The UK Government has offered support to newspapers and other industries impacted by the increased use of adblockers with John Whittingdale, the UK culture secretary, declaring some of the practices employed by these companies as being akin to a “modern-day protection racket” in a speech at the Oxford Media Convention.
Ten years ago, the music and film industries faced a threat to their very existence from online copyright infringement by illegal file-sharing or pirate sites.
Today, adblocking potentially poses a similar threat.
Ad-funded or paid subscription: content cannot be entirely free
An important point which was highlighted by Whittingdale was that of the consumer value chain – companies cannot provide services entirely for free; there needs to be a value realisation at some point in the chain. Removing advertising as a monetisation technique will simply push content providers to move to a paid-for model and fundamentally change the Internet as we know it.
[Adblocking] is depriving many websites and platforms of legitimate revenue. It is having an impact across the value chain, and it presents a challenge that has to be overcome. Because – quite simply – if people don’t pay in some way for content, then that content will eventually no longer exist.
Better ads rather than all ads?
Key to the continued adblocking discussion (as covered many times previously on ADTEKR) is why consumers have turned to adblockers at all. Continuing, Whittingdale stated:
Industry research suggests that consumers do not dislike online advertising per se.
What they dislike is online advertising that interrupts what they are doing. They don’t like video or audio that plays automatically as soon as a web page has loaded. Or pop-ups that get in the way of their browsing experience.
As we at ADTEKR have been pushing since this debate first began, the advertising industry (including publishers) needs to treat this as a wake-up call. Adblocking and the current sentiment from consumers should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat. It is a declaration by consumers that “enough is enough” when it comes to intrusive advertising. Whittingdale is clearly of the opinion that an end to adblocking should not mean a wholesale return to all forms of advertising, intrusive or otherwise, but rather, the advertising industry needs to reform and improve advertising to remove the need for consumers to install an adblocker.
Pay to display: “A modern-day protection racket”
One area where Whittingdale was particularly scathing was the attempts by the creators of adblock software to self-police “acceptable” advertising; often involving the creation of whitelists to which advertisers can pay to be included. In Whittingdale’s words:
Meanwhile, some of the ad-blocking companies are drawing up their own rules of acceptable advertising or offering to white list providers in return for payment. Many see such practices as akin to a modern day protection racket.
We at ADTEKR do think there is an important distinction to be drawn here. Where adblockers allow a payment by any advertiser in exchange for whitelisting adverts, we would argue that the adblocker is failing entirely in its attempts to actually honour consumer choice. “Pay to display” should not be the approach adopted by the industry and undermines the genuine conversation between advertisers and consumers that needs to happen.
However, where adblockers are attempting to bring together the industry to create “acceptable advertising” guidelines, we believe this should be encouraged, provided it is done so in a correct manner. Arguably, an industry body such as the IAB should be taking the role at the forefront of this conversation rather than the adblockers. However, in the absence of wider industry leadership, we should applaud the adblockers who are attempting to create a framework which focuses on better advertising creative and honours consumer choice.
Not a ban; a conversation
Importantly, Whittingdale is not calling for an outright ban on adblockers. Rather, he has promised to establish a round table discussion group to work through the major issues faced by all elements of the advertising ecosystem. Subsequently he will consider what role (if any) the UK Government needs to play going forward.
His current thoughts on regulation and the role the Government should play?
My natural political instinct is that self-regulation and co-operation is the key to resolving these challenges, and I know the digital sector prides itself on doing just that. But Government stands ready to help in any way we can – as long as this does not erode consumer choice.
We at ADTEKR will keep you informed as this process continues; for now, it is very much wait and see.