Zapping the Ad Zappers

We all enjoy escaping from advertising occasionally. When that local car dealership ad comes on during the evening news, it’s an opportune moment to ensure that the dog has fresh water. I find my thoughts drifting toward the fridge when term life insurance commercials air. What would happen if we were forced to watch those ads? It wouldn’t be good for those brands, I can assure you. If I were forced, “Clockwork Orange”-style, to view an ad despite a stated intent to avoid it, I would seethe with rage — and focus my anger on the brand. That’s exactly what mediaBEAM, a German company, is about to learn.

mediaBEAM created adKEY, a Web application that prevents people from blocking banner ads in their browsers. It’s an undeniably clever piece of technology. In fact, it could be very useful if applied differently.

adKEY detects installed banner-blocking software and unblocks the block. But by forcing users who intentionally skirted ads to view them, the company accomplishes two things. It allows the site to legitimately count an impression (the advertiser was paying for it anyway, since the ad server had to serve it). And, for advertisers, it’s earned the enmity of the viewer. What a bargain.

Advertising only works because of an implicit social contract. Stated in the most basic terms, the contract is this: “I get free content in exchange for receiving messages.” A slightly more sophisticated version might be like this: “I’ll get that free content and I’ll view your ads only if they aren’t obnoxious or too numerous. If they are, I’m heading to the fridge.” On the Internet, the equivalent of the fridge is ad-blocking software.

What’s the harm in a blocked ad? A media vendor might say it’s decreasing its inventory, effectively making the user a freeloader. In reality, viewing that ad would not have been beneficial for the advertiser. It would have been an impression under duress — not what brand mavens would call a “positive brand contact.” The media vendor doesn’t lose out either way. It charges for all ads, blocked or not.

There is indeed a loss — a data loss. It’s difficult for marketers to make subtle decisions based on data we get from advertising campaigns. There’s a lot of pollution: users who aren’t properly targeted and therefore don’t want to view ads. adKEY technology could fix some of that. Instead of pushing unwanted ads, it could instead be employed as an important data tool for advertisers. It would weed out some of the pollution affecting our click rates and other performance measures simply by counting the number of people blocking ads. When mediaBEAM launches adKEY in coming months, I doubt many sites will want to employ it, seeing as they already charge advertisers for “lost” impressions. Advertisers, on the other hand, may prove a more receptive market for the product — not to unblock ads, but to count and learn about the ones that are blocked.

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