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How the Audience Seizes Control with Ad Blocking Tools Post-Advertising Age


“Ad blocking is not something we control; it’s something the consumer controls.”

Mike Donahue, ad agency veteran and former executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies is talking to a roomful of leading marketers at the Wharton School of Business.

“If we don’t start to change this business,” Donahue continues. Then he pauses for a moment and takes a different tack. “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a lot less,” he concludes.

Ad blocking is just one sign of the recent popular rebellion against advertising. Such signs suggest irrelevance is where much of the ad business has been headed for the past 20 years.

Donahue was one of many industry leaders expressing deep concern at the recent annual meeting of Wharton’s Future of Advertising Program, whose global advisory board includes academics, agency executives, clients, experts from the major digital platforms (like Google and Facebook) and others. The program is one of the country’s most important forums for marketing thinking.

Blocking ads is the most visible and (to the industry) most terrifying symptom of the powerful phenomenon at the heart of the Internet: audience control. The Internet has exploded across the globe primarily because it gives audiences unprecedented and irreversible control to choose the media they will consume – how, when, from whom, and in whatever form they wish.

The Internet has thoroughly revolutionized the media business. Now it’s doing the same to everything else, giving people more control over their cars, homes, offices, refrigerators, thermostats, and so on. Such control is the addictive gift the Internet gives.

An embarrassment of audience antagonism

Audience control has created a uniquely embarrassing moment for adland. The audience (formerly known as “consumers” or “users”) has a stunning set of digital ad-avoidance tools that includes DVRs, streaming audio and video, news-aggregation widgets, ad blockers, browser extensions that disable the ad industry’s privacy-invading, data-gathering trackers, and lots more.

This puts advertising in the same boat as “real” media companies – entertainment and news outfits like NBC Universal, Disney, Netflix, The New York Times, Def Jam, Random House, and so on. If you don’t create stuff that really matters to people – stuff they actually want to see and hear – you will be ignored, avoided, and blocked.

If you don’t create stuff that matters to people, you will be ignored, avoided, & blocked via @KirkCheyfitz Click To Tweet

It was not until late last summer, with the steady rise of ad-blocking software, that the ad business was finally forced to admit it had a problem.

Digital advertising’s trade group – the Interactive Advertising Bureau – first blamed everyone but the ad business, declaring ad-blocking “highway robbery.” In adland’s self-deluding narrative, “consumers” signed an unwritten, perpetual contract in the 1950s requiring everyone to tolerate annoying, interruptive ads in exchange for free content. The audience, however, can’t recall having made such a stupid deal. The IAB soon turned tail, declaring the ad industry had “messed up” by ignoring the audience’s needs and desires. The confession sounded hollow, frankly. (If you’re curious, judge it for yourself.) IAB chief Randall Rothenberg recently doubled down on IAB’s hubristic message, accusing ad blockers of trying to “constrict … freedom of speech.”

Waking up decades after the alarm goes off

There is, of course, no excuse for this mess. A hint to the audience’s insurrection actually arrived some 17 years ago with the Cluetrain Manifesto, a declaration of the sweeping social and commercial revolution the web was spawning. Cluetrain’s authors thought they were stating the obvious, but their manifesto and subsequent book created a sensation.


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The manifesto set forth 95 theses – new rules of digital media and the new audiences being collected by the Internet.

Thesis 74: “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.”

Thesis 75: “If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for  a change.”

This was one of the first of an uncountable number of warnings issued over time to the media industry, including the ad business.

It was 2001 when Yoram Wind, a globally known marketing expert, first wrote about the rise of “empowered and skeptical” audiences online. Wind, known to everyone as Jerry, is the senior Wharton professor and consultant to industry who founded and leads the Wharton Future of Advertising Program.

Wind sees ad blocking as the audience’s reasonable response to “dumb, destructive ads that are meaningless.” He believes the industry must welcome ad blockers and try to make them smarter so audiences can still choose to see marketing messages that meet their personal interests. He has a low opinion of one industry response, which has been to encourage technology that defeats ad blocking so people can be forced to see ads. “The thing they want to avoid doing is trying to block the ad blockers,” Wind says. “It’s the dumbest thing they can do.”

The rest of the media business has been struggling longer to cope with the consequences of advancing audience control. Half the newspaper business has disappeared because the audience learned to curate its own news online. The music business failed to sell music in the form the audience wanted; digital streaming took over by allowing people to compile personalized playlists, one song at a time.

The wake-up calls keep arriving. But the backers of traditional ad-supported TV, the lifeblood of the old ad industry, seem to remain holdouts, firmly believing TV spots are largely immune to the consequences of audience control. They remind me of climate-change deniers on a hot winter day.

During a keynoter at CES, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke called advertising without TV spots “unthinkable,” Advertising Age reports. Burke added, “People are going to want to watch great television on a great television set.” Yes, Steve, but that doesn’t mean they’ll much longer tolerate having the great experience continually interrupted by Viagra, Geico, and even stupider advertisers.

The latest news is that ad-supported TV and arbitrary bundles of paid programming on cable are under heavy assault from the web. To make up for falling ratings and rates, both cable and broadcast increased ad time per hour. Now the audience is forcing a retreat to fewer ads. The revolution is being led by Netflix, Amazon, and the like, all of which give people what they want: Complete control. No interruptions. No stupid TV spots. No ads at all, in fact.

Hey, kids, what time is it?

The news media business got theirs. Then the music business; the book business. Now it’s advertising’s turn.

This is not a positioning, messaging, or PR problem. This is a fundamental product problem. Translated into the language of advertising, “The consumers are rejecting our products.”

As everyone with any sense is saying, the time is past due to put the audience first. That may sound easy; it isn’t. It means that it’s far more important to find out what really matters to the audience than it is to ask a client what message it wants to deliver. Ad blockers exist because too many clients and agencies want to deliver too many messages that don’t matter to a single real person.

If you want to serve your clients, you must be a ferocious advocate for their audiences.

The Internet uncorked the genie of audience control. It is never going back in the bottle. It’s time to deliver really valuable experiences to “empowered and skeptical” audiences. It’s time for compelling stories, honest information, standing for something more than the next sale and being something more than a series of product claims.

Welcome, as I always say these days, to the Post-Advertising Age.

Perspectives from industry

As ad-blocking grows, how will brands get their messages seen and heard? Some industry experts share their thoughts:

Adam Penenberg, leading tech journalist; professor of journalism at New York University; and author of numerous books, including Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves:

“The use of ad blockers has more than tripled over the past three years to 181 million users today and the growth rate is torrential. Think about it. People hate ads so much they’re willing to go to the trouble of downloading a chunk of software just so they can escape them. That’s a bad position to be in.

“Here’s a thought: Don’t hijack my screen (desktop, mobile, and otherwise) with unwanted come-ons in windows that require the dexterity of a mohel or a diamond cutter to close. It’s lazy and you’re just engendering ill will. The trick is to give me something I want or might like. Don’t rely on lazy ad banners and inane TV spots. Add value to my life. Tell me something I should know or would enjoy hearing about. In exchange I’ll grant you my interest – until you get boring or ask me for money like a subway panhandler. If you publish an article that is like real journalism, warts and all, that reveals something intriguing about the world, I might even buy your thingamajig.

“Either that or pay me. My time and attention have value.”

Don’t rely on lazy ad banners and inane TV spots. Add value to my life says @Penenberg #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

Rob Rasmussen, independent creative consultant; former chief creative officer, Story Worldwide; and creator of the legendary Beta-7 digital campaign for Sega (named “non-TV campaign of the decade” in The Book of Tens):

“The answer is simple: stop behaving like a used-car salesman. Even if ads were not blocked, they tend to fall on deaf ears. It is all about attraction versus persuasion. Know thyself and act accordingly. In doing so your brand becomes the message and you will develop a fervent fan base that will eagerly seek out your goods and services. Those fans themselves become your ads and tell everyone they know.”

Benjamin Crook, marketing director for Unilever (USA) at The Baking, Cooking and Spreads Company:

“First, you need a powerful insight into a core part of your audiences’ lives – a struggle, a joy, or a fear. Next, you must portray it so vividly and truthfully that people see themselves in the portrayal and react emotionally. That strong emotional tension needs a fix or release. And this is the most important part: deliver the solution in a way that is interesting, useful and timely.

“Traditional ways of talking at consumers are no longer useful; they are intrusive. Brands must now play a key role in people’s lives to help resolve their deeply felt needs at critical moments – when the tension is most in need of resolution. Brands must be both relevant and timely to build a relationship and ultimately brand affinity.”

Brands must be relevant & timely to build a relationship & ultimately brand affinity via @BenCrook Click To Tweet

Joseph Plummer, senior figure in advertising research; adjunct professor of marketing, Columbia University; and former chief research officer, Advertising Research Foundation:

“My concern long-term is more with what I call ‘mental ad blocking.’ This comes from the continual dependence by marketers and their agencies on a mental model of advertising called ‘interrupt and repeat.’ This was the model that emerged with the rise of paid advertising in mass media, particularly radio and television in the 20th century.

“The cluttered, interrupting nature of this model, both online and offline, together with the poor quality of most ads, pushes consumers into ‘mental ad blocking.’ I worry this can lead to a loss of respect and trust for brands across all possible platforms.

“I am encouraged that more and more brands are adopting a mental model of ‘engagement,’ which respects the customer, is open to two-way dialogue and understands the creative interaction of content and context. This has led to three new ways to think about advertising in the 21st century:

  1. Advertising as a service. Brand communication that helps customers solve problems, improve their daily lives, help others improve their lives and learn new things is being used more and more because it has goals beyond exposure and transaction only.
  1. Storytelling. Topics and experiences that matter to customers are integrated (or connected) in the brand stories in meaningful ways.
  1. Advertising on demand. Some brands are recognizing that exceptional advertisements are valued due to their helpfulness or entertainment value. In this new approach, consumers are actively looking for or sharing with others ads they value. They are engaging with valued ads when they want to for their purposes.”

Disclosure: Cheyfitz is a member of the Global Advisory Board of Wharton’s Future of Advertising Program.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute