How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds

reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:


As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.

20 responses to “How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds”

  1. Why don’t you add VRM to the mix.

    Let me list things I want ads for.

    Let’s negotiate.

  2. the content you offer is not enough payment for the attention you want me to pay

    i will allow you to inform me .. i won’t allow you to pitch me

  3. Dave, that’s the follow-up. 🙂

    gregorylent, are you talking here to the advertiser, the publisher, or both?

  4. It seems to me that whitelist are a last ditch effort to avoid the inevitable. As a customer, once I’m in control I don’t want no stinking “ad”. Instead, when I initiate an interaction I want detailed info, or a customized offer, or a meaningful reply from an intelligent being. Not ads at all.

    1. Will, plenty of ads are honest. And the Internet isn’t what has made them “a thing of the past.” What we have is too much bad acting by too many advertisers and publishers. With ad and tracking blocking we have a way to fight that bad acting — and it’s effective, or the ad and tracking businesses wouldn’t be freaking out and saying there’s a war going on. On our side there are two ways we can go. One is to have our browsers and apps say “#NoAds” to companies that advertise and the publishers they sponsor. The other is to have our browsers and apps say “#SafeAds,” and allow those through.

      Could be the advertising well has been too poisoned by bad acting, and the whole game is over. If so, the bubble will burst, and much of the ad-sponsored commercial Web will collapse, to be replaced by something that works in a marketplace where customers have full agency. I expect some of that will happen. I also expect that some tracking, such as what Google does, people will allow, because they believe it does more good than harm, and at least it’s clear what’s going on (Google knows as close to everything about you as it can). In this post I’m not going there. I’m just proposing an approach to separate the #adtech chaff from the #safeads wheat.

      The Net we know today is only twenty years old. There are sand dunes older than any Internet company, and even the Internet itself. Nothing is permanent. There’s lots we can do.

    2. Gaspar, what you’re proposing is what in the VRM world we call intentcasting. Check out the developers at that link. There are about two dozen of them, so far.

  5. The purpose of advertising is to increase revenue for the company whose products or services are being advertised. The Data overwhelmingly shows better individual targeting leads to more revenue for the advertised company. It’s therefore not at all surprising that the advertising industry is moving more and more toward individual targeting.

    If targeted advertising is more likely to result in conversions, doesn’t that mean that target ads are better for the viewer? I would rather see ads that I am likely to click on and use to make purchases than ads which I ignore.

    I think this whole “individual vs populations” argument is a distraction. Focus on the tangible negative aspects of advertisements and work to fix those. Block ads that cause slow page loads or use CPU unnecessarily. The fact that the ad is individually targeted is inherently positive. It’s the side effects of individual tracking (page bloat, background loading) that are negative.

    1. Michael, there are many purposes for advertising. Obviously all of them should lead to increasing revenue — but not always directly. It does not add one penny to Ford’s bottom line for me to see an ad for the F-150 truck on a ball game. But it does add to Ford’s reputation in my mind — and in those of millions of others — to know that Ford is a serious company that believes in the worth of its trucks. That’s worth far more than nothing. This is why Don Marti and I keep pointing back to Kihlstrom, Riordan, Simler and others who explain the economic signaling value of brand advertising.

      Ads targeted at populations of viewers (such as the Ford truck ad on a ball game) are fine, and work well as pure signaling. This has been the case for as long as we’ve had advertising. And, except for occasionally wasting our time or annoying us, brand advertising of this kind is safe. It doesn’t carry malware, spy on us, or otherwise abuse our privacy.

      If you would rather see ads you’re likely to click on than ads you ignore, then you should have ways to permit the former and ignore or block the latter. The next step beyond #SafeAds is exactly that kind of valving on the demand side of the marketplace. You should have means of your own to say what you want and what you don’t. At this stage, however, all we’ve got for signaling on our side is the #NoAds message ad blocking sends. #SafeAds is a way to move past that and get going a real market conversation going, instead of today’s one-way torrent of surveillance-aimed irritants.

      Data, by the way, does not “overwhelmingly” show “better individual targeting leads to more revenue for the advertised company.” In many cases it does not, or shows the opposite. I know one top-tier adtech advertiser that pulled dozens of $millions out of the market, just this month, because adtech didn’t work as well as old-fashioned brand advertising, which also helped rather than hurt their reputation. Ad blocking had nothing to do with it. (I can’t name them yet because they’re not ready.) I also know top-tier publishers that want to dial back the adtech, and consider it a mistake to have become instruments of surveillance.

      As for whether individualized (surveillance-based) ads are “inherently positive,” take it up with Don Marti, who has been far more eloquent and detailed on the matter than have I.

  6. Every god damn advertiser and every god damn company that advertises is lying to me! That’s the world I grew up in. As an adult now, I know there is no such thing as an honest and useful ad. That’s the reality of the 40 years of advertising I’ve been exposed to. If I see ads for your product/service it means you’re lying to me and upping the price.

    Here, let’s break it down across some major categories.

    Are you a product sales site? [Amazon, etc.] Then you’re flooded with fake reviews.

    Are you a review site that makes money from the listing companies [Angie’s List, Yelp, etc.]? Then you’re selling reviews management.

    Are you selling your own products? [Supplements, VW, almost every product company] Then you’re just lying to us to get us to buy your product. And the ads are simply increasing the price we pay.

    Are you selling your own service? [Insurance, Travel, Spas, Roofers, etc.] You’re more expensive because you have to recover the cost of the ads. And what does 30% off mean when you’re making up the price based on how much you think you get squeeze out of us anyway.


    If there ever was such a thing as an honest ad (maybe newspaper ads informing you of sale items at department stores?) then the internet has made them a thing of the past. If an ad fits your criteria as you propose then there’s some asshat company that’s going to go one step beyond because they know that their punch the monkey ad will generate more sales than your non-obnoxious ad. And, of course they’re going to label it with your hashtag.

  7. Saying that “even” Adblock Plus has an acceptable ads policy is funny. They more or less pioneered the idea. Once they were in the position of being the largest adblocker, they realised they had leverage over ad companies. They charge for inclusion on the acceptable ads list, and in a dodgy way. It seems like extortion at some level, to tell companies to pay, or their ad won’t get shown to their users. But now, who does ABP serve, if they take payment from ad companies? You can see the conflict of interest there.

    The same happened with the first ios 9 adblocker that made it to the app store. It got a lot of installs, and once it had leverage, the developer switched on his users, and allowed acceptable ads. It just happened to be the same acceptable ads as ABP. The company behind ABP was recently sold to an undisclosed company.

    Firefox has decided to block known tracking third-party websites, in incognito mode at least. They decided to do so, after tracking companies interpreted the do-not-track setting as “track but don’t show targeted ads”. It’s hard to find a technically enforcable compromise. But if neither side is willing to find a middle ground, it will harm the open web irreparably.

    1. I’m familiar with Adblock Plus’s issues, and consider them beside the point of what I’m proposing here. Also, Adblock Plus wasn’t sold. Adblock was. Different company.

  8. I’ll expand a bit on my last paragraph then, as it was addressing your proposal. The privacy implications of trusting advertisers are clear from their response to the do-not-track header. They choose to keep taking in as much data as they can, only obscuring the extent of information they gather. Any self-certification on their part needs to be enforceable, and that probably requires a trusted third party to accept and, if necessary, rescind their #safeads status. This is the only way I see of addressing the malware threat from advertising networks as well. If I can just stick a #safeads tag on to bypass the adblockers, what’s to stop me?

    If the browser takes on the trusted third party role, like they have with respect to certificate authorities, they would be in a position close a few loopholes by means of cryptography, for example, safe ads with a signature to verify origin and integrity. However Google and Apple as the big browser developers have no incentive to help other advertisers. If adblockers take that role, they will be the gatekeepers, and there the conflict of interest arises again. I see no clear way to the middle ground at the moment, but I appreciate any proposal that leads toward it.

    As for the rest of my previous comment, obviously it was that word “even” that got my attention, it seems out of place in light of acceptable ads’ origin.
    I was confused about the acquisition, I remember a lot of mention of Eyeo in the articles about it, the facts got a bit foggy apparently.

    1. Ferdinand, the next step beyond #SafeAds labeling is terms individuals assert. DNT didnt work because it had no teeth. Ad blocking has teeth, which is why the adtech cabal is screaming “ouch!” and saying there’s a big fight going on (with their funders’ customers, no less… not smart, but understandable). Work on terms is already proceeding, and will be discussed and pushed forward next week at VRM Day and IIW.

      A good model for how this will work is what we already have with Creative Commons. There is no trusted third party, just a place where the licenses are developed and kept. We expect Customer Commons to play a similar role for terms we assert.

      No ad blocking company should be a gatekeeper. We should each have our own gates, just as we each have our own pants, homes and cars. All those are private spaces it is bad form to invade.

      And that’s the key thing. Advertisers and publishers have been terribly ill-mannered with surveillance-fed adtech, and this fact is beginning to dawn on them. If they put a #SafeAds label on an ad that’s not, they’ll be shamed. The world is full of code and people who will be glad to help do that.

  9. #safeads makes a lot of sense, though of course the concept doesn’t mean an end to targeted ads, just an end to non-permissioned targeted ads. If I wish to share my data with a site/intermediary/other for/accepting targeted ads because it is a value proposition I agree with, then the ad is permissioned and hence safe – there is no “round the side” tracking.

    1. Correct, Julian. Thanks for that. The main thing is signaling our willingness to share, and our conditions for it. The signal needs to come from us to them, and also be agreeable and friendly.

  10. Thank you for elaborating, Doc. As a passer-by, I didn’t have all the background to your approach to this. I do hope it bears fruit, but I’d like it to have a sharp bite. 😉

    CC-by is easy enough to respect, but the less convenient terms are ignored routinely. Somehow, the same result has to be avoided for the customer commons. An honour based system for an industry that has been reckless and hostile towards consumers has some skepticism to overcome, in that respect.

    So far I haven’t seen much Madison Avenue, but no end of adtech online. And from a security perspective, there’s very little recourse after an invasion, no matter how bad form it is. Superfish comes to mind here, as an extreme example. They finally got called out after operating for months, and not by their victims.

    We do leave our cars and homes locked, after all.

  11. Hey Doc, I was just curious how do you thing the Apple push to in app dominance will continue to effect the Google Ad share numbers? I agree its heading in the best direction for users but I am curious to actual ad impression impact when that is taken into consideration.

    1. I have no idea, PPC company. What do you think?

  12. People still depending on the broken business model of online ads keep hoping, and hoping that people want “safe ads” instead of no ads.

    The truth is that Adblock+’s “Acceptable Ads Manifesto” was not written in response to consumer demand, it was only written to justify the kickbacks the developer was taking to unblock certain ads.

    (I’m sorry, did I say “kickbacks”? I meant “revenue sharing with strategic partners”.)

    When you send a bundle of things into people’s homes, they’re always going to want to throw away the parts they didn’t ask for. That’s natural. If you think otherwise, you’re fooling yourself.

  13. Thanks Doc!
    I completely agree with your views on ads serving because readers should not be distracted while reading the pages. If Adblock Plus will help users to block that kind of distraction ads then this will be highly obliged from my end. I spend 8+ years in online marketing and I can understand the value of right serving to the users so I hope this will be successful solution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *