On Ad Blockers, Ad Culture and Making Digital Display Ads Better

Academically, it’s easy to understand the speedy rise of ad blocking software, as well as the reactions to limit that software’s use. Journalists are quick to offer that ad blocking readers might re-evaluate who or what pays for the free content they’re consuming, that publishers have a right to ads. (Appropriately, this New York Times piece on the software served up two pop-up ads before I was able to read it.) But this glosses over the problem inherent in much display digital advertising and what caused the push to stamp it out.

Digital ad work, especially display, is often irrelevant, uncreative and broadly applied in an unsophisticated way. It’s ugly. It’s simple.

Accepting the basic principle that an ad is trying to influence you, I love engaging in a conversation. I’m willing to suspend, however briefly, my reading and peer over at the ad crying out for attention with a skeptical acceptance, “Ok, ad. What you got?” The best ads convey a deep sense of connection, creativity, and meaning.

Then there’s the chance to look into a culture, as is the case with Cliques and outdoor culture. As a kid, the most influential location of my pre-internet rural upbringing was Hulstrom’s, the local newsstand, with its racks of glossy magazines flanked by penny candy bins. I stole away from Sunday school mornings, offering money in hand, to read articles lauding the merits of owning a bicycle worth more than your car, on what makes Olympic greatness and of the far-off Everest expeditions that defined the 1990s. I clipped images from the ads to hang on my wall, knowing full well I’d never purchase the products. There was beauty and creativity and the invitation to participate in outdoor culture in those ads.

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In the decade since Hulstrom’s has closed and print has given way to the wide array of digital ad work, the translation was lost. The current digital ad environment often skips the invitation to participate culturally, in favor of broader, wider and more superficial entreaties. It misses the part where a channel of communication is only as good as the content, the culture and the context in which a message is sent.

Cliques is built on changing this. The culture silos that define bike, climb, ski and outdoor are far from rigid- there exist countless subcultures within them-  but they hold firm a preconception that those reading a climbing magazine might be compelled by a climbing company ad. That they, like me, would be taken with the creativity of those products or the ads themselves and [gasp] would invite those ads in.

Within the ad industry, fraud is so rife, an entire sub industry has grown to police its integrity.

That this is an industry defined by a lack of honesty, further underscores that the chase for pure numbers, the drive to focus purely on a broad collection of impressions without regard for whether those are people that want to see the ad, that have a cultural connection to the ad, is ultimately not sustainable for business or ad providers alike. (See also the recent AppNexus ad fraud revelations.)

For too long, ads have been stirred into a poorly curated pot and served up without regard. Pairing off ads with a better customer, a closer connection to culture, will only sharpen an ad’s ability to convince, to convey and in a few cases to inspire. The fervor around ad blockers is valid, but remove the unpalatable way ads are served and the call to cut ads wholesale from publications goes away. The conversation that started amidst racks of magazines can continue creatively and to the benefit of all that dare to click in the spirit of learning what’s new, what’s next and what’s happening in the culture that matters to them.

Andrew Gardner is a co-founder of Cliques Ads and the owner of Press Forward PR.

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