Video Essentials

The War on Video Ads: What Can Advertisers Do About Ad Blockers?

Here’s the scenario. You’re a business owner, and you just learned that a German company invented a technology that lets customers get your product for free. Even worse, you still have to pay for delivery. Then you get a call from the Germans who offer to make your customers pay, but only if you pay them 30 percent of the regained revenue. What do you do? Call the police? The Feds? Well, if you’re Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, you pay the 30 percent.

NoAdsThis is the situation with Adblock Plus, an ad blocker owned by German developer Eyeo. In short, ad blockers are browser add-ons that work in two ways. First, they monitor the outbound calls made by your browser and block any calls to known advertising networks. In the case of video, since the advertising network never receives the call, the ad doesn’t show up, and the player goes on to the next chunk of content. Second, ad blockers hide elements on the page with certain classes, like ads, so the page simply displays without them.

Ad blockers were born around 2002 as a response to intrusive advertising and to sites that used malware or spyware. The installed base of ad blockers varies greatly by geography, age group, and operating system, but by June 2014, Irish company PageFair estimated that there were over 144 million active users.

How effective are ad blockers? I installed Adblock Plus on Firefox and competitor Adblock on Chrome and tested 10 popular U.S. sites, including YouTube, CNN, ESPN, CBS, and CNET, using Safari without an ad blocker for comparison. Safari played a preroll ad on all 10 sites. On Firefox, Adblock Plus removed those ads on 9 of 10 sites, with CBS displaying a banner that said the video wouldn’t play because the ads were blocked. With Chrome, 9 of 10 videos (including CBS) did play without a preroll ad. ESPN didn’t play the video, though no message was displayed. Clearly, at 90 percent effectiveness, ad blockers represent an existential threat to any advertising-supported site.

What’s being done? Well, you can pay Adblock Plus 30 percent of reclaimed revenue to get on their Acceptable Ads list of sites that aren’t automatically blocked when the user installs the product, though users can later choose to block your site. Other sites have taken the CBS route and blocked content when ad blockers are detected, while others appeal to their users to manually unblock their sites.

From a technology perspective, there are two general approaches. First, you can try to spoof the ad blocker by obfuscating the call to the ad server. This is a cat-and-mouse game that might work for a while, but will stop working if the various ad blockers catch on to your scheme. Or, you can use server-side advertising insertion where the calls to the advertising server are made by the streaming server, which creates a single manifest file for the complete video, with all ads inserted. This defeats ad blocking, but might limit the ability to prevent fast-forwarding through the ads or the same level of reporting as client-side advertising insertion.

In my view, the best approach would be to eliminate ad blockers as a product category and to make it much tougher for users to load them. Google removed Adblock Plus and other ad blockers from Google Play two years ago, using the rationale that “your app interferes with or accesses another service or product in an unauthorized manner.” Yeah, it’s called stealing. While Android users can still get Adblock Plus from other Android stores, it seemed like a real statement, like CVS discontinuing the sale of tobacco products. Sadly, Google didn’t do the same for the Chrome Web Store.

I get that some ads are obnoxious. But if visitors don’t like my ads, they should avoid my site, not use a technology that lets them steal my content. And responsible companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla shouldn’t facilitate access to such technologies.

This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Streaming Media as “Ad Blocking: It’s Not User Choice, It’s Stealing.”

No Ad image via Shutterstock.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. It takes a lot to earn trust, and very little to lose it.

    When you wrote “Ad blockers were born around 2002 as a response to intrusive advertising and to sites that used malware or spyware.” you shared the essential truth about the good reasons for ad blocking.

    Unless and until ad-supported sites take active steps to police their own transmitted content, and can guarantee the absence of malware/drive-bys/etc., there is no reason for anyone to stop using an ad blocker, irrespective of what you term that use.

    To date, they haven’t, and far too many remain willing to pass through whatever dubious content some shady character is willing to pony up for.

    Posted by Alan Lloyd | June 17, 2015, 3:51 pm
  2. I agree with Alan. Furthermore, if your concern is generating revenue then displaying content on an open medium like the internet without any form of paid membership or account login, and then claiming theft, is a gross miss overstatement. By its very nature the internet is a free and open forum unless otherwise noted by the use of some sort of gateway to password protect published content thus you forgo your ability to claim that the system is being cheated. I understand the business side of the equation that ad’s offset cost, but choosing to publish content with the hope to generate revenue or offset cost by advertisements versus securing the content and charging a monetary fee to access it, is your choice as a business owner. You need to accept the inherit risk of doing business under that model and reexamine if the reward/gain is worth more than the risk of doing business under that model , especially since you have the knowledge of what type of technologies are at the disposal of the end user. If the reward does not exceed the risk then change the structure of how you do business, no one is forcing you into this business model. Don’t call for the punishment of those who choose to use legitimate means to mitigate the abuse of their time on the web.

    Posted by DP | July 7, 2015, 11:18 am
  3. Ad Blockers are a valid defense against bandwidth theft by video ads which slow down web site loading and eat up data caps. I pay my ISP for that bandwidth and unwanted advertising, especially autoplay streaming video is stealing from me. Inelegant cramming of flashing banners, taunting skyscrapers, sex innuendo laden animated GIFS, and all other manner of dizzying distractions are what has forced consumers to take refuge behind the defensive shields of Ad Blockers. Stop thinking of your content as nothing more than click bait to capture eyeballs and redirect attention away to sponsored annoyances.

    Posted by Bruce N. Goren | July 9, 2015, 2:13 am
  4. Yeah, I have 662 MB left for the next 3 days. If I go over that, my speeds are reduced to lower than 56K speeds, unless I pay 10 dollars for a refresh token. On some plans, they’d even bill me automatically.

    No thanks.

    Posted by CF | August 31, 2015, 2:25 pm
  5. I went a long, long time without blocking ads but the repetition and absolutely annoying video ads finally pushed me over the edge.

    Advertising has to be one of the worst things humanity has ever come up with – I despise it. The obnoxious nature of internet ads is intolerable.

    Posted by Pual | June 9, 2016, 11:05 pm
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