Facebook’s latest adblocker battle: An in-depth view

Facebook’s latest adblocker battle: An in-depth view Geraint is a leading expert in all forms of advertising, marketing and consumer engagement legal advice. He specialises in coordinating international clearance advice, and advises several of the world’s largest brands and creative agencies, providing clear and practical regulatory and legal advice. He drafts and negotiates various commercial agreements. Geraint has been on secondment to a major broadcaster, and has advised trade bodies (including the IPA and PRCA) and their members in relation to advertising, marketing and consumer engagement campaigns.

Last month, in the latest skirmish in a battle that has been raging for some time between Facebook and adblockers, the social media giant announced a change to its site.

Despite Facebook not being able to hold the adblockers at bay for long, the change could still have lasting implications for the ad industry.

As we all know, when the average Facebook user is browsing online content, ads which aren’t relevant to them are more likely to jar, disrupt their user journey and annoy them than ads for brands in which they are, at least on some level, interested. 

The war between adblocking services and publishers takes a new turn every few days, as one works around the changes made by the other

Generally speaking, serving people relevant ads in a format which slots naturally into their user journey and which can be ignored or passed over without any effort, is the sweet spot. 

Of course, there has to be some kind of quid pro quo. For the privilege of being served relevant ads instead of completely random ones, users are expected to share a bit more of their personal data, which includes information about their various interests and preferences. 

What do the controls do?

The latest controls launched by Facebook will enable users to remove certain preferences from their profiles, ensuring that, for instance, they can opt-out of certain ads, lists and brand relationships. In essence, the changes give Facebook users more control over the ads they see and the brands with which their data is shared.

Those who choose to use adblocking software approach things slightly differently, though. Most adblocker users simply don’t accept that they have to make a binary choice between, on the one hand, being served ads which are likely to be relevant to them and, on the other, being served ads which are irrelevant.

Both of these options involve being served ads of some kind, and that is what many users of adblocker software object to. Most probably realise that Facebook might not be able to continue to provide the service for free without the revenue generated from advertisers, but they don’t care very much. They are generally happy to enjoy the service for free – ideally without ads – and to rely on other users and advertisers to pick up the tab somehow.

While Facebook’s latest changes are unlikely to deal a death blow to adblocking services (or to discourage committed users of adblocking software), these changes should be enough in the short-term to reduce the number of Facebookers on the cusp of turning to an adblocker. 

More broadly, this strategy should also mean that the quality of ad-targeting is increased, and user journeys run more smoothly. Ads will reach more people who are actively interested in a brand and its products and services, and there will be less time and money wasted in serving ads to people who are simply not interested, or who resent having being disturbed while they’re browsing cat videos.

On the flip side, as people allow themselves to be targeted in ever more sophisticated ways, the value (and therefore cost) of these targeted ads is likely to go up. 

Other risks facing advertisers 

The current system looks to circumvent ad-blockers by making ads look like ‘normal’, non-paid content, but there is a fine legal line to be trod. The main challenge will be to ensure Facebook doesn’t fool users as well as ad-blockers. Accidentally duping users into believing that something is not advertising or sponsored content, perhaps because it’s not flagged appropriately, would potentially put the advertiser themselves in breach of the UK’s advertising and consumer protection rules.

Toeing this line requires careful labelling. Facebook tried adding a little ‘sponsored’ tab, but this made the ads easy for adblockers to spot too, and it was only a matter of hours before Adblock Plus updated its software to spot and block Facebook ads once again.

The war between adblocking services and publishers takes a new turn every few days, as one works around the changes made by the other.

The main danger for the advertising industry, and Facebook itself, will come in a few months’ time if Facebook is still perceived to be on the losing side of the war against adblockers – in which case its latest changes might be (perhaps unfairly) dismissed as a gimmick, and a great opportunity will have been missed

Ultimately, Facebook has to be aware that those who choose to use adblockers are unlikely to stop doing so just because they might now have increased control over the types of ads they are served.

Those people will keep cheering every time the adblockers are able to work around Facebook’s workarounds. But the good news is that by making life a little better for users, or at least giving users a bit more control, Facebook is likely to have done just enough to persuade a large swath of users who might have been on the brink of switching to adblocking software not to take the plunge.

One thing’s for sure: the war between adblockers and publishers like Facebook is far from over.

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