Oh, irony: the website that claims to have created the banner ad is complaining that people are blocking them.

Yes, WIRED.com joined the small but growing list of websites complaining and then doing something about ad blocking software.

Wah, the publication states. More than 20 percent of our traffic comes from readers who use ad blockers. So we’ll show you and will be restricting access to content for those people. Don’t like it? Then put WIRED on your ad blocker’s whitelist. Or pay $1 a week and get ad-free viewing.

No Free Lunch

There are a couple schools of thought on how readers will respond. One is to punish publishers because all publishers deserve to be punished for running more and more obtrusive and annoying ads.

The other, expressed by people like Richard Windsor, analyst at Edison Investment Research, is that viewers are seemingly at fault. They have had a fantasy-land view that content and the whole darn Internet are free. A subscription fee — even something as minor as $1 per week — will wake them up to that fact.

“There has never been any such thing as free Internet as users either pay with cash or with personal data/advertising. The problem is that virtually all users who are paying with personal data do not realize that they are actually paying for the services that they consume,” Windsor said.

In that context, $1 a week seems like a “huge price increase rather than paying for the service in a different way.”

So readers will respond by simply turning off their ad blockers as told.

On the one side, you have people who are forecasting the end of digital publishing. The ad model is dead! Long suffer the ad model!

On the other, you have Windsor: “I remain comfortable that companies that use advertising will continue to earn their revenues one way or another.”

But Hold On …

Meanwhile, there is my third perspective.

The conspiracy theory is that publishers will block their content to people using ad blockers. Then they’ll make ads so heinous that we all will be slowly forced, through bleeding eyes, to pay for their subscriptions — a far steadier and rational source of income than dwindling, half-fraudulent ad revenue. Then as we get hooked on subscriptions, they’ll slowly raise rates, a la cable TV companies.

Of course, the truth probably lies in the middle, a fourth reality, which goes thusly: The problem is that only a handful of publishers have attempted to block the ad blockers, the biggest one before WIRED being Berlin-based Axel Springer (which owns Business Insider) and its Bild property.

Coming out of the Bild experiment, according to Forrester’s Susan Bidel, is the anecdotal word that “only a small fraction of consumers opted to comply, either by paying for access or disabling their ad blocker.”

They Did It To Themselves

What’s more, thanks to Bidel, we also know that advertisers are starting to understand that they bear responsibility for nerve-grating digital ads.

“The WFN, or World Federation of Advertisers, the counterpart to the ANA or Association of National Advertisers, announced that advertisers must accept some portion of responsibility for the unpleasant digital environment that consumers are rebelling against,” explained Bidel, senior analyst in Forrester’s New York office, who adds how the WFN called for global standards and for listening to consumers’ preferences.

Bidel recommends that an industry-wide conversation ensue, including the ad-blocking software makers.

As she sees it, consumers tend to use ad blockers as all or nothing tools, so turning them off on a case-by-case basis is “impractical.”

Not only might it not work to ask readers to “white list” their site, publishers might not even be getting their message/offering in front of consumers. Ad blockers might be blocking the very message in which the publishers share their value proposition. 

Whatever the solution, advertisers and publishers ought to understand that the reality does lean toward one of our viewpoints, viewpoint No. 1—that the failure of digital ads is a real threat to sink the whole boat.

Bidel cites the 2015 Forrester North American Consumer Technology Survey that showed that 24 percent of online US adults use an ad blocker on desktops, 12 percent on tablets and 9 percent on mobile phones. Since the survey was conducted, Apple introduced iOS9, facilitating iPhone ad blocking.

“I suspect, therefore, that (ad blocking on) mobile phones … will be much larger the next time Forrester fields the survey. This is reaching existential proportions,” she said.

Title image "IMG_6894.jpg" (CC BY 2.0) by Hello Turkey Toe