Banner This

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 9 May 2008

I hate ads, I hate things that flash at me, and I hate to wait. That’s why I’ve gone into the “preferences” menus in my Web browser and turned off the pictures altogether. I’d rather have no pictures at all than spend my time and money on obnoxious banners.

But if today’s media research firms are correct in their analyses, banner ads on the Web will soon be a thing of the past. They’re coming to understand how much we hate them.

The advertising graphics adorning the web sites we visit take a long time to download - more time than the rest of the page, in most cases. Thus, we resent the names of the companies on them, and feel distracted, not entertained, by the spastic motion. We don’t think of the people who pay for ads as sponsors of our favorite web sites, but as leeches on our time and bandwidth. If they were really supporting a site, they wouldn’t be making it harder for us to access it.

Following the model of sports stadiums, who fill every available surface with a colorful commercial billboard, Web sites sold their “extra” space to advertisers, most of whom had their own web sites. The purpose of the ads was to induce “clicking,” which would bring the user to the corporate site. There, the detoured browser might even be coerced into buying something.

Like television advertisements, banner ads got more distracting over time. Once we learned to recognize and ignore a standard horizontal color strip, designers began to employ animations to draw our eyes into the advertisements. Numerous studies were completed in order to determine exactly what colors and movements were most likely to garner the most attention and clicks.

That’s why the Web is so awful to look at. Just try to read or absorb a complex set of ideas while a picture of a shiny new model of modem is dancing around at the top of the page.

But new research demonstrates that even the most frenetic banner ads garner little real interest or sales. Even when users are seduced into clicking on the banner, most of the time it only brings them to a page that doesn’t specifically satisfy the desire generated by the banner. In other words, banners offering an opportunity to win a free modem just bring you to the main page of a modem company. From there, you have to dig around a bit more to find the contest advertised, and most users are unwilling to do so.

Unfortunately, it’s too early to celebrate the death of advertising online. What they’re cooking up now is even worse: “intermercials.”

The new idea is to follow television’s example and run advertisements between Web pages. This way, if you attempt to access, say, a newspaper site, you will be welcomed by a real, full-screen advertisement in streaming video. When the ad has finished, you’ll be able to respond to it or advance to where you had originally intended to go. Want to do a search of the site? Here’s another ad first. Sounds like real fun.

My guess, and hope, is that intermercials will fail because they have the same underlying problem as banners.

Web advertisers don’t yet realize that there isn’t space for their interruptions, whether they base them on visual real estate (as with banners) or downloading time (with intermercials). On the Web, the object of the game is to get to what you want as quickly as possible. Obstacles are enemies, and companies associating themselves with these obstacles will lose, not gain popularity.

Besides, the “art” of advertising is to create desires in passive recipients. Since those of us on the Web are attempting to be active, not passive, we are not a good target audience. We already have our desires, and are trying to exercise them. We don’t need them replaced by other ones.

The bigger problem for advertisers online is that interactive technology makes commercials obsolete. In economic terms, the Internet closes the gap between supply and demand. You can get whatever you want by simply accessing it and then clicking. You don’t stop and play an ad for someone once they are inside your store.

We aren’t the only ones realizing this.

Businesses hoping to sell us stuff will inevitably come to see that the Web is not best used as a propaganda arm, but as a distribution network. They will abandon the advertising model, and adopt one of direct marketing.

Bill Gates’ plan for the Microsoft Network as a point of purchase is only the beginning. Like Disney’s new Florida community “Celebration,” where public, private, and commercial space is all exploited for the benefit of the corporation, marketers will soon begin to view the Web as an entirely commercial environment.

When this begins to happen, watch out. We may long for the good old days of overt banner advertising. More on this next time.