Earlier in 2016, so-called ‘ad blockers’ hit the headlines after a growth in their popularity sparked almost universal concern that website revenues would be dented significantly. And while much of the noise surrounding the technology has died down in recent months, there are signs that an underground war still rages on.

Indeed, earlier this month Facebook announced that it would ‘begin showing ads on Facebook desktop for people who currently use ad blocking software’. A bold move against the flow of consumer decision making. But it’s easy to see why social media’s leading power made such a move; it’s ad revenues stood at over $17bn for 2015 alone.

Below we take a look at Facebook’s circumvention of adblocking software, what it’s doing to improve the experience of its users, and whether the issue lies with advertising generally, or the relevance of advertising in 2016.

The Justification

Of course, Facebook didn’t justify its decision in financial terms. Instead, it argued that the growth in negative sentiment toward advertising was a direct result of ‘bad ads’.

‘…ads that obscure the content we’re trying to read, ads that slow down load times or ads that try to sell us things we have no interest in buying. Bad ads are disruptive and a waste of our time.’

Admitting that your ads are sometimes bad is the first step toward fixing the issue. And Facebook, in the same post, announced a raft of changes designed to put ad control in the hands of the user. Not a fan of travel ads? You can now stop them from appearing.

Relevant ads, Facebook argues, ‘can be useful, helping us find new products and services and introducing us to new experiences’. Ad blockers, it says, are growing in popularity not because of all ads, but because of the fundamentally disruptive ones.

The Ad Wars: Relevance vs. Blocking

Financial pressures and the obfuscation of revenues (on both sides) aside, the rise of ad blockers tells a very clear story; that consumers weren’t – or aren’t – content with the state of the advertising industry. But it’s not as simple as that – is it ever?

Ad blockers would argue that all ads are bad, that no user should have to be subjected to any form of advertising. Facebook, on the other hand, says that users like and benefit from advertising, as long as it’s relevant and engaging.

But which is it? Or is there some middle ground to be found?

Interestingly, in a study conducted by HubSpot it was found that Facebook advertising is actually among the least hated forms of advertising, on par with ‘TV Advertising’ at 42% of people. In fact, the most hated forms of advertising were the most intrusive; ‘Online Pop-Ups’ (73%) and ‘Ads On My Mobile Phone’ (70%).

The same study also revealed that the majority of people ‘agree ads are more intrusive and prevalent today’. And with ‘magazine/print ads’ only hated by 18% of those surveyed, clearly it isn’t advertising itself that is the problem.

Perhaps Facebook, is suffering from finding itself in the same arena (browsers) as irritating popups and in-line mobile advertising?

An Arms Race

Well, perhaps that was, and is, true. But a mere two days after circumventing the issue of ad blockers as work-around had been discovered and implemented – Adblock Plus. Though not as effective as the original ad blocking technology, this software has been specifically designed to block Facebook’s unblocked advertising.

In a blog post, Ben Williams of Adblock Plus wrote:

“This sort of back-and-forth battle between the open-source ad-blocking community and circumventers has been going on since ad blocking was invented; so it’s very possible that Facebook will write some code that will render the filter useless — at any time.”

Falling short of raising concerns about the problem of advertising on Facebook specifically, this blog post suggests that entering into a digital pitch-battle with the social media giant may be more about the challenge than the issue of annoying or intrusive advertising itself.

An Insider’s Point of View

For our part, we’ve run advertising campaigns on Facebook for countless clients. And we can say for certain that granular targeting and the curation of relevant content according to age, gender and interest yields consistently better results.

Remaining as close to objectivity as possible, the fact that our social media advertising generally yields far higher click through rates than average suggests two things; firstly, that relevance breeds interest and secondly, that there’s a great deal of ‘bad advertising’ on Facebook.

Whatever the motivations of the adblocking community, it’s likely that this war will continue to simmer underground, surfacing occasionally upon the conclusion of individual battles. But what’s for certain is that Facebook isn’t, or wasn’t, the original agitator for the growth of adblocking. There is certainly some truth to Facebook’s claim that relevance is king.