Twenty-five years since Mark Dery’s seminal work Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs demonstrated subvertising’s ability to expose the ways in which corporate and political interests use the media as a tool of behavior modification (i.e., consumerism, jingoism, etc.), the look and feel of culture jamming have been appropriated by the mainstream, tirelessly promoted by Adbusters and hijacked by a new generation of guerrilla advertisers to ambush unsuspecting consumers.
As the digital era promoted potential modes of resistance against intellectual property in the form of digital piracy, remix culture, user-generated content and DIY production, marketers and the corporate media have since picked up the new digital tools to promote their own form of psuedo-culture jamming — a shrink-wrapping of anti-consumerism — thus, becoming especially potent when they fall on teenage ears.
Despite the hijacking, teenagers and digital natives have tunneled other modes of resistance… as they always do. Following in the footsteps of their broadcast forebears, digital natives have made use of new technologies to bypass commercials altogether. While the technique might be new, the end remains the same - bypass advertising.
This is a brief history of the practice of commercial bypassing as well as a hypothesis of the market's response.
Twenty-five years after the consolidation of the radio industry, television was available as a mass consumer item. Manufacturers marketed it as a new form of entertainment that would bring the family together to enjoy public amusement without ever having to leave home. The percentage of American households with television sets skyrocketed from just 0.02% in 1946 to almost 90% in 1960. In relatively short order, commercial television became the centerpiece of U.S. consumer culture, influencing and disrupting American traditions, practices and buying habits. Still, television was not a predetermined entity; cultural practices shaped its early development and uses, just as the medium in turn influenced these practices.
In 1950, Zenith Radio Corporation developed the first remote intended to control a television. The remote, called “Lazy Bones,” was connected to the television by a wire. A wireless remote control, the “Flashmatic”, was developed in 1955 by Eugene Polley. It worked by shining a beam of light onto a photoelectric cell, but the cell did not distinguish between light from the remote and light from other sources. The Flashmatic also had to be pointed very precisely at the receiver in order to work. In 1956, Robert Adler developed “Zenith Space Command,” a wireless remote. It was mechanical and used ultrasound to change the channel and volume. When the user pushed a button on the remote control, it clicked and struck a bar, hence the term “clicker”. Each bar emitted a different frequency and circuits in the television detected this sound. The invention of the transistor made possible cheaper electronic remotes that contained a piezoelectric crystal that was fed by an oscillating electric current. Since these early controls, most of the remote technologies that proliferated made used of ITT protocol of infrared communication and occasionally radio waves. Compounded by rapid channel growth, one of the unintended consequences of advent of the remote control became the ability for consumers to skip channel to channel, thereby avoiding commercial interruptions at will.
To watch or listen to a particular program, traditional broadcast media required audience members to tune in at a time determined by the broadcaster. The practice of time shifting refers to the recording or downloading of media content to watch or listen at a later time that is more convenient for the audience. After the video cassette recorder (VCR) became popular in the 1980s, the television industry began studying the impact of users fast forwarding through commercials.
Advertising agencies fought the trend by making ads more entertaining. For many years, video recorders manufactured for the Japanese market have been able to skip advertisements automatically, which is done by detecting when foreign language audio overdub tracks provided for many programs go silent, as advertisements were broadcast with a single language only.
The first digital video recorder (DVR) with a built-in commercial skipping feature was ReplayTV with its “4000 Series” and “5000 Series” units. In 2002, the main television networks and movie studios sued ReplayTV, claiming that skipping advertisements during replay violates copyright. Later, five owners of ReplayTV represented by Electronic Frontier Foundation and attorneys Ira Rothken and Richard Wiebe countersued, asking the federal judge to uphold consumers’ rights to record TV shows and skip commercials, claiming that features like commercial skipping help parents protect their kids from excessive consumerism. ReplayTV ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2003 after fighting a copyright infringement suit over the ReplayTV’s ability to skip commercials.
In addition to the DVR devices which existed in the private market since the late 1990s, towards the mid-2000s, due to the significant advances in home computers, Home theater PCs started gaining popularity in the private market and many users began using their Home theater PCs in their living room for entertainment purposes. Following this, many DVR programs were developed, including popular programs such as Windows Media Center, which contained all of the features of the DVR devices in addition to advanced features such as HDTV and the use of Multiple TV Tuner Cards.
Some independent developers began developing independent software capable of skipping the commercial segments when playing recorded videos, and permanently removing the commercial segments from recorded video files. By 2014, many DVR programs such as Windows Media Center, SageTV and MythTV had the capability to skip commercials segments in recorded TV broadcasts after installing third-party add-ons such as DVRMSToolbox, Comskip and ShowAnalyzer, which use various advanced techniques to locate the commercial segments in the video files and save their locations to text files. The text files can also be fed into programs such as MEncoder or DVRMSToolboxGUI which can delete the commercial segments from the recorded video files. A few third-party tools such as MCEBuddy automate detection and removal/marking of commercials.
As the early internet scared the television industry with the popularity of digital piracy, the rise of over-the-top television, or television delivered over internet protocol, quickly served as a response to the scares of P2P networks and torrents. Many services like Netflix offered a more reliable ad-free viewing at a subscription cost, thereby allowing viewers to watch at times of their choosing. Other services like iTunes and Amazon offered the same practice of time shifting and commercial bypassing with transactional downloads. Perhaps privy to the phenomenon and necessity of commercial bypassing, YouTube enabled the “Skip Ad” feature that allowed its users to skip an ad after several seconds of watch time - now, there is a premium for advertisers to disable this feature.
Yet still much of the media on the internet is dominated by popups, banner ads, display ads, native ads (those in-feed sponsored posts on social media), pre-roll and increasingly popular mid-roll video ads. At the same time that each one of these digital advertising forms has popped up so too did a countermeasure against it — mainly in the form of ad blocking. Ad blocking or ad filtering is a type of software that can remove or alter advertising content from a webpage, website, or a mobile app. A variety of methods have been used for blocking advertisements (i.e., browser integration, external programs, hosts file and DNS manipulation, DNS cache and filtering, hardware devices, etc.) and the use of ad blocking software is continually increasing. From the standpoint of an Internet user, there are various fundamental reasons why one would want to use ad blocking, in addition to not being manipulated by brands: protecting their privacy, protecting themselves from malvertising, saving bandwidth (and money), bettering user experience, and saving battery on mobile devices. Use of mobile and desktop ad blocking software has grown an average of 41% worldwide year-over-year since 2014.
Despite commercial bypassing’s popularity especially among the youth with ad-blocking software and direct messaging platforms (notwithstanding Facebook Messenger’s politically and ethically fraught ad integration), advertisers and marketers are continually looking for new ways to involve their brands directly into the entertainment with influencer marketing and product placement. In this case, advertising cannot be skipped as it becomes embedded in the very content itself. Branded content has already become the next logical step in ridding the consumer experience of extra-textual advertising yet fortifying the consumer capitalist vision of digital markets in a new light.