #9: Paywalls would go up, successfully. If advertisers can’t pay for Web content, most content providers have only one other source of income to go to: the consumers who do the consuming. Right now, there’s plenty of talk about sites charging consumers, but nobody has a good answer to the question which confronts nearly every content site on the planet: “How can your site get people to pay if all of your many worthy competitors continue to be free?” If every site lost all nearly all of its advertising revenue–which is presumably what would happen if nearly all ads were blocked–every site would have a profound incentive to start charging, all at the same time. In other words, they’d get a do-over on the decision they made in the mid-1990s not to charge for Web content.
Scenario #10: Even more ads everywhere else. If almost nobody sees ads on the Web, almost no marketer will advertise on the Web. But they’ll still advertise. The death of Web marketing could mean even more TV commercials, even more billboards, twice as many ads before the movie you paid $10 to see, and more ads in places that previously provided a respite from commercialism. After all, it’s a lot easier to eliminate Web ads than it is to avoid ones plastered alongside the highway, affixed to your shopping cart, or hovering in the sky.
Any thoughts on the likelihood that any of these scenarios would come to pass if ads went away? How about scenarios I missed?