The biggest boycott in world history

According to Business Insider, ad blocking is now “approaching 200 million.”†

Calling it a boycott is my wife’s idea. I say she’s right. Look at the definitions:

Merriam-Webster: “to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with (as a person, store, or organization) usually to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions.”

Wikipedia: “an act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for social or political reasons. Sometimes, it can be a form of consumer activism.”

Free Dictionary: “To abstain from or act together in abstaining from using, buying, dealing with, or participating in as an expression of protest or disfavor or as a means ofcoercion.”

Close enough.

Ad blocking didn’t happen in a vacuum. It had causes. We start to see those when we look at how interest hockey-sticked in 2012. That was when ad-supported commercial websites, en masse, declined to respect Do Not Track messages from users:


As we see, interest in Do Not Track fell, while interest in ad blocking rose. (As did ad blocking itself.)

Leading up to this, from 2007 to 2011, advertisers and publishers cranked up tracking-fed advertising, aka “behavioral” advertising. Or, to the business itself, adtech.

Here are Google Trends searches for nine pieces of adtech arcana, none of which were in use before 2007:


other4trendsAdd retargeting to that last one (note: you can’t search more than five terms at a time), and you get this:

5variables-trendsRetargeting is the most obvious form of adtech. It’s how one ad shows up over and over again, at site after site, because some part of adtech’s collective brain (combining all the stuff trending in the graphs above, and more) decides to treat you like one of those enemies in a video game that has to be shot over and over again until it finally blows up. Not surprisingly, as retargeting started to rise, so did searches for “how to block ads”:

block-retargetubg(Original source: Don Marti)

Finally, here’s adblock war, by itself:

gtrends-adblockwarGoogle says data for September, at the right edge of that last chart, is partial. Given the media coverage going to adblock + war (and Apple’s support for “Content Blocking” in IOS 9), interest is sure to stay high.

If we look at this war through the lens of GandhiCon

  1. First they ignore you.
  2. Then they laugh at you.
  3. Then they fight you.
  4. Then you win.

…we’re at GandhiCon 3.

It is typical of business, even on the Internet (where everybody has power, and not just the big institutions), to think that ad blocking is a problem that affects only them, and that it’s up to them to fix it. (A new example: Secret Media.)

Actually, it’s up to us. Because we’ll win. Then we’ll find ourselves saying again what Cluetrain first said for us sixteen years ago:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Deal is the operative verb here. Publishers and companies that advertise have power too, and we need to engage it, not just fight it. (In his speech at the UN today, President Obama had a good one-liner that applies here: “We all have a stake in each other’s success.”)

I describe one path toward engagement in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War, over on the ProjectVRM blog:

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

That path leads to a pair of related outcomes.

One is that ad blockers will evolve to valving systems for accepting advertising’s wheat while rejecting its chaff. (I explain the difference in the first post in this series. Also, sez AdExchanger, 71% of Ad-Block Users Would Consider Whitelisting Sites That Don’t Suck.)

The other is that we’ll help marketers think past abuse and coercion as ways to get what they want out of customers. After that happens, they’ll realize that —

  1. Free customers are more valuable than captive ones
  2. Genuine relationships are worth more than coerced ones
  3. Volunteered (and truly relevant) personal data is worth more than the kind that is involuntarily fracked
  4. Expressions of real intent by customers are worth more than guesswork fed by fracked data

And we’ll prove it to them. Because we’ll have the power to do that, whether they like it or not.

More on all this in my People vs. Adtech series.

† [Added 3 March 2019] The last numbers I could find on this were in 2017, and I reported on them here. They said 1.7 billion people were blocking ads online by that time. No doubt the boycott is at least as big today.


  1. Doc Searls’s avatar

    An excellent simile Wee Red Bird. I’ll be using it. 🙂

  2. Hank Roberts’s avatar


    I still say it’s more like dodging trucks on the Interstate Highway system (which, like the Internet, we paid for to have handy in case the Cold War got hot)

    Dodging this stuff takes attention and effort, and occasionally one comes along that you can’t avoid ….

  3. Dumky’s avatar

    Wee Red Bird, let me know when you find such an ad-funded coffee shop. And let me know if they’ll serve you if you’re wearing ad-blocking AR googles (which is a better analogy than avoiding to look at the ads, a mental impossibility if printed magazines are any indication).

    So again, if you think that ad blocking is honorable and not stealing content, then feel free to let the sites know that you are using an ad blocker. Declare the ad blocker in the user-agent header for instance.

  4. Dumky’s avatar

    Wee Red Bird, a few more thoughts. To be honest, I see some merit to your analogy and it is making me think more (thanks).
    There are many things in a store that I’m not required to pay attention to (although the shopkeeper certainly hopes I do).

    On the other hand, there are relevant differences: (1) content and bandwidth of ad-funded sites are hardly offered as free doughnut samples, (2) automatic blocking is not the same as a lack of attention (and it’s hard to find a real-world analogy, until we get AR).

  5. Jon Husband’s avatar

    Sincere curiosity and honesty on the part of advertisers will be helpful.

  6. Param’s avatar

    This post is really helpful to understand ad-blocking because everyone is facing problems when they got unwanted ads during browsing. I purchased VPS Hosting with ad-blocking facilities and my site free from all adware scripts.

  7. Hank Roberts’s avatar

    > I purchased XYZ Hosting with ad-blocking …
    > and my site free from all adware

    Next up, some way to block bots spamming in comments …

  8. Filipe França’s avatar

    Very Good! I’ll be using it.

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