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Thought Leadership

This piece originally appeared in MediaPost.

The ad industry is facing a Hollywood-style potential apocalypse—and the only question is will it turn out like Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow?

The growing and real threat is that software and hardware being developed and used today can cut out ads altogether. And like our machine nemesis from The Matrix—the machines don’t care if they are good ads or bad ads, helpful or annoying. Once they are in charge it’s simply Ad-mageddon.

It should come as no surprise that people are using technology to cut down on ads. According to various studies, we are exposed to between 3,000 to 6,000 advertising messages a day. Considering how many of these messages, paid to grab our attention, are completely irrelevant to us, it’s more surprising we aren’t more outraged.

According to Nielsen, we will spend two years of our lives watching TV commercials. Compare that to the mere 48 days, on average, we will spend kissing during our lifetimes and the issue becomes very clear: our lives are being wasted as we wait through completely irrelevant ads. This general disdain is not new—but the tools and technology to mobilize those feelings into action are.

By the way, it’s not just consumers who should be outraged. Advertisers should be outraged as well. It does them no good when they pay for ads that reach the wrong people.

It seems that as soon as there were mass media to advertise in, there were people complaining about the ads. “Many of the claims made for products were excessive and often mendacious, bringing advertising into disrepute well before the turn of the [19th] century,” wrote Jeremiah O’Sullivan Jr. in The Social And Cultural Effects of Advertising.

So why is today’s impending doom any more real than last year’s, or when the VHS became fashionable?

There are two reasons that this time the threats are not idle—they come in the form of hardware and software.

There are machines that let consumers skip TV ads. DVR penetration in the U.S. now stands at 63%. And if ads people see during their favorite shows remain mostly irrelevant, the number of people using their DVRs to skip ads will continue to climb. Once people have decided to skip ads it will be very difficult to convince them to go back to the old ad-filled ways.

The latest and most telling development is the release of software that simply helps people “turn off” ads on digital platforms. Two weeks ago, three of the top ten iPhone apps in the App Store were ad-blocking apps. Yes, people have been grumbling about ads forever, but the tech landscape has now provided an outlet to turn those feelings into actions that have a very real and very deep impact.

Back to our central question: is the industry facing an Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow scenario? Otherwise stated, is this a story that can have a happy ending?

The good news is that just as technology has empowered a potentially cataclysmic industry event, it also has the power to fix the problem. Search advertising has proven that the information typed into the search bar provides a rich indication of what the perfect accompanying ads should be. Today, people, through things like search terms, are constantly sending out signals about what brand message they are most open to. On YouTube, that little search box has the power to make sure the ads are finding the right people at the right time.

Mobile opens new worlds of data that can use location to provide even more accuracy in the game of matchmaking the right ad messages to the right consumer at the right time. The digital world has the data to save the day. But the clock is running out. Many of the digital giants are holding onto the data that might be the cure for the entire industry.

Time is the factor. We have to improve the accuracy of connecting the right ads to the right people at the right time before the ad industry self-destructs. We have the tools, and the need—now all we have to do is realize the asteroid is hurtling towards us. Moving slowly is the same as doing nothing at all.

Modified image via Ryan Hyde

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