The German start-up behind the controversial AdBlock Plus software successfully defended its business in a German court last week.
The browser plug-in, which has been downloaded 400 million times, stops advertising formats from being displayed as users surf the web – and it’s just one of the tools internet users can use to filter out ads from their browsing experience.
That number of downloads is alarming enough, but the trend is even more pronounced among younger audiences, with research conducted for Adobe finding that levels of adblocking usage had hit 54 per cent of male US users aged 18-29.
It goes without saying that this is a problem. It’s yet another headache for publishers, who are struggling to build sustainable business models in a digital world. And it adds to a lack of trust among advertisers, who already fret about visibility, fraud and a lack of accountability in online media.
This isn’t just about new technology and the habits of a group of early adopters. It hints at a more existential threat to the advertising industry, and the brands and publishers that depend on it. Because it turns out that people really, really don’t like advertising.
As eyeballs continue to move from desktop to mobile, there’s an assumption that advertising money will inexorably follow. But as Russell Davies pointed out nearly three years ago, it could be that people love their phones precisely because they are (relatively) free of annoying and intrusive ad formats.
All of this helps make the case for brands to stop bombarding customers with ads, and instead to invest in content marketing. By switching from broadcasting interruptive adverts to publishing useful or entertaining content, the argument goes, brands can earn a place in the minds of customers, building awareness, salience and loyalty.
That’s easy to say. The issue, however, is that making content that is genuinely useful and entertaining is hard.
The challenge for brands (and agencies) is that the bar for what customers value as great content is so high. Your competition isn’t other brands in your category, or even other brands at all. It’s every piece of content being created, uploaded and shared, by anyone, anywhere in the world. It’s everything from a live stream of a freefall parachute jump from outer space, to pictures from my old schoolfriend’s wedding on Facebook.
D&AD, the organisation that exists to celebrate great creativity in advertising, launched an interesting variation on the ad blocking debate last week. The D&AD Ad Filter is a browser plug-in that uses the same technology to stop ads being served, but instead replaces them with award-winning ads. As Olivier Apers, the creative director behind the idea, explains: “We wanted to demonstrate that people don’t hate advertising, they just hate bad advertising.”
Content marketing is one way that brands can connect with customers who are disengaged from advertising formats. But it only works if the content is genuinely useful – bad content is every bit as irritating as bad advertising.
Jon Davie is UK CEO at Zone. He tweets @JonDavie