Is Ad Blocker Going to Ruin $1 Billion Worth of Presidential Campaign Ads?

Online advertising is a great way to reach voters—unless they’re among the millions who’ve made themselves unreachable.

Can ad-blocking threaten the $1 billion industry for online political ads?
Zach Montellaro
Zach Montellaro
Add to Briefcase
Zach Montellaro
Nov. 9, 2015, 8 p.m.

It seems like a per­fect match: Cam­paigns are des­per­ate for cost-ef­fect­ive ways to get their mes­sage to voters; the web­sites those voters vis­it are des­per­ate for ad rev­en­ue to stay afloat. And it’s a luc­rat­ive com­bin­a­tion—the 2016 pres­id­en­tial con­tenders alone are ex­pen­ded to shell out $1 bil­lion.

But that big-money mar­riage de­pends on view­ers ac­tu­ally see­ing the ads that cam­paigns have pur­chased, and thanks to ad-block­ers—cheap (or even free) soft­ware that screen out ads without view­ers ever see­ing them—that’s no longer a sure­fire pro­pos­i­tion.

For cam­paigns, the pre­val­ence of this soft­ware raises a troub­ling pro­spect: What if they’re spend­ing big on Web ads to reach a cer­tain audi­ence, but that audi­ence is auto­mat­ic­ally tun­ing them out? And for web­sites and ad makers look­ing to cash in on those ad-buys, it cre­ates a chal­lenge: How do they con­vince buy­ers to pay for space on their sites know­ing that some users will be able to fil­ter it out en­tirely?

“I think it is something every­one needs to be con­cerned with,” said Matt De­Luca, vice pres­id­ent of di­git­al strategy at En­gage, a di­git­al agency that cre­ates and dis­trib­utes ads for their cli­ents. “To just write it off, I think, is just neg­li­gent to the cli­ent.”

The num­ber of users alone makes ad-block­ing soft­ware dif­fi­cult to ig­nore: A re­port re­leased by Adobe and Page­Fair, a com­pany that works to re­place ads blocked by ad-block­ers, found that ad-block­ing is be­ing used by 45 mil­lion In­ter­net users in the United States alone.

A re­port from the Re­u­ters In­sti­tute for the Study of Journ­al­ism, based out of the Uni­versity of Ox­ford, paints an even bleak­er pic­ture for Amer­ic­an ad­vert­isers and pub­lish­ers: 47 per­cent of Amer­ic­an In­ter­net users in their sur­vey re­por­ted reg­u­larly us­ing ad-block­ing soft­ware to screen out on­line ads, and roughly three-in-10 will “act­ively avoid sites where ads in­ter­fere with the con­tent.”

So what are the in­dus­tries’ play­ers do­ing to en­sure the ads they’re pay­ing for are get­ting viewed?

For one, the Me­dia Rat­ing Coun­cil, a co­ali­tion of me­dia or­gan­iz­a­tions, and the In­ter­act­ive Ad­vert­ising Bur­eau, a trade as­so­ci­ation for on­line ad­vert­ising, have set a stand­ard for what ex­actly a “view­able im­pres­sion” for an ad on a web­site is.

The IAB’s web­site de­scribes a view­able im­pres­sion for a desktop ad as “50 per­cent of [the ad’s] pixels are in view for a min­im­um of one second” while al­low­ing for vari­ations de­pend­ing on the size of the ad. For desktop video the stand­ard is 50 per­cent of the ad is view­able for at least two seconds.

From there, first-party veri­fic­a­tion sys­tems owned by ad­vert­ising plat­forms like Google and Face­book and third-party ser­vices—like com­Score, Nielsen, and Moat—meas­ure what per­cent­age of the ads served are ac­tu­ally view­able im­pres­sions.

“Al­most every single veri­fic­a­tion ser­vice will run in two ways,” said De­Luca. “One is they’ll run with the ad on the com­puter or mo­bile device to make sure the page and the ad show up, that there’s noth­ing in front of it or be­hind it, that there’s noth­ing funky go­ing on. The oth­er thing that will hap­pen is they keep a run­ning list … of pub­lish­ers, IPs, com­puters, vendors, net­works, and any­one who has had any prob­lems in the past” with view­able ads.

With a com­bin­a­tion of the veri­fic­a­tion run­ning on top of the ad and the whitel­ist, the ser­vices al­low ad­vert­isers to be able to see what per­cent­age of their ads are ac­tu­ally view­able im­pres­sions and which are po­ten­tially fraud­u­lent—either blocked by an ad-block­er or avoided in some oth­er way, like mal­ware hi­jack­ing ad space. The re­ports also tell the ad­vert­iser how many of their ads were view­able and if people hovered over the ads or clicked through the ads.

These veri­fic­a­tion ser­vices will also turn to the ad­vert­ising net­works, which are either an in­di­vidu­al site selling its own ad space or a third-party ser­vice like Google’s Double­Click selling ads on a group of sites to make sure ad­vert­isers get the view­able im­pres­sions on their ads.

“They’ll be run­ning either in front of the ad­vert­ise­ment,” said De­Luca. “[Some ser­vices of­fer] pre-bid­ding, where I can say: ‘Hey, be­fore you go on and buy this bid, make sure it is on a view­able site against a view­able com­puter. If it is, you can go buy it. If not, don’t buy it.’ Oth­ers of­fer post-bid, which is, after the fact, you’re able to say, ‘Hey, I’m not go­ing to pay for this im­pres­sion,’ and ne­go­ti­ate with the ad net­work to give you a com­par­able im­pres­sion that is view­able.”

Com­pan­ies aren’t just track­ing the pre­val­ence of ad-block­ers, they’re also try­ing to find ways around them.

To cap­ture that audi­ence that is slip­ping through the ad-block­er-cre­ated cracks, com­pan­ies are chan­ging their busi­ness mod­els to en­com­pass oth­er meth­ods that go past the tra­di­tion­al ban­ner and pop-up ads. Ad­vert­isers are in­creas­ingly turn­ing to mo­bile to reach po­ten­tial voters. And while there is an abil­ity to block some ads on mo­bile devices, it does present prime real es­tate for ad­vert­isers.

“If you look at mo­bile devices and the ma­jor­ity of ads served, some of them are browser-based,” said Jim Walsh, the CEO of DSPolit­ic­al, a pro­gress­ive ad firm that fo­cuses on voter tar­get­ing. “But most of the ads served on mo­bile devices these days are ac­tu­ally on apps. There’s very few that al­low you to block ads with­in the apps, and oth­er­wise, you have to pay for that app. As long as people are forced to see ads in­side their apps, rather than pay for the app it­self be­cause it is a free app, I’ll al­ways be able to serve ads there.”

Post­ing “or­gan­ic” con­tent on so­cial me­dia is also grow­ing av­en­ue to reach sup­port­ers, where people can see con­tent pub­lished by a cam­paign that they fol­low or see con­tent their friends have shared, which has a more ef­fect­ive reach than tra­di­tion­al paid ad­vert­ising would.

“Face­book and Twit­ter are still go­ing to be good chan­nels along with Linked­In and oth­ers,” said De­Luca. He also said that “video has a role to play,” while not­ing video ads are a place “where people can get pretty an­noyed, es­pe­cially if it is auto­play with sound on. That’s lit­er­ally the worst ex­per­i­ence any hu­man can have.”

De­Luca also poin­ted to sponsored and nat­ive con­tent as oth­er ways to reach on­line con­sumers, as long as there is a clear defin­i­tion between ad­vertori­als and ed­it­or­i­al con­tent.

“It is the clas­sic ‘If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’” said De­Luca. “The simple an­swer is: I need to make sure it is mak­ing a sound.”

Ad-block­ing isn’t go­ing any­where any­time soon. The 2015 Page­Fair re­port found that ad-block­ing has grown 48 per­cent in the United States in the last year alone, leav­ing both pub­lish­ers and ad­vert­isers fa­cing a chan­ging on­line ad land­scape.

Not even mo­bile phones are en­tirely in­su­lated from ad-block­ing. An­droid phones have long al­lowed cer­tain types of ad-block­ing, but Apple re­cently al­lowed users to down­load apps that block browser-based ban­ner ads on their iPhones as well.

And cer­tain demo­graph­ics are more keen to user ad-block­ers than oth­ers. Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 Page­fair re­port, mil­len­ni­als are es­pe­cially keen to use ad-block­ers, with 41 per­cent say­ing they used a browser-based ad-block­ing soft­ware.

But ul­ti­mately, con­sumers avoid­ing ads isn’t any­thing new for ad­vert­isers. The Re­u­ters In­sti­tute re­port says 30 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans sur­veyed just ig­nore ads. Ad-block­ing on­line may be a grow­ing trend, but avoid­ing ads isn’t.

“Any ad­vert­ising plat­form that you use, the people who don’t want to see the ads are go­ing to find ways to avoid them,” said An­thony Bonna, a seni­or strategist at the Stone­ridge Group, who works with Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates. “With TV, you’ve got TiVo; with print, you have people who just throw the junk mail away. I think there’s now go­ing to be that class on the In­ter­net that tries to avoid ads at all cost.”

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