Consumers To Advertisers: Benefit Us Or Else!

While it’s been a busy week that’s required laser focus on work projects, there have been a few issues burning in my mind. I tackled one of them last night for my latest MediaPost column: “Are advertisers truly benefiting consumers? Because if they’re not, then there are serious problems.” And I’m definitely not convinced they are.

As part of my thinking and research, I downloaded the Adblock Plus plug-in for Firefox, which literally erases all the ads that show up in my browser. I won’t keep Adblock enabled — for a host of reasons — though I definitely recommend giving it a try, especially if you’re a marketer, publisher or ad agency. It’s an eerie window into what the world might look like should consumers really start to reject advertising, leading one to question the viability of the entire advertising and publishing economies. Try it out. White space is can be desolate and scary.

Below is the full text of my column, though you should also check out the feedback I’m getting at the MediaPost forum.

Consumers To Advertisers: Benefit Us Or Else!

September 7th, 2007 by Max Kalehoff

One year ago, I asserted that companies were addicted to advertising. Too many were hooked on a perpetual hunt to imperialize every bit of white space possible. It was a quest to continue a rapid firing of impressions at our psyches.Of course, addiction requires enablers. Media companies, and owners of emerging real estate yet to be categorized as media, were lining up to enable. The cost to consumers was tolerating a greater volume of interception, interruption and coercion – in the end, more clutter with diminishing impact. One year later, not much has changed.

What has changed is that consumers are gaining more control over which messages they receive and which they don’t. The Federal Trade Commission, which administers the Do-Not Call Registry, told the New York Times this week that 148,471,508 phone numbers were signed up as of Aug. 31, and as many as 300,000 are added weekly. AdAge reported earlier this year that more than a dozen state legislatures are considering do-not-mail lists. And MediaPost reported earlier this year Nielsen’s first estimates of American household DVR penetration — over 17 percent. All these numbers are significant and piling evidence of ad avoidance.

But what about ad avoidance on the Internet? As we all know, Web users, still on the savvier side, have avoided advertisements from day one — via pop-up blockers, email spam and blacklist programs, among other services. Some of the latest ad-blocking services seem more extreme than anything before, especially Adblock Plus.

Author Nicholas Carr wrote this week: “Adblock Plus, the Firefox browser plug-in that erases advertisements from Web pages, is a killer of a killer app — or at least it could be if it ever becomes widely popular. Right now, it sits like a coyote at the edge of the net, quietly eyeing all the businesses it would happily devour.”

Wladimir Palant, the developer of the open-source Adblock initiative, told the New York Times this week that he estimates “there are 2.5 million users of Adblock Plus around the world,” with “300,000 to 400,000 new users each month.”

While Palant has boldly confronted the ethics of ad-blocking on his blog, his practical advice to marketers is what matters most: “There is only one reliable way to make sure your ads aren’t blocked – make sure the users don’t want to block them. Don’t forget about the users, use ads in a way that doesn’t degrade their experience.” Palant then underscored that ads can actually be useful and there are many people who don’t mind ads, But, he says, “Don’t make them change their opinion.”

While ad-blocking systems are not rampant or growing exponentially, adoption and alarm is still significant, for it signals far bigger trends approaching. Even if there were no technology to control and avoid commercial exposure, people are becoming hardwired to mentally block commercial intrusion. With thousands of impressions seeking to penetrate us each day — like some sort of military offensive — mental blocking is a key survival mechanism. It is becoming more acute among ourselves. especially among future generations.

Secondly, as the distribution of quality content continues its thin spread across the digital universe, media companies and marketers will face far greater competition for attention. With monopolies on luring content a thing of the past, ads or content that denigrate experience won’t be tolerated — they will be punished. Only value and relevancy will have a chance, and even then it will be tough.

Umair Haque, principal consultant at Bubblegeneration, wrote this week on his blog, “Marketers have to figure out how to make ‘ads’ that benefit consumers – not impose nuisance costs on them. Either marketers discover how to benefit consumers, directly, vitally, tangibly, visibly – or they will go the way of record labels and film studios. This is strategy decay moving inexorably through the value chain – sweeping along the rusting, moribund, industrial media value chain like a tsunami. First, it was retailers. Then, it was publishers. Now, it’s the turn of marketers.”

Let me be clear, I’m an evangelist for interactive marketing and advertising. It’s what I’m passionate about. It’s also what pays the bills. My interest is in its long-term viability. I also believe in the ability of publishers and content creators to make a fair living.

As Madison Avenue’s celebratory Advertising Week looms, we must ask ourselves one thing: are we serious about delivering relevancy and value? Are we ultimately benefiting consumers? If not, then we have a serious problem.

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.