Ad Blocker 2020: An invisibility cloak for the wild wild web?

An ad blocker of the nearest future is yet another personal assistant, that guides you to your profit and safety through the labyrinth of marketing technologies. Today ad blockers hide ads from you — tomorrow they will have to hide you from ads.

Personal assistants have recently become a very trendy type of apps. Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant are being used globally; local markets have their own products, like Alisa by Yandex in Russia or Duer by Baidu in China. But what do ad blockers have in common with these apps that tell you the weather, build routes, search the web and manage events in your calendar?

The evolution of ad blocking follows the evolution of marketing and advertising. So, in order to complete our History of Ad Blocking by an insight into the blocking future, we need to look into the future of ads.


ads of the past, so cute and naive

The future of advertising is data — Big Data, and small data, and data of every other size, color and flavor. Machine learning, face and voice recognition, Internet of Things — more and more new types and sources of data.

It is such a temptation to believe marketologists that more data means better ads, more relevant and useful, less annoying ones. But actually, the purpose of any commercial company is to raise profits, not to make our lives better.

New technologies give commercial enterprises many opportunities to use our data in ways that are not in our own best interests. One of the most innovative examples, a strategy that is becoming more and more popular and sophisticated nowadays, is price personalization.

Hide Yourself To Escape Price Discrimination

А cost of an item may vary significantly for different users with different online behavior. Tickets for one specific flight, for example, may now have different prices on a given website for a first-time site visitor, a frequent flyer or an affluent consumer.

Research reveals examples of different prices for the same item in the same store for visitors with different online behaviors, geographiс locations, or previous purchases. Some shops do not change prices but arrange search results differently when users search for an item on the site. Users are most likely to click the top search results, so a change in order impacts their choice.


everything was clear and simple in the old days

Data-driven advertising threatens not only your financial well-being, but it can also attack your emotional well-being and even mental health. Businesses learn to understand your emotions and use them, not just to study and follow the states of your mind but to actually induce and control them.

Pretend You Are Healthy and Active While Laying On A Sofa

Advertising has tried to manipulate your emotions, to control the release of your hormones and neurotransmitters for the entire history of its existence. But new technologies take it to a whole new level.

Marketers, politicians, headhunters and many other professionals are interested in measuring and controlling the functions of your mind and body.

  • Fitness trackers and other ‘wearable tech’ provide advertisers with data about our sleep, activities, wellbeing, nutrition, locations and even our love life. What some of us actually wear are really just fashionable polygraphs, through which corporations can read our minds like open books. An insurance company can set a policy price dependent how active and healthy you are according to your Fitbit’s transmissions.
  • Brands learn to track and measure personal emotional responses to ads. But they also learn to use for ad targeting the emotions people already have. Facebook, for example, was caught targeting teens that feel vulnerable, "stressed", "worthless" or "insecure" and selling them goods that could be "confidence boosters".
  • "Reactions" on Facebook also help to keep track of your emotional ups and downs. Shortly after the launch of this feature the Belgian police advised citizens not to use it since it gives away personal information and makes a user vulnerable to manipulation Besides, the network has already experimented with altering the emotional states of its audience.
  • The Xbox by Microsoft knows how to measure the heart rate and some other physiological metrics of several people in a room (there are also ideas of how to use it for elections, to track the success of political debates)
Join the 'Non-Transparency International' organization

What is worse, nowadays your data is not only data about you. A chart of social connections, that shows how anyone is linked to anybody else, is at the disposal of Google, Facebook and other big data owners — as well as some of their clients, partners, and advertisers. So even if you decided to become totally transparent, like Mae Holland from "The Circle", you might want to respect the desire of your connections to keep a little privacy for themselves.

That is why the ad blocker of the near future will have to act like some kind of sidekick of a superhero spy — a modest but mighty personal assistant, that helps you hide your identity from greedy corporations and obscures your digital footprint. If you had the imprudence to Google fancy yachts, the ad blocker assistant would try to make sure you didn’t end up in the audience segment called "rich spender" and see prices twice as high as everybody else in online shops. If your heart starts beating faster when you read about the new iPhone, it will be your ad blocker’s task not to let Apple find out.

This assistant will probably have to do some reverse engineering for you, to help you understand why you are seeing this or that ad, why you are receiving such and such personalized offer, or to find out how fair a price actually is, and would not it lower significantly when the rain stops, or when Sunday turns into Monday or when you log in/log out.

The ad blocker-assistant of the future is not just a bodyguard, it is an adviser whose single directive is to protect your interests. The only way such a product is possible for an ad blocker developing company to create is to not have any business with advertisers, ad tech companies, marketing agencies and other players in this market.


manipulations occured, but were so straightforward

Besides price personalization and new levels of data mining, there are several technology trends that will shape advertising in the near future, and therefore, ad blocking.

1. Voice services and interfaces

Speech recognition and speech synthesis technologies are giving us voice search, navigation, personal assistants and so on. They also raise new questions regarding privacy and ad overload.

We’ve already published a blog post about the evidence that Facebook and Instagram listen to your offline conversations in order to target ads.

Voice biometrics is a very promising technology as well. It allows recognition of a person by his or her voice (and therefore is able to collect more information about his or her behavior and habits, in order to target advertising). Additionally, this technology allows to determine the physical and emotional state of a person: agitated, frightened, sick, aroused…

We believe that blockers will probably have to "learn" how to interfere with voice biometrics and speech recognition anytime these do not serve a user's interests (for example, voice-activated phone unlocking or payment confirmations.)

2. Personal assistants

These apps have access to a huge range of your personal data: such as searches, history of purchases, habits, home and work addresses, travel and navigational routes, health problems, daily schedules, and so on. The potential for abuse of this data is, accordingly, huge. The challenge for an ad blocker will be to protect the assistant's owner without hindering the useful functions of the assistant.

The other problem is: the voice recommendations of a personalized digital helper (whose persona you helped create in your own image and likeness) will be perceived differently than traditional banners or other ad formats. Ads will take the shape of a friendly advice in a soft (or sexy, like "Her") voice. Such "recommendations" will be harder to ignore — and much easier to follow, since all you have to do is just tell your assistant "yes, buy this amazing stuff for me", and a good app will do the rest. An ad blocker, in turn, will have to work on this tenuous borderline between requested information or relevant recommendations — and intrusive ads.


at least now we don't get upset by ads targeted not on us

3. Native ads and other new ad formats

The challenge here also is to differentiate ads from other types of content. As more and more ambiguous ad formats appear, ad blocking can become a really personalized operation. That is why we see the ad blocker of the future as a digital personal assistant: it will have to learn the views and habits of its owner and filter the Web according to his or her personal needs and requirements.

Native advertising, for example, implies content that promotes a brand but claims to be of some value on its own. It could be an article, like "How not to be deceived when selling your house", written by a real estate professional, filled with cases and good advice, promoting his agency or himself. Or a cheerful test "What type of a teddy bear you are", from a toy vendor. Texts and articles can also be of different quality. And the user can be in different moods: there are times when a silly test with a clickbait header is just what a person wants, and there are times when no rubbish is welcome.

Perhaps the solution will not be in blocking ambiguous content, but in marking it. If media providers are reluctant to label promotional texts as such, an ad blocker should not hesitate to do this.

5. Alternative ways to monetize sites and applications

The mission here is pretty much the same as with native ads: to understand what is permissible and what is not. For example, as we reported not so long ago, websites began to use their visitors' computers for crypto-currency mining. We believe that this is permissible if the user has been warned, have agreed and understood what he agreed to allow. Without this, such activity is unacceptable.

Who knows what other methods of moneymaking companies will come up with, that utilize certain assets of a user’s computer, be it CPU power, time or attention?

Ad blocker developers can do two things here: they can watch the progress of web technologies closely in order to keep track of new ideas and assess their "user friendliness". And they can grow and value the community of users that forms around their app, listening to feedback that they receive and understanding the needs of their clientele.

Ludmila Kudryavtseva

Ludmila is a true Pro when it comes to research and content creation. While others write texts, she paints with words. Not even our competitors can resist the urge to comment on her articles!

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