Nah, it won't install: The return of the ad-blocker-blocker

Take it off! Cover it up! I don't know what I want any more!

The two flavours of Reg Classic T-shirt

Something for the Weekend, Sir? If I give you some money, would you take your clothes off? Now that's what I call premium service.

This is just my personal fantasy, of course. I wouldn't really stop passers-by and ask them to remove their apparel. Not since the restraining order, anyway.

As I wander along my local high street, advertisements glare at me from all angles: drive-by billboards, backlit posters at bus stops, animated clips on large displays, shop signs, and so on. And that's just fine by me. If I'm not interested in an ad, I can turn away and it is immediately silenced; besides, I will have walked past it soon enough.

No, the ads on the high street I take exception to are the ones that keep darting into my field of vision, jiggling about unnervingly, shoving themselves into my face, circling me on both sides, sometimes even following me around, and repeating themselves again and again no matter where I look.

These are the ads on legs. They live! They are you!

One of the great retail marketing cons of the second half of the last century was to convince everyone that choosing a brand outweighed the value of choosing a product.

I know plenty of otherwise intelligent people who fail to see any problem with buying clothes that bear the retailer's logo on the outside. Why the hell you want to set yourself up as an unpaid walking advert for someone else's company is anyone's guess.

Sure, much of the time you don't get any choice unless you're prepared to get out the sewing scissors at home and unpick the logo stitching. But actually handing over your own cash for the privilege of having "GAP" screaming across your chest in 90,000pt font makes you more of a social victim than that poor sod of a PhD student standing at the street corner holding a wooden pole with a sign at the top reading "Golf Sale this way". At least he's getting paid to do it.

In every other walk of life, ads can be managed. With printed publications, I can just turn the page. With TV, I can switch channel or fast-forward. In fact, in the digital space, I can turn ads off altogether.

Supposedly the easiest way to hide ads on the web is to block them. Regular readers of this column will know I'm not a great fan of ad-blockers for reasons of unashamed self-interest but let's face it, even for me it's a last resort that does the trick.

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Just try to visit UK daily newspaper The Independent without an ad-blocker (remembering to disable media autoplay as you go) and you'll find yourself mired in a swirling nightmare of digital ad manure that keeps jumping around but never completes loading. Try it on a smartphone: I challenge you to read one news article from top to bottom without having to keep scrolling back up 17 times because a relentless turdheap of incongruous ads keeps emptying its bowels into your face and pushing the text out of the way.

Try all you like to be high-minded about the commercial needs of a media business but, hell, sometimes you just have to fight back with another of those ad-blockin' beats.

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Could someone invent an ad-blocker for real life? That would be something. All those divs and twerps sporting deckchair sacks labelled Tommy Hilfiger and black plastic bin-liners with massive Superdry logos on the back could be pushed into side streets as I make my way down town.

The much more practical Mme Dabbsy has no patience for such fantasy. Unwanted advertising is a matter she takes into her own hands in a very real and physical way. If it's there, she removes it. If it's fixed in place, she rips it away.

She is the very nemesis of newsagent shelf-stackers.

Woe betide anyone picking up a copy of Radio Times after Mme D has been browsing the magazines, because they will find a stack two or three inches thick of loose ad inserts from other titles unceremoniously dumped into it. Shaking the loose inserts onto the floor seems to upset the staff so over time she has developed a slick technique of emptying them directly from one magazine to another without being challenged.

Back at home, the physical abuse continues but with more vigour. Bound-in inserts are ripped from their staples; wraparound promo covers are torn off with a noisy flourish; perfume sample sachets are clawed away with disturbing violence.

Lay-zee Boy armchairs – begone! Plasticky slippers with nylon "wool" lining – away with you! Bath tubs with little walk-in doors – bye bye! Royal Wedding commemorative crockery – fuck right off!

Real-world ad-blocking like this isn't for everyone: it requires a lot of determination, a fair bit of dedication and a spoonful of insanity to help the medicine go down. But what's the alternative?

What I'd like is a bit of carrot and less of the stick. Offer me an incentive to look at your ads or let me pay a subscription fee to turn them off. The incentive? Don't load let loose your ads all over my screen like running zombies from 28 Days Later. The subscription? I dunno but promise not to circumvent your agreement to hide the ads by then stuffing your site with "exclusive subscriber offers" (i.e. ads).

I notice that one old method in which online businesses used to fight back against ad-blockers is making a return: refusal to show complete content unless you disable the blocker first. Some web apps that run perfectly happily while the blocker is running still refuse to update to the latest version unless I switch ad-blocking off, at least temporarily, for that site. Most recently I saw this with Metadrive, which is odd because it doesn't have any ads anyway – what is my ad-blocker blocking that it doesn't want me to block?

Until an enterprising startup introduces an ad-free subscription solution for the real world, I guess I must be forced to resort to Plan A. This involves me offering 0.000000000001 Bitcoin to people in the street if they take off their branded clothes. Hey, I'm a disruptor! What could possibly go wrong?

I'll let you know how I get on after the summer. See you in September, parole-willing.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Although his preferred form of payment is Bitcoin, he will insist that angel investors fund his startup with real money: he's not a complete fool even if he hopes his customers will be. @alidabbs



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