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Will publishers' pleas really convince readers to turn off their ad blockers?

I remember watching a Dave Chappelle episode based on the premise of real life imitating the internet. One scene spoofed annoying pop-up ads by showing them popping up to block Chappelle’s path to sell him stuff he didn’t want or need as he tried to make his way down the street. This is traditionally what pop-ups have been cast as: intrusive, often poorly targeted messages that clog up and blight design interfaces and detract from the user experience.

The function of anti-ad blocking messages should ideally be to gently remind the readers of the social contract that exists between publishers, salaried staff and their readership and to persuade them to either remove ad blockers to get content or to persuade them to support sites through committing to a subscription. The format of current anti-ad blockers however strongly implies that readers are not ‘abiding by the rules’ of the game by having ad blockers activated, which is potentially alienating.

It’s a tricky issue because, like the speed camera blocker issue, this casts the publisher in the role of authoritarian enforcer; but whilst speeding is a crime contravening motoring laws, reading free content is never ‘wrong’ to those of us ‘born digital’. Anti-ad blocking is a discourse of responsibility in the midst of what is implicitly a libertarian rights culture; it is about as welcome as a ‘gamble responsibly’ message in a casino slot machine or a ‘drink in moderation’ note on a beer mat or getting browsers to input date of birth on an alcoholic beverage site. It’s just a message from ‘the Man’ – a speed bump on our fix towards content satiation.

As for subscriptions, why would we lock ourselves in? We scan Mix Cloud or YouTube for new albums before we purchase. We switch stocks and trade assets as ruthlessly as we swipe on Tinder profiles. We view assets as fungible and ephemeral. Taking a cue from sociologist Zygmunt Baumann's notion of ‘liquid modernity’, we shop online not only for products but experiences. So why pay for a piece of content if we just don’t know how good it’s going to be??

So, what might semiotics add to our understanding of ad blocking messaging? 

Semiotics is the study of implicit communication in image, music and text and helps us see the layers of meaning in any message and especially in branding.

At present, messages seem to mimic the codes of computer error messages like dialogue pop-up boxes which immediately places readers in the guise of a problem, like a programme malfunctioning due to a user error. The language is quite factual in the sense of issuing a notification and instructs or coerces but does not engage. The use of red colour in some (identified with danger, anger and emergency), highlights a sense of crisis and the tone of reproach and subtle admonishment (you have the effrontery not to want to see ads!? Who has ever heard of such a thing!?) exacerbates this. The attitude is often confrontational in tone, with readers effectively held hostage by the publisher.

From the visual semiotics perspective, there is clear potential to throw some design and creative resources at this problem. After all we are living in a world dominated by image as designer and semiotician David Crow wrote in his book Left to Right. Researchers found that coloured visuals increase people's willingness to read a piece of content by 80 per cent and content with relevant images gets 94 per cent more views than content without relevant images. Currently ad blockers pair staid typography with seemingly disconnected imagery, which cannot help reader reception. Here are a few throwaway possibilities:

1. “This not an ad”

Obviously the famous Rene Magritte pipe image has been co-opted countless times as satire – but parodying the resistance to advertising as an interruption medium using an anti-ad blocker message as vehicle would be appreciated as irony, and may gain an entré with the digital literati if they aren’t persuaded to turn off ad blockers in the end. A series of these ads appropriating anti-ad rhetoric might work and buy some goodwill amongst often cynical readership.

2. Industry standard symbol

Some kind of certification symbol or emblem could be agreed upon by a syndicate of publishers losing revenue via ad blocking. This emblem would represent a charter detailing how advertising funds journalism. The emblem could start a debate about the vagaries of funding quality journalism and educate readers about the rationale for ads and how ad blocking staunches the flow of investment thereby stymying innovation. It would reframe the debate form adversarial to collaborative put this defensive industry on the front foot.

3. Front loaded ads

Another idea would be to ask if the viewer would want to have all the banner and sidebar ads showcased up front as a lightning slide show, a choice to see the ads there and then before they access the content, since this guarantees no distraction during reading and navigation this is just shifting the consumption point. But this might incite a ‘hot state’ which reframes the choice, as pay-before-you-browse may increase the perceived value of content being offered.

Currently these ad blockers show a poor knowledge of behavioural science and could be more persuasive. One option would be for them to invoke social norms (proven to make people more susceptible to conformity) for example sharing the ratio of people who chose to remove ad blockers or percentage drop in journalist salary as a result of ad blocking etc. Then there is the framing of the choice itself – if the anti-ad blocker message was to rather foreground the great content foregone as an outcome rather than the sin of having an ad blocker activated it could exploit loss aversion. Currently, the dominant codes of ad blockers don’t really exploit any of these gambits.

Ad blockers are a tricky issue to broach in ideologically fractured times. Poorly targeted ads look crass and cheapen carefully curated sites. Some find pop ads annoying, some are design purists, some find peripheral violators distracting and a drain on attention and work rate and others are ideologically opposed to ads. Politically, the right to block ads can be aligned with other flashpoint issues determining the future of the web: for example the right to obfuscate and not be tracked and the crusade for continued net neutrality. No amount of persuasion is likely to work on those who are intransigent on these issues, but the more agnostic could be influenced by shrewder anti-ad blocking messages. 

Chris Arning is founder-director of Creative Semiotics

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