Online Ads Need a Renaissance

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Online Ads Need a Renaissance
Image by Daniel Driesen

Online ads are an annoying fact of life. They are often essential to websites staying afloat, and with that dependency has come a desperation to make them work. Ads online are largely treated as a science, testable and improveable.

The problem is this has been taken to such an extreme that the art of ads has been lost, and browsers are starting to notice. The rise of AdBlock (on over 600 million devices and counting) speaks to a growing distaste for online ads in their current form. As the margins squeeze, a lot of websites risk going under.

Ads need a Renaissance. Not more of them — lord no — but higher quality, with renewed focus on their thoughtfulness and the experience they create. Treat ads like cold, characterless equations and that’s how they’ll be received. Treat them as creative, thoughtful ventures and people may just start to tolerate them again.

Banner blindness

People don’t want to know. In fact, a lot of us don’t even know we don’t want to know. We’re so accustomed to online ads that we’re learning to ignore them automatically. Today 45% of internet users say they don’t notice online ads anymore, even if they don’t block them.

There’s a name for this: banner blindness. The term was coined by Jan Panero Benway and David M. Lanen in a 1998 study on how browsers respond to banners. Even then banners were a third less ‘visible’ than more conventional, text-based web content. Twenty years later the phenomenon is only getting worse. Only 8% of internet users account for 85% of ad clicks. Most of us don’t want to know.

Search is the largest format of online ads, accounting for 46% of all internet advertising revenue in 2017, and even that is not exempt from the blindness phenomenon. Users are learning to skip the ad results on Google. I know I do.

It’s a question of intent. Ads don’t serve our browsing intent, so we ignore them. Whatever we’re looking for online, be it information or inspiration, we’ve learned to recognise ads as a waste of time.

Ads have become a science

This doesn’t stop ads from being the lifeblood of online moneymaking. Internet advertising revenues in the US alone totalled $88 billion last year, with $50 billion of that coming from mobile. Search engine ads (the ones that appear on Google, Bing, and the like) is the largest market, followed by banners and video.

Lots of money tends to entail lots of jargon, and online ads have plenty. CTR, CPC, CPA, CPM, CPM, PPC, and, of course, RTB. How could we forget? Return on investment has always been a key consideration in advertising, but the digital age has pushed it into new realms of mathematics.

This is excellent in many respects. You can’t measure how many people respond to a billboard, but online ad wizards have all that data at their fingertips. A/B test #508 shows shade #4756 of pink gets 0.67% higher click-through than shade #7350 of violet… make everything pink, etc.

Even as engagement with ads continues to fall, the remaining ads can hone their effectiveness with microscopic precision. There’s just one small element missing from this glorious new world: humanity.

Worshipping a ritual

Number crunching is essential to modern advertising, but left unchecked it will be the architect of its own downfall. The tension between tried and tested techniques and creative intuition did not suddenly appear with the advent of the internet. There are lessons to be learned from the before-time.

Bill Bernbach was a leading figure in advertising’s ‘creative revolution’ of the 1950s and ‘60s. Think Don Draper with less baggage (Mad Men was largely inspired by Bernbach’s work). He made his name at Grey New York before resigning in 1947, citing the rigidity of success. His resignation letter holds some interesting tidbits. The whole thing is worth a read, but this passage stands out in the current climate:

I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship technique instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

There are clear echoes of this in modern advertising, in its bigness in the online ecosystem. Using rules and numbers to dictate ad strategy is like “worshipping a ritual instead of the God.” Number crunching and established conventions won’t put you in touch with the transcendent.

Beetle - Think Small
Think Small, one of the most revered advertising campaigns of the twentieth century. Note the total absence of obnoxious drivel

Now I like a righteous rant by self-appointed creative types as much as the next guy — that’s what I aspire towards — but the reality is somewhere between the extremes. The much maligned Grey is still going strong 70 years later, after all. Bernbach himself acknowledged there’s a balance to be struck:

Superior technical skill will make a good man better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability.

Swap out ‘technical’ for ‘technological’ and more or less have the balance. Bernbach was not blind to the value of method. It’s much easier to optimize something that’s already of creative value.

Make ads great again

Online advertising needs its own revolution, a Renaissance, and it needs to encompass everyone — from advertisers to websites. Ads need to aim higher than tolerable; they need to enhance browsing experience.

For all the success ads have had over the last 20 years, the money currently being pumped into the mobile market doesn’t sit terribly well with the fact 70% of online browsers dislike mobile ads. As technicians squeeze every last drop out of the analytics, that number’s only going to rise.

Yet 68% of participants in the same study said they would be fine with ads if they weren’t annoying. Annoying is a nebulous term, obviously, but it testifies to the fact that browsers aren’t against ads full stop. As HubSpot sum up, “ads should look like some thought was put behind them.”

What do ads with thought behind them look like? Diversification and innovation, in short. The Renaissance was a marriage of art, literature, science, architecture, mathematics, and more — ads will need to mirror that protean approach. Methods might include:

  • Advertorial… Blurring the lines between content and advertisement can be tricky, but done right it can enhance the quality of both. Being transparent is good, and you’ll be caught if you’re not anyway.
  • Native advertisingThis is already being abused, naturally, but if ads can match the tone and substance of the websites they’re appearing on they become an asset rather than something to be tolerated. Good native advertising is good editorial content as well.
  • Moderation… Conventional online ads have been overburdened, and as such have overreached. Pulling back the extremes of pop-ups and banners will reap its own special kind reward by not making people actively dislike advertising.

William Bernbach said that, “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.” The truth is somewhere in between now. The exact form an ad Renaissance would take isn’t for me to say — it’s for the artists to discover and the technicians to optimize.

Paired with the technological might of modern analytics, renewed creative energies could see adverts reborn, but they have to challenge their own conventions to do so. It’s high time online ads had their own creative revolution, not only for their own sake, but for the internet’s as well.

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