A brief history of ad blocking shows it’s not a new problem

The history of ad blocking is a virtual time machine of America’s inventors and their entrepreneurial spirit.

It’s lineage may date back as far as 1928, inspired by two American cousins named Edward M. Knabish and Edwin J. Shoemaker, who partnered in a small furniture business located in Monroe, Michigan. They constructed a reclining, upholstered chair perfectly engineered to support the human body in a prone but sitting position. They described their new invention as “nature’s way of relaxing” and held a contest to give it a name. When coupled with a television, the “La-Z-Boy” recliner became a staple in American living rooms and getting up to change the channel during commercials became unlikely while nestled inside in the chair’s cozy, cocoon-like comfort.

Enter American inventor Robert Adler who was experimenting with a process that would enable remote control of a television using radio waves. His remote device, the “Space Command” used aluminum rods that vibrated when struck by tiny hammers, producing high-frequency tones that would be received by the television set, instructing it to change channels. The device was perfected in the 1960’s as Adler’s remote control was modified to allow ultrasonic signals to communicate complex commands to TV sets, enabling the operator of the remote to block ads by changing the channel during a commercial break – without leaving the comfort of their reclining chair.

But television, you are not alone. In the 1930’s Motorola’s AM radios were appearing in many vehicles.

The invention of the “transistor” lowered costs and made car radios so affordable, they were installed on 50m new cars by 1963.Deadly accidents skyrocketed over time as drivers would take their eyes off the road to change the radio station (perhaps to avoid commercials).

By the 1970s, mechanical preset buttons (likely inspired by Xerox’s early user interface machines) allowed drivers to not only change the radio station while safely watching the road, but it also gave listeners a quick solution to skipping ads. Today, if you’re not using commercial-free satellite radio, then you’re likely punching through presets when the ads come on.

It was in 1999 when the first Digital Video Recorders (DVR’s) arrived in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. TiVo and it’s chief rival ReplayTV not only changed how we watch television, but also the ease at which we skip ads. DirectTV eventually acquired ReplayTV while TiVo continued to evolve and thrive, even today. Viewers quickly learned that they could record a show and tune in to the live broadcast 15 minutes late, and by fast-forwarding through the commercials they would catch-up to the live broadcast by the end of the show, reducing a 30-minute sitcom to a lean 22 minutes. Appointment television made famous with NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday nights gave way to viewers recording everything and zipping right through the ads. Lawsuits by Fox and others followed as advertisers and networks challenged the “consumer’s right” to record shows and skip commercials. Legal means of preventing ad blockers were failing in court and new attempts to block advertisers were hitting the market fast and furious.

In 2004, the legal attempts to prevent the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry failed and millions of Americans were empowered to block telemarketing calls by simply registering their phone number on the “Do Not Call” website.

Mozilla – creators of the Firefox Web browser – later introduced its Do Not Track feature that blocked advertisers from profiling a user’s identity and browser history. Today’s browsers all offer standard features enabling users to surf the web in secret, or employ ad blockers – popular with about 16% of US Internet users according to a new report from Adobe/PageFair – that completely free mobile and desktop browsers from banner ads – literally eliminating them from view by preventing the browser from loading the ad.

In 2012, Satellite television provider Dish Network released its new Auto Hop DVR feature that would automatically skip commercials on programs recorded using its PrimeTime Anytime service. Third-party applications created by DVRMST Toolbox, ComSkip, and ShowAnalyzer use technology to locate commercial segments in a broadcast and save the time code as data, later utilized to identify and remove blocks of commercials from recorded video files.

These applications were compatible with DVR’s manufactured by Windows Media Player among others. And recently, TiVo reappears back on the ad blocking market with its new Bolt DVR that tags the start and end of commercials so that viewers can skip over them with the push of a single, convenient button.

In conclusion, history shows us that ad blocking innovation and consumer’s demand for it is nothing new. Panic over recent methods of digital ad blocking must be put in proper historical context and the consumer’s long-held desire to skip ads must be acknowledged. Despite this, we also understand that advertising provides a valuable service in shaping and informing consumer behavior, accelerating our economy, and enabling wide consumption of low-cost or free products – such as apps or music – where costs are deferred with advertisements. Even consumers would likely agree with these benefits or they can often opt to pay for content so they realize the benefit of what advertising subsidizes.

The key for the digital advertising industry remains the same: to challenge ourselves to serve better and more relevant ads to audiences and be mindful of their frustrations with ad clutter and its negative impact on the brands we serve.

Ad blocking is not the end of our industry. It’s simply an evolution point.

(Written by David Reeve/ EIM Marketing for Silverlight Digital and published by Econsultancy on January 13, 2016)