Ad-blocking: a Darwin's wedge?

The economist Robert H Frank coined the term "Darwin's wedge" to describe situations in which stuff evolves to benefit the individual but is actually bad...

Look, for instance, at the elephant seal. Bull elephant seals are huge. They can weigh as much as 6,000 pounds. They’re five times bigger than female seals; they’re twice as heavy as the average car. During the mating season, this is to the individual’s advantage. Mature bulls battle each other for hours. The victorious bull claims exclusive access to the female harem of as many as 100 cows.

As a species, this is a disadvantage. It makes them far more vulnerable to sharks.

The bull elk is another case in point. Similarly, the bull elk must battle against all other bull elks in his tribe to gain access to lady elks. In the battle, the size of the antler is key – the bigger, the better. Furthermore, since the winning bull elk will most likely have bigger antlers, his descendants will acquire the big-antler gene. The largest antlers of the North American bull elk measure more than four feet and weigh more than 40 pounds. Again, this is terrific for an individual, sex-starved elk. Not so terrific for the species because big antlers make it much harder to run away from wolves, especially through woods.

This is Darwin’s wedge.

If you judge success for online ads in a short-term way, the better your ad is at generating clicks, the better it is for you. It doesn’t matter much that you’re annoying people. You couldn’t care less if people are clicking on your ad by mistake when they actually wanted to check the weather. You’re counting clicks, not sales – and, anyway, a .0001 per cent conversion might well be your business model.

What’s great for the individual (the specific ad) is not so great for the species (ads in general). Because if you get really annoyed with your inability to avoid ads on your mobile (because those ads got better at tricking you into interacting with them), you may consider installing an ad-blocker.

There are lots of statistics about how big the threat is from ad-blockers. Deloitte’s 2016 Technology, Media And Telecommunications Predictions report is relatively relaxed about it. Deloitte predicts that just 0.3 per cent of all mobile-device owners will use an ad-blocker this year. At the recent Guardian conference, on the other hand, it was quoted that more than 80 per cent of German millennial men used ad-blockers (provoking a huge gasp from the audience).

Most people may well not bother with ad-blockers. But the better the algorithm performs – or, in our Frank analogy, evolves to deliver a short-term metric such as click-through – the more annoying the website will seem. While few consumers ever openly admit to loving ads, most don’t go out of their way to avoid them all the time – they just don’t have the energy. But tell them that the page they want to read will load five times faster with an ad-blocker installed or how much they’re paying for data that the ads are eating…

Frank’s solution to Darwin’s wedge problems in business is tax. We could tax annoying ads – imposed, perhaps, by the Internet Advertising Bureau? Can’t see that happening any time soon. But the industry should at least try its best by following the IAB's LEAN initiative.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom