Ad Blockers and Mafia Shockers

09/05/2016 11:29 | Updated 09 May 2016

The Protection Racket is an old, pure form of criminality.

It evolved in places with little policing and even less insurance cover. There was no way to avoid a visit from barbarian raiders - other than to pay another set of thugs, or maybe the same gang, to leave you alone - for now.

The Protection Racket is a business model that evolves to fit all contexts. The better ones move with the times, make the most of technology and try to look 'legitimate' on some level.
Ad Blockers are set to become one of the best. And Ad Blockers create opportunities for other gangs, not just the Blocker makers, to shake everyone down.

Depending on what numbers you believe, nearly 40% of mobile net users block ads in some form - especially in North America. Even once you push that figure right down, as the most tech savvy tend to be over represented in tech oriented surveys, Ad Blockers satisfy a need for at least 200 million people worldwide.

This need is one all marketers, especially those in media, should be ashamed exists. Most adverts always have been poorly targeted, badly conceived and just something in the way of what consumers want to do. The Digital world has made all this worse.

Browsing, especially on mobile, has declined into parasitical dysfunction harder than a glob of bubble gum rolled down a hill of hornets nests and broken glass. It never was great, but the desperate need for media owners to replace print media pounds with digital media pence, fast - means more ads.

'Ad Tech' turbocharges the rot.

The spray and pray ad tech buffet means people are paying, and waiting, to receive things they not only did not ask for, but are irrelevant. Up to half of mobile data, especially in Europe, is taken up by adverts less targeted than an SA80 on Full Auto pointed upwards by a disinterested ground sloth. At midnight.

Most ad tech is about volume, price and speed - not context. What is extra dangerous is that it can look something like successful at first glance.

Spray and pray marketing damages brands badly but month on month delivers the numbers. The volume of spraying means a lot less praying is needed than ever before. Sure, a lot of those views are fictional given the billions in fraud and invisible inventory but who wants to have that conversation with a client?

Enter the Ad Blocker.

It means faster browsing, better battery life, fewer crashes and a nicer experience. Win, win, win and more win. But the developer who made the Blocker and gave it away for free has to eat, too. What to do? Time for a shakedown.

The Mafioso Menu is adorably predictable:

Strong arm brands to submit themselves to a 'White List' of 'acceptable' ads.

'Encourage' people to 'Donate' to their favourite sites, perhaps even monthly - inclusive of a little facilitation fee for the lovely people that made it all possible.

Offer a back door deal to ensure the Blockers work less well on certain sites.
Strangely, some of the biggest providers of syndicated brand content are allowed through by the biggest Ad Blockers. There are also reports big Blockers are letting through some ads on Axel Springer properties.

Maybe use a charity tie up to show what magic happens when Ad Blockers let you through. The partnership was with Amnesty International, to increase awareness of Internet censorship but irony is long dead.

You do not need any understanding of business, or be a fan of gangster films to see where this is going.

Larger marketers and publishers will hurt more from blocking, and pay to get past it. They will pay for more expensive, harder to block ad units. Native partnerships with publishers. Technical countermeasures - and sometimes, Protection Money to make the Blocker barbarians go away.

Ad Blockers know how powerful they are as a broadcast media channel - if you can unblock all charity content for a day, what about all content from a brand? It will be more likely to get noticed for sure.

Consumers will not care about the hypocrisy.

Some wacktivists will vent via their mid afternoon Twitter feed. But for real people, a product that blocks the majority of interruptive marcomms, except when it allows a charity, or a popular soft drink, or maybe an airline through sometimes will feel fine.

These gangsters are gentle. Only the richest and cuddliest will be allowed on their White List - and few overall. Not only would a big list annoy consumers, it would reduce the value of the media space (yes media space) the Ad Blockers are selling. A lot of shifty operators will get cut out - making consumer experience better. Small brands, agencies and startups will be smothered, making the world even less fair.

The Blockers are extracting value between the purchase of an ad unit and its appearance on a channel. They sit there like electric trolls under a bridge of dumb ad tech, exacting a (small-ish) tax on brands that have paid to appear on the other side. They are selling the right to buy media space they do not own.

No risk, all reward. Criminal genius. What about the other Godfathers hungry for a protection payoff from brands, agencies and consumers?

First in line are media owners.

The majority of media companies viewed the Internet not as the distribution medium of the future, but just another way to promote an existing product. Pay walls came late, and other than for premium content providers, few have worked.

The Times pay wall stabilised print circulation (a noble aim) but does not drive online revenue. Ad Blockers give all those that missed the digital boat a chance to force the issue - turn off that Blocker or smash straight into a pay wall. Another Protection Racket writ large.

The fiscally challenged Guardian tries to guilt Ad Block users into 'Supporting us another way'. In Germany, Bild blocks Blocker users completely. In the UK Trinity Mirror is starting to block the Blockers on big regional titles. The Wall Street Journal may be next.

Second in the queue to claim their due are telecoms companies. Legally they will have the hardest time making the most of Blocker blackmail. But have the most to gain.

Remember that boring but vital net neutrality debate? What if marcomms traffic, which is taking up more and more of that expensive infrastructure was slowed down, or outright blocked if no-one paid to let it through?

Those that pay could be consumers as well as brands. NYU's Scott Galloway - a man worth listening to, has asserted that "Advertising is becoming a tax only poor people pay" . So what about 15% extra on your mobile tariff to be Ad free at carrier level? Or even 25%? And what would a big brand pay to ensure access to millions of a carrier's customers? Quite a lot.

So what does it all mean?

Ad Blockers are not the apocalypse marketers have been led to assume. Any decently run Protection Racket gives a good scare but then squeezes, not strangles, its victims. They have to keep you alive for another payday.

Think of Ad Blockers as a media channel and it will hurt less. A lot of media is heavily overpriced based on funny numbers and clownish assumptions. One more market distortion when there are already so many will not spoil the party.

Making better content that people will want to see and share will help sneak past the Blocker Brigade. Media owners becoming more like the old New Yorker, where adverts were curated as part of and a complement to the experience - rather than a Myspace miasma of irrelevant mass served nonsense would make Blocking less attractive. The New York Times does this well. Their native Netflix work is amongst the NYT's most popular content full stop - editorial or not.

But there are bigger problems.

Most people would avoid most marketing messages if they could, but marketing pays for all the services we get online for free. Most marketing of the digital era has been far more interruptive and annoying than anything that came before. History and learned consumer behaviour cannot be changed, no matter how much great work marketers do.

Ad Blockers are a clever, blatant and shameless Protection Racket. Extorting brands, agencies, publishers and carriers alike. Consumers will join them soon.

Big brands will find a way to get through - they always do. The dodgy, the random and the ugly will have a harder time. So will the small, the new and the independent. Shutting out the little guy will be the biggest legacy, and foulest crime of the Ad Blocker Gang.

But for now, most people get a better experience by using a Blocker - no matter what the consequences are for the wider world. Sadly, this gang is here to stay and it will only get tougher.