Do adblockers favour legacy brands?

With the advent of ‘content-blocking’ in iOS 9, I run an adblock on all my devices* – desktop, laptop, phone, and tablet. Like several hundred million other people, I see next-to-no display adverts on the web. After a few days it becomes so normal to see the online world without ads that it’s a genuine shock when you have to turn your adblocker off.

Assuming that adblocker usage grows and isn’t negated by in-app advertising (e.g. in Facebook and Twitter) or native ads (e.g. in Buzzfeed), who does this favour? Could it be the biggest ‘legacy’ brands from Proctor and Gamble and Heinz who can afford to run expensive, unblockable ad campaigns during live TV events, along with outdoor display advertising? After all, I can’t run an adblocker on my eyes quite yet, so I still see billboards and posters and store promotions – most of which seem to be for the biggest and oldest brands.

Perhaps their ultimate advantage will be small. Adblocker uptake on mobile devices won’t be significant for a few years, which is plenty of time for big and small companies to find alternatives. Although I’m not sure what the alternative will be when we have heads-up displays that do block ads.

*I offset my guilt about this by spending quite a bit of money on subscriptions and memberships

Peak Ad Irritation

Using Adblock on my desktop browser gives me a completely unrealistic view of the internet. Websites magically become temples to content and information; they are unsullied by commercial interests and bias; they place my interests as a reader above all else. I can’t imagine using the internet without it. I realise I’m potentially depriving sites of ad revenue (which is why I subscribe my favourites) but I confess I don’t find it hard to justify.

You can’t get an adblocker for Safari on the iPhone or iPad. For some reason this hasn’t bothered me in the past, partly because I used Instapaper and RSS readers a lot, and partly because zooming into specific columns of text meant that ads in sidebars tended to be hidden.

But no longer. Cast your eyes upon this travesty:

Captured from my iPad from the Guardian yesterday. The ad animation is artificially lengthened in this video due to the capturing process, but when I timed it separately, it lasted for 30 seconds (15 seconds, looped twice).

The bright colours combined with the motion graphics made it impossible for me to concentrate on reading the article – and because it was in-line with the text, and because the iPad shows quite a lot of text in a single screen, I couldn’t simply scroll past it quickly as I might do on a phone. My only option was to turn on Reader mode, stripping out all the noise from the page.

I dearly hope that distracting ads like this don’t become more common, as I’ll have to start using Reader mode all the time, or investigate using an alternative browser that can block ads (on Android, I believe Firefox can do this through extensions).

Augmented Reality: Paleofuture in Action

This month’s issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine has an augmented reality feature in which you use a smartphone to ‘bring the cover to life’. It’s far from the first magazine to do it, and it’s hard to miss adverts on the tube or at bus stops that have some variation of ‘scan this advert to see something cool’. I’ve never actually seen anyone do this, but in the spirit of inquiry I decided to test exactly how long it would take to make this happen.

Here are the steps required for Harper’s Bazaar:

  1. Unlock my iPhone 4
  2. Go to Home Screen
  3. Open the App Store
  4. Switch to the Search tab
  5. Type in ‘Zappar’
  6. Select ‘Zappar’ from the list of apps
  7. Tap to download (3.1MB)
  8. Type in my password
  9. Wait for the download to complete
  10. Open Zappar
  11. Skip the tutorial
  12. Select ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ from the list of ‘zaps’
  13. Tap to download this specific ‘zap’ (4.4MB)
  14. Wait for the download to complete
  15. Tap ‘Zap’ to start the AR feature
  16. Watch the thing

That’s a lot of steps. Going at full speed and using a wifi connection, plus starting from step 2, it took me 90 seconds from start to finish. If I wasn’t in such a hurry I would imagine it’d take about 2 minutes, and if you actually bothered to swipe through the Zappar tutorial you’re looking at 3 minutes.

But at least with a magazine there’s a good chance you’ll be at home when you’re reading it and on a fast wifi connection; plus you might be more inclined to try it since you bought the thing – why anything imagines that someone would do this while walking around outside is beyond me.


It would be OK if what you got was the most awesome augmented reality experience ever, but with Harper’s Bazaar, it was just a video. To be precise, I watched a video superimposed onto a magazine cover that I’m looking at through the camera of my iPhone. My iPhone screen isn’t that huge, and when the video only covers part of the magazine, it’s really quite tiny. If it was a great video, then you’d probably want to watch it on a computer or tablet, or at the very least, full screen on the iPhone; but here it’s just a gimmick, and a bad one at that since it pales in comparison to superior gimmicks that show 3D objects or similar.

So basically my point here is that it’s a big waste of money. What’s new? Precisely nothing at all – we’re just seeing augmented reality go through the classic hype curve in which a new technology makes possible something that we’ve always wanted to have (i.e. Terminator-vision) but in a form that is manifestly unsuited to most applications. Consider:

  • There is no standard platform and it’s not built-in to phones. If you want to view any AR, you must download a special app, and people underestimate the public’s tolerances for downloading any old thing.
  • It’s not hands free, and usually you’re extending your hands right out in front of you. It severely limits interaction possibilities, plus it’s not comfortable to hold that position for more than a few minutes.
  • Most applications are desperately unimaginative, often involving advertising or some kind of navigation system that’s better executed in standard top-down maps.
  • It’s too small. How much useful information can you overlay onto a small screen that only displays a tiny slice of the world? I have no doubt that pictures like this will make kids of the future crack up with laughter and be featured in the Paleofuture blog of 2031:

Screen Shot 2011-12-29 at 13.09.29

None of these challenges are insurmountable, but it’s foolish at best and disingenuous at worst to suggest that smartphone-based AR is anything other than experimental and highly unlikely to provide any conventional return. So, hey, if you’ve got money to burn, by all means play around with AR, although it wouldn’t hurt to try something a bit more interesting; but if you don’t (as is the case for most of the publishing industry), save your cash. No-one wants AR yet because there has been no clear demonstration of its strengths above and beyond what we already have.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.

British Airways and Time-Travelling Commercials

British Airways unveiled their big new commercial recently, as part of their £20 million advertising campaign:

It has a Downton Abbey/Mad Men retro vibe, mixed with a go-getting drive to the future; we’re meant to admire these brave ‘young men’ (as they’re always called – not ‘young people’ and certainly not ‘young women’) as they venture forth to build ‘superhighways in an unknown sky’.

For all the gorgeous visuals, the overwrought narration destroys any chance of nostalgia by continually reminding us what we should feel, eventually descending into a mish-mash of increasingly similar-looking shiny planes (including, amusingly, the Concorde, which conveniently zooms out of sight at the end lest we start thinking too hard). It could have been much more powerful if they had just a little bit more confidence in themselves.

It reminded me of two, better, time-travelling commercials that also try to impress viewers with their company’s longevity:

Hovis’ attempt is better simply because it’s more interesting and doesn’t have any godawful narration. However, the fact that it has practically nothing at all to do with bread is perhaps not the wisest of choices.

As an aside, these sorts of ‘historical vignette’ stories always make me wonder what would happen next, after the present day; might the little boy jump into a driverless car and then zoom off on a spaceplane to avoid the AI civil war in 2030? Speaking of vignettes, Hovis is clearly hitching its wagon to what it feels are all of Britain’s finest moments like suffragettes, wars, the 60s, miners’ strikes, and, bizarrely, the millennium fireworks celebration. One might have thought that a gay pride parade wouldn’t be amiss, but perhaps that’s too risque for such an old brand.

Then there’s the master:

I still remember watching Honda’s ‘The Impossible Dream’ commercial for the first time. Not only did I immediately go and download Andy Williams’ song, but I watched the video again at least a few times. Unlike Hovis, it’s actually about what Honda makes – cars, vehicles, and other transportation devices – and unlike British Airways, it has enough confidence in its message and audience that it doesn’t need to tell people what to think.

One can only imagine what British Airways’ advertising geniuses would have put on top of it:

Those first young men, the pioneers, the drivers, building superhighways across an unknown land … roaring across roads to go really fast … they didn’t have seatbelts or shit like that, they drove where they were no traffic lights … they drove motorbikes, small cars, big cars, fast cars, and hey, even a motorboat! We follow them to fulfill an unbreakable promise*, the same four words stitched into every uniform of every engineers who builds our stuff: The Power of Dreams.

Luckily, that didn’t happen and we got a good commercial instead. And while I’d be the first person to be cynical about what commercials are meant to do (often, to get us to buy things we don’t need), I’d rather watch a good commercial than a bad one.

(*Is it wise to make ‘unbreakable promise’ in a commercial? I suppose if it’s as vague or uninspiring as BA’s “To Fly. To Serve.” then it doesn’t really matter)

Sadly, someone at Honda decided to update ‘The Impossible Dream’ last year, adding on some boring scenes with robots and completely robbing the commercial of its dramatic, uplifting, and frankly inspired (since, after all, the song – and the video – is about Don Quixote) ending. Somehow, a guy slipping into a nice jacuzzi doesn’t elicit the same emotion:

I’ll leave you with a final commercial I discovered while trawling YouTube that proves that at least someone at British Airways once had a sense of humour, even if they presumably got fired five minutes after this aired:

Have I missed any good time-travelling story commercials? Let me know!


There’s an advert on TV for I, Robot where a typically breathless voiceover proclaims that in the movie, ‘Will Smith defines excitement’. For some reason I can’t get out of my head the image of Will Smith beginning the movie by reading out the definition for ‘excitement’ from a dictionary.

More on Cog

I just watched the DVD for Honda’s Cog advert, which you can order for free, and it has clearly been made with the same loving craziness and ingenuity that the advert enjoyed. There’s a ‘making of’ feature, about five minutes long, in which they interview the makers and show some outtakes. There’s also an ‘Illustrated Guide to the Parts’ which is written in a tongue-in-cheek way. Finally, there are promotional movies (not adverts!) of the Accord cars, and an excerpt of the Sugarhill Gang soundtrack video.

Definitely a DVD worth getting, not only because it’s free. There’s not a spot of advertising on the DVD (apart from the ad itself, of course), and not a mention of the word Honda anywhere on the packaging. Clever guys, Honda – they know how to get people to like them. (Incidentally, you can also order the DVD over the phone by calling 0845 200 8000)


Cog (4MB Quicktime) – It’s been mentioned in a few places on the net already, but this new advert by Honda is an understated work of art. Some more info at

Sing a Song of Esso

Guerrilla advertising – Meg has cleared up a mystery for me! When I was in London last week, I saw a lot of anti-Esso Poems on the Underground which surprised me no end since I couldn’t see how the London Underground could get away with it. It turns out that someone has been printing and pasting these poems on top of existing ones such that they look, on the face of it, indistinguishable. Very clever.

Undercover marketing

Is this Lord of the Rings Winamp Skin really by New Line Cinema? It certainly looks like it, and if so, it’s quite a clever piece of work. It’s had almost half a million downloads so far, and for the price of however long it took an artist to design it, it’s generated an incredible return.