Advertisements on the Web

by Joe Gillespie — Dec 1, 2003

It is very difficult to be involved in Web design and not have to put an ad on your page at some stage. It might be an ad for some other company or product or simply one for your own services. To some, they are an necessary evil. They can help finance the cost of running a site or bring some product or service to the attention of the public. No matter what their purpose, people usually hate them.

Advertising on the Web is probably resented more than anywhere else. Flicking through a newspaper or magazine, we see full page ads and double page spreads advertising just one product and think nothing of it. Drive past a massive advertising hoarding in the street and you might think that it is cheering-up and disguising a dull, grey parking lot. A five minute advertising break during a television program gives you time to get a drink or go to the bathroom. I can't think of many great advantages for ads on Web pages, they usually just get in the way.

Stick a full page ad on a Web site and you have serious problems. It is an imposition to have to wait any length of time for a large ad to download and then to dismiss it – even if it loads in the background like one of those nasty pop-unders that are left of your screen when you close a browser page. It is despised. You have been both tricked, had your bandwidth stolen and have had to go to the trouble of closing the window. How can that be effective advertising? All it does 'effectively' is antagonize people!

Acme Gifs

When an ad sounds too good to be true, it probably is a con!

Even if the ad is not full page but is dominant in the context of what you are trying to read, it becomes a challenge. Perhaps the article snakes down past some huge animated GIF that is hollering at you to read it. The fact that you have to sidestep the ad means that you are being inconvenienced and no matter what the 'deal', your attitude to the ad, and the product it is advertising, is probably negative. Not a good way to sell anything!

There are many kinds of advertising. Those megabuck photographs of shiny new cars in glossy magazines are advertising. The girl throwing her long hair around in slo-mo in shampoo commercials is advertising. Spam email is advertising. Some of it you detest, some of it goes by without notice and some of it, although you might not admit it, you actually enjoy.

Unfortunately, most Web-based advertising comes in the first two categories and I want to examine... why?

Why do some ads irritate more than others?

Okay, forget Web ads for the minute. The same principles go for any type of advertising – television, print, posters or spam email. The content of the ad and the way it's delivered combine to get a message across but not always in the most effective or productive way.

Relevance

If what the ad is trying to sell is irrelevant to your particular circumstances, it's just so much background noise and you'll probably just ignore it – unless, of course, it is a very loud noise – in which case it will positively annoy you. Luckliy, the human brain is pretty good at filtering out irrelevancies in the periphery. The ads soon become invisible if they are not made relevant and delivered in an appropriate tone of voice.

Persistence

Mom, can I have a cookie? Please mom. Just one little cookie. Aw, come on Mom, make with the cookies. Mom! Please, Mom. Pretty please...

Yes, persistent nagging is irritating and flooding the viewer with re-workings of the same old message ad nauseam quickly becomes background noise too. Banner ads that change every time you view a page are less likely to go unnoticed than ones that stay the same. Think also about that poster that you pass every day on the way to work, after seeing a few times it just become part of the background. It might be doing some sort of 'reminding' but the effect wears off pretty soon.

Sneaky

When you have a trick played upon you, you probably want to get your own back. When you are tricked into opening a spam email you feel bad about yourself for being fooled and you feel bad about the trickster too. How can such an ad be effective? We don't say, "Oh what a jolly jape, send me round a ton of that stuff, my good fellow!" No, the mail is slammed into oblivion in the shortest possible time.

BB King catches the sentiment nicely in one of his songs, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

Insulting

Talking down to people in a condescending way is another big turn-off. Sometimes advertisers try to be too clever and misjudge their audience's intelligence. On the other hand, there are some very stupid people around with lots of money and you know what they say about fools and their money... The most insulting ads I've ever seen were ones produced by clients themselves. Well, anybody can write an ad, can't they?

Aggressive

We've all been confronted by aggressive salesmen or had a telesales girl try to beat us into submission to buy something we don't really want. They are trained to do it and encouraged by substantial bonuses. Aggressive advertising might work in the short term but if the customer is left feeling hurt, they are unlikely to come back for more. Despite all the effort, they only make one sale instead of building a more profitable, longer lasting relationship.

There isn't much point having an ad that is invisible. Where is the best place to hide a needle? Not in a haystack, but in a box of needles. An ad stuck on a page with a load of other ads has to vie for attention. It's impossible to make it 'different' without knowing what is going on around it so people just make them aggressive. Think what it's like when you are in a very busy bar and you are trying to order some drinks and the barkeep keeps ignoring you and serving somebody behind. Being aggressive in a situation like this is not the same as having 'presence'. A good ad has presence without being aggressive.

This ad is relatively small compared to some you will see, but stuck in the middle of text like this, it is impeding readability because the text has to squeeze past it.

Simply getting in the way

You know what it's like. You are rushing out to a meeting and some damned delivery truck is blocking the road. You are trying to catch a train but there are hoards of people peering at newspapers and timetables and have their luggage scattered all over the place. If you have to get past an ad to get to the information you want, it is impeding your progress and you won't like it. If you must put an ad on a page, put it somewhere tidy where people won't trip over it. If a surfer quickly leaves a page because that jumping animated GIF or Flash ad is giving them a headache, it's not good for the advertiser or the publisher. A surfer not returning to a site because they know they will be assaulted by a barrage of pop-ups, pop-unders is a customer lost forever.

What kinds of ads are not so annoying?

It's not all that difficult to avoid annoying people, it just takes a bit of thought. Put yourself in the surfer's (or potential customer's) position. If you try hard to sell them something that they don't really want, you are fighting an uphill battle. Give them some good reasons to choose your product rather than another and they will be happy – and so will you.

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