It’s a hypothetical that we all contemplate. But to even begin answering the question, we have to go back in time…to when people started using ad blockers in the first place.
The Wild West of the early web
Remembering back to a time pre-ad blocking is a chaotic, colorful experience. The sparkly pop-ups. The garish, neon-blinking banner ads. The invasiveness of advertising and the way ads competed with one another to have the more eye-catching (read: manic and distracting) visuals gave browsing a bit of an adrenaline-tinged edge. Users were braced for the next pop-up, never quite knowing when it would arrive, or how, but certain that it would be there when you least expected it.
It was in this environment that ad blocking was born. Ad blocking: a way to silence the chatter and browse in peace.
Doc Searls famously called the advent of ad blocking “the biggest boycott in world history,” and we think that’s an excellent summary of such a momentous change. The shift so completely overhauled the way users viewed their browsing experience that we should probably start referring to two eras: BAB (Before Ad Blockers) and AAB (After Ad Blockers).
How did we get there?
To understand why pop-ups proliferated and banner ads sparkled throughout the early aughts, we need to examine the supply and demand imbalance that posed a challenge to publishers at the time…and how that dynamic led ultimately to a huge increase in ad blocking use.
The supply and demand imbalance was such that the seller (here: the publishers) found themselves in a weak position. And when that happens, the buyer (here: the advertiser) suddenly had a position of relative strength.
The publisher, feeling the squeeze, was forced to serve more ads. And larger ads. And sparklier ads. And more intrusive ads.
Faced with this onslaught, users started blocking.
Ad blocking users don’t hate all ads. They hate invasive, disrespectful ones.
After people started using ad blockers en masse, the industry stopped and paid close attention. After all, a free web without advertisements—or a browsing population that didn’t ever see ads—was unsustainable. Inquiring minds started asking questions. And central among these was: Why do ad blocking users block ads in the first place?
The answer was seen as surprising. Because it wasn’t that ad blocking users hated all ads. What they hated was showy, distracting ads: glittery pop-ups and strobe-lit banner ads. In other words, they hated the many, many annoying ads that swarmed the internet at the turn of the century.
When asked, the two main reasons that users block ads are 1) “Too many ads are invasive or annoying” and 2) “There are too many ads on the internet.”
A life without annoying ads
But what makes an ad annoying in the first place? The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has isolated what are considered the most annoying ad elements:
Ads that block content, long video ads before short videos, ads that follow down the page as the user scrolls. [And] consumers that use ad blockers are even more annoyed by these ad elements, especially auto-start ads. (Source)
This definition suggests a thematic link between ad blocking users’ primary reason for blocking ads—annoying ads—and their secondary reason—too many ads. The elements deemed annoying by the IAB are omnipresence (ads that follow you), duration (long ads), and obstruction (blocking content). These are all elements that suggest that when quantity of ads increases, quality decreases.
Or, to put it another way: when there are too many ads, they are perceived as annoying…and any amount of annoying ads is perceived as too many ads.
So maybe the question we should pose isn’t: what would happen to the internet without ad blockers? Maybe a better line of inquiry is: what would happen to the internet without annoying ads?
After all, a world without ad blockers may never happen. Ad blockers are now ubiquitous thanks to the backlash against the annoying ads of the aughts.
But if there were a possibility of an ad blocker-less world, that would occur because ad blockers were deemed unnecessary by the browsing/ad blocking public. If the central problems of “annoying ads” and “too many ads” were removed, maybe there would be no need to block ads in the first place.