Could the billboard benefit from the rise in ad-blocking tech?

As media consumption has become more technologically diverse, so techniques for ad avoidance have become more technologically sophisticated. While for many of us, ad avoidance involves nothing more innovative than turning to the next page of a magazine, changing channels, or getting up to make a cup of tea, all of which still allow a particularly creative advertiser to recapture our attention, digital media may not be so lucky.

Ad-blocking software has been around for some time but the uptake has been slow, restricted to privacy fanatics and others ‘in the know’. But now, it’s gaining significant momentum. According to the 2015 ad blocking report by PageFair, there are now close to 200 million people using ad-blocking software around the world, with a 41% annual increase from June 2014 to June 2015 in the USA, and 82% in the UK. The trend is estimated to cost publishers close to US$22-billion this year. Why? Because unlike our traditional methods of blocking ads, where an ad still has an outside chance of grabbing our attention, ad-blockers strip out the ads on web pages and other forms of digital media, before the page even loads. So they don’t even appear in our peripheral attention. And don’t think for one minute that the owner of a site is going to compensate an advertiser because the intended consumer obliterated her cleverly targeted pop-up.

The rise in the usage of ad-blocking tools can be put down to two things: first, with the growing number of plug-ins and extensions for browsers the option of blocking out advertisers is no longer available only to enthusiasts: Ad Block and Ad Block Plus need no more than a couple of clicks to install with all of the most popular browsers. And the fact that they are completely free, only exacerbates the problem for digital and web publishers.

The second issue is one of our own making – bloat. Bloat is a term more commonly associated with software that has so many unnecessary bells and whistles that it becomes large, slow and to download, expensive. The same applies to web pages that should be no more than a few hundred kilobytes in size, but because of all the pop-ups, and other advertising weigh in instead, in megabytes. And it’s consumers who are paying for this; if not in extra data consumption then in performance of their devices. This last point has clearly not escaped the eyes of the engineers at Apple and their obsession for delivering the best user experience possible – the iOS9 operating system for iPhones and iPads, due to launch later this month, will have built-in ad blocking functionality.

But the rise of ad-blocking could one day be good news for a traditional medium – perhaps the most traditional of all – billboards and out-of-home; arguably the hardest of all media to block out. Blocking out that 96-sheeter on Jan Smuts Ave is no easy task when you’re crawling along at 5kmh and the only other things of interest are the broken traffic lights and the student trying to push flyers for the local burger shop through your window.

Of course, getting noticed is only half the battle. Your massive ad needs to be processed and encoded if it’s to work its magic and that’s where creativity comes in. The medium will ensure you’re not filtered out, but without memorability, it’s all academic. And because of that, the renaissance in out of home could die before it’s had a chance. When did you last see a billboard that wasn’t overloaded with copy, or one that was more than just a resized print ad? When, in short, did you last see a piece of out of home that truly made the best use of the medium?

One of the first rules I learnt as a copywriter was “no more than eleven words on a billboard.” Eleven. These days it’s not uncommon to see that many words on just the first line. With more as ‘body copy’. And, I’ve even seen billboards with asterisks in the headline referring the reader to the fine print.

While in many cases, the argument for blockable digital advertising versus unblockable out-of-home will come down to one of audience size or reach, impact should also be considered. As Independent Media Consultant, Gordon Muller says, “Media strategy is no longer about counting heads, it’s about penetrating them.” And with the added (but seemingly forgotten) advantages of outdoor advertising such as “its ability to be close to the point of purchase, no medium has to be consciously accessed to see the ad, and they can be adapted to be geographically relevant,” out of home may well have more to say in the marketing mix.

As long as it does it in eleven or fewer words.



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