Prisoners’ dilemma and web advertising

Filed under: web — jlm @ 19:20

I use AdBlock Plus; I installed it after certain weight loss ads featuring ugly caricatured jiggling fat bellies started appearing all over the web, making browsing disgusting. Many people find that web ads make their browsing experience unpleasant in various ways, so adoption of AdBlock Plus and other blockers have been increasing significantly recently. This in turn has web publishers worried, because they see all these visitors showing up on their sites with the ad blockers, so they’re not getting the ad revenue they planned on, and that means more red ink on their balance sheets. (See this current Ars Technia article.) But when I turn ABP off, the web becomes intolerably hostile: Sites are slower, and when they do load they’re full of flashing ads and I get ad copy playing over my speakers and popping up over the text I came to the page to read. So now visitors are fed up, they block all that crap, and publishers can’t make their ad money, they shut down, visitors have no where to go, and everybody loses.

What happened? It was supposed to be visitors get “free” content because the publishers are ad supported, and this worked for a while. But this relies on the implicit social compact that visitors don’t block ads, which has as its unstated counterpart that publishers don’t make their ads so intrusive that visitors get annoyed by them. So I think we have a situation similar to a prisoners’ dilemma: visitors can defect by blocking ads, improving their own browsing experience but denying publishers their ad revenue; publishers can defect by showing intrusive ads, bringing in more revenue but destroying the visitors’ browsing experience. (It’s not quite a PD, because the payoffs are the same when the visitors defect regardless of whether the publishers do.) It seems to me that the publishers defected first, coveting the additional money from the worse ads, and we’re now seeing a tit-for-tat from the visitors, fueled by annoyance at the publishers’ defection.

And my experiment of turning ABP off shows that the publishers are still defecting, and defecting “harder” than before. Whatever your position on the morality of browsing with ads blocked, I think we’re going to see more visitors turning to blocking as long as intrusive ads are ubiquitous in web publishing. If the publishers go back to simple ads, which don’t move and flash and pop-over and piss users off, then publishers won’t see new internet users installing ad blockers, and us existing ad block users will be more inclined to turn our blockers off. But we’re going to continue defecting as long as the publishers are.

The Ars Technia article is titled “Why Ad Blocking is devastating to the sites you love”, but from the other side it could be called “Why intrusive advertising is destroying your users’ tolerance for your business model”. The publishers defected long before the visitors did, and turned a deaf ear to user complaints, and so I’m unsympathetic to cries from them that we’re now defecting too. Publishers have been pissing in the pool for years, and now they’re surprised users are putting on full-body wet-suits? Blame us ad-blockers all you like, but until you look in the mirror and make the web tolerable to surf without an ad blocker, the situation won’t get better for either of us.


  1. If there were only 2 parties involved (publisher/advertiser, and reader), it would be more like the prisoners’ dilemma. However, there are many publishers and advertisers, leading to a “tragedy of the commons”. As a publisher or advertiser, my decision whether to defect by deploying unpleasant (to some readers) but rewarding (to me) ads doesn’t totally determine readers’ payoffs for defecting (blocking ads) or not. As a publisher, some readers are going to block my ads whether I display unpleasant ads or not, so I might as well display the ones that bring in the most revenue in the short term, because if I don’t show them, some other site will.

    I wonder if there’s any way to construct a rating system, where a publisher could pledge to only show ads below a certain level of offensiveness, and ABP could be configured to block ads from sites above a certain threshold of offensiveness. The hard parts are policing the system to prevent cheating (publishers or ad networks sneaking in more offensive ads), and creating an ordered hierarchy of offensiveness that would satisfy enough readers and advertisers.

    Comment by Jeremy Leader — 8-Mar-2010 @ 11:56

  2. That’s a good point. I think maybe the ideal would be to have some kind of industry association of web advertisers, so that the industry would be closer to a single actor deciding whether or not to defect, and tit-for-tat analysis would become more relevant than tragedy of the commons analysis.

    I do like your idea of rating ads, so I could tell ABP/whatever to whitelist sites that only use (say) text and static images. But as you say, setting up these groups and policing their membership are hard problems. I’m not sure the “intrusiveness” of advertising has to be on a linear scale — ads could be tagged “flashing” or “audible” etc. and ABP users could select one or the other as allowed based on their tastes.

    Maybe the ad-blockers themselves could rate and so “police” sites? “Ah hah, this site is using pop-overs, no ad impression for you.” The ad-blocking side would have to get over its scorched-earth attidute to dealing with web advertising, but that might be more doable than the advertisers banding together.

    Comment by jlm — 8-Mar-2010 @ 13:14

  3. Where did you learn about this? Can you give me the source?

    Comment by tv fool — 23-Jul-2010 @ 21:37

  4. The Ars article is still up (link in orig. post).
    The rest is just from my experience as an Internet user and worker in the web advertising industry and general knowledge.
    If you do/don’t use AdBlock Plus (or another blocker), I encourage you to spend some time using the web with/without it to experience (anew) the difference between the browsing experience. I find it very striking and telling.
    The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a famous bit of game theory. There’s a Wikipedia article, a long detailed discussion at Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and more search engine results than you can shake a stick at.

    Comment by jlm — 30-Jul-2010 @ 08:59

  5. Interesting observation that reducing the number of players in the Tragedy of the Commons turns it into the Prisoners Dilemma.

    I found this post while doing research for a post of my own. I see you’ve independently pondered the possibility of trying to block only bad ads. I have a potential answer to your question of why an ad-blocker user would choose that option.


    (In my post, I linked to this post as an example of anti-advertising sentiment. I hope you don’t mind the turn of phrase I came up with for the hyperlink: “showing me ads is like kicking me in the groin in the hope that a penny will fly out of my pocket”)

    Comment by Jesse Ruderman — 10-Aug-2011 @ 17:49

  6. I just updated adblockplus, and it pointed me to an apparently new feature: https://adblockplus.org/en/acceptable-ads which looks interesting if it catches on.

    Comment by Jeremy Leader — 20-Dec-2011 @ 11:28

  7. Yes, I saw that too with my recent update.
    Pleasantly surprised to see this making its way into ABP. I hope it actually pushes the web ad ecosystem in a better direction.
    I’ve seen very few of the ads getting through, though it’s only been a couple days. Happily, they were static ads. No clicks from me so far though, just impressions. 🙂

    Comment by jlm — 20-Dec-2011 @ 14:40

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