In the Ads Arms Race, Headphones May be the New Frontier

November 2, 2016

I’ll admit it. I use an ad blocker a lot of the time. Part of it’s because I hate the clutter, yes, but ad blocking also cuts off a common avenue for malware. I’m protecting a lot more than my simple sense of taste here.

And I’m not alone. According to one study, there are now 198 million active ad block users around the world. It’s a Catch-22 almost as old as widespread use of the Internet: no one wants to pay for content, but no one wants to deal with ads, either. However, if content can’t be supported via ad revenue – and if readers are unwilling to comply with (or sometimes even honor) pay walls – there won’t be much Internet to browse. It would seem that the only way for an ad to both drive revenue and avoid either annoying or threatening end-users is for it to be as unobtrusive and tamper-proof as possible while still being effective. That’s a tall order.

Forrester’s James McQuivey sees the way forward as more proactive approaches to advertisement, such as gamification, or even getting closer to the audience: putting ad breaks into headphones themselves.

By integrating ads into headphones’ firmware – or by making them “part” of the headphones in some other way – you circumvent a lot of the opportunity to block them. Additionally, the audio-only medium inherently limits just how in-your-face an ad can get – that is, only in your ear. There are no annoying popups to clog your screen and your RAM or sketchy banner ads to, when accidentally clicked, quietly start a download that could ultimately brick your hard drive.

However, when blocking is no longer an option, there has to be an apparatus in place to prevent “bad” content from getting through. While auditory malware is an unlikely scenario, an ad that begins with an obnoxiously high, piercing note isn’t too far-fetched. Nor is the idea of inappropriate audio ads reaching children. Like so much to do with the Internet, headphone-based ads would fall into a regulatory gray-area. Without government mandates, it may be hard to get the entire headphone industry onboard with ads – headphones without ads could become a selling point, for instance, making ad-ready headphones a hard sell. They could charge consumers more for the ad-free option, but having to pay more for less technology may rub people the wrong way. For these reasons, short of widespread collusion or government oversight, this idea – no matter how potentially perfect in terms of effectiveness, safety and unobtrusiveness – may have trouble getting off the ground, in my opinion.

What do you think?