A cold freeze is settling in. Not just around my toes on the platform in the morning but between the advertising industry and the digital community. The US Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) has given the cold-shoulder to Adblock Plus, an app that allows users to block ads on their mobile phones, which has been uninvited the from the IAB annual leadership meeting that’s set to take place in California later this month.
Adblocking is a symptom of the digital community’s distaste for the advertising industry’s flagrant disregard for user experience when it comes to digital and it has risen over the past 2-3 years to become a major thorn in the side of media owners, advertisers and agencies. 15% of British adults use ad blocking software and the phenomenon grew 41% globally in the last 12 months stifling an estimated $22bn globally in lost advertising revenue in 2015. As media owners and technology developers battle it out, it feels like it is worth taking a step back to appreciate the deeper causes of this winter of discontent.
Advertising was born in the mass marketing era and it remains incredibly powerful in that context and for that use case. Very few people object to commercial messaging when the target audience is clearly broad and the message is careful designed for public consumption. We accept advertising when it appears in mass media because the message is designed for mass appeal and, to a greater or lesser extent, we appreciate the public service that businesses provide by paying media owners to enable some media to be shared freely to a large audience. Advertising is an inherently public declaration which is sometimes gregarious, sometimes sensitive but always culturally relevant from a brand to mass audiences that are in earshot whether that’s via broadcast messages on TV, radio or via PR or to more niche but essentially still public audiences via social media. At its best, advertising is universally inclusive and invites us to celebrate our shared experiences.
However, the more digital media has become mobile the more intimate it has become and it has taken on a very different cultural role. We configure our personal digital devices with our preferences, we teach them our tastes and they reward us with a personal blend of content curated from the impossibly complex noise of digital morass media which we then consume in private moments of our choosing. We are charmed by the digital content we consume because it is exquisitely relevant and satisfying. This is undoubtedly a narcissistic pleasure as, by definition, our chosen content constantly reinforces our taste and rarely challenges our opinions. Our digital media is private so we expect our digital content to be personal in its message, its targeting and its timing.
We used to call it the difference between Push and Pull media but, unfortunately, we never learned to treat them as such. This is why people are turning increasingly to adblocking technology to enforce the difference which is fundamental. We should recognise that there is increasingly a natural division between these two styles of communication.
Advertising should be reserved for audiences comprised of the predominantly unknown that are, to all intents and purposes, public. The primary intention behind advertising should therefore be to publicise and not to sell. In contrast, marketing, which is now predominantly digital, has grown through the integration of business information with consumer data into a more holistic expression of the purpose of a business. Marketing had expanded to include the delivery of all commercial activity and its primary purpose has to be to increase revenue from customers and retain them; effectively sales. The concepts, techniques and tactics of advertising will be as different from those of (digital) marketing as public speaking is different from conversation. This is not a value judgment, one is not better than the other; they are just different.
The rise of adblocking is an entirely understandable backlash against the use of personal media space for impersonal messaging. Just as personal messaging on broadcast media is shockingly inappropriate and only to be used with extreme caution, adblocking is a legitimate response to the inappropriate use of mass messaging in increasingly intimate digital contexts. The tools of digital marketing give us the capability to build personal relationships with those that give us permission to do so and they should only be used under these circumstances. I wince when I hear media owners promoting expansive digital advertising formats, particularly on mobile. I am convinced that every expansive mobile impression will soon be counter-acted by an equal and opposite blocked ad impression and the two sides will lock into a stand off to rival the Cold War.
There is a difference between marketing and advertising. Both have their place but the more intimate the medium, the more inappropriate it is for the classic advertising approach. As digital media goes mobile it is becoming increasingly intimate so advertisers must eventually learn to stop treating it like mass media.