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Will Online Video Ad Loads Ever Get LEANer? Don’t Bet on It

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Ad blockers have become a hot topic for publishers and advertisers. According to a report published in August 2015 by PageFair, in partnership with Adobe, there are currently 198 million active ad block users around the world, 45 million of whom are in the U.S. The preceding 12 months were a busy time for ad blocking, as use grew by 48 percent in the U.S. The report estimates that blockers cost publishers $22 billion in 2015.

What people make of this falls into two camps, with no common ground in between. Either people are tired of feeling abused by flashing, autoplaying ads that track our every click, and welcome ad blockers as a sanity-saving device, or they feel that ad blockers rob publishers of rightful money, and that viewers are stealing content when they cut out the ads.

In the middle of this, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) issued a surprising mea culpa. “We messed up,” wrote Scott Cunningham, senior vice president of technology and ad operations at IAB. “As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience.”

The “we” he was referring to was the ad industry.

“The fast, scalable systems of targeting users with ever-heftier advertisements have slowed down the public internet and drained more than a few batteries. We were so clever and so good at it that we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves. This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience,” he wrote.

As a response to this, the IAB created the L.E.A.N. ads program; that stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Noninvasive. The idea is that the industry that helped create the climate that led to the rise of ad blockers needs to do the right thing and create lighter ads that respect viewer choices. If ads are nonintrusive and don’t slow page loads, viewers will be less inclined to block them.

That’s well and good. It’s curious, though, that advertisers only started caring about heavy ad loads when viewers finally got the technology to do something about it.

If you’re old enough, you remember when TV ad breaks were 2 minutes long. Now, they can last as long as 10 minutes during series finales. Every inch of elevators and buses is covered in ads. Wherever you turn in a city there’s an ad trying to grab your attention. I don’t see anyone concerned about those ads.

While the IAB is encouraging leaner ads, I get press releases almost every day from companies working on ad blocker solutions. Call them blocker blockers: Companies are looking for advanced solutions that will let them show video ads to viewers even when ad blockers are installed. What happened to respecting viewer choice?

I spoke to Cunningham and asked about that. He doesn’t see it as an either/or choice, and brought up AdBlock Plus, a German company hated in advertising circles. Not only is AdBlock Plus the world’s most popular blocker, with 60 million active users, it’s taken the unusual step of letting publishers pay to get around its own blocking. Cunningham called that “highway robbery,” and it does seem like a protection racket. It also seems like a bad business model: If I were using AdBlock Plus and it started showing me ads, I’d look for a new blocker.

But that’s only one blocker out of many. It’s hard to say who would win an escalating tech war—the blockers or the publishers—but I don’t think it’s the viewers. Rather than keeping up the fight, I’d like to see the ad community lay down its weapons. If someone wants to block your ads, then deal with it. Rather than creating advanced blocker blocking technology, focus on creating lightweight nonintrusive, non-autoplaying ads that people actually want to watch. Only creativity can win this war.

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Will Ad Loads Ever Get LEANer? Don’t Bet on It.”

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