Click here for irksome experiments in digital ads

Two-thirds of US consumers find online advertising annoying. Who can blame them?


The Google Glass parodists are now probably hard at work on the Google Talking Shoe, but the oldies are still goodies. “When I saw Google had somehow forgotten to include any ads in their Project Glass promotional video, I just couldn’t resist fixing that oversight for them,” reads the blurb for the ADmented Reality “remix” of said promo.

In it, our Glass-wearing protagonist receives a reminder to meet his friend Jess, sparking an advertisement in his field of vision for unbearable sitcom New Girl in which it just so happens that “boys will be boys” and “Jess will be Jess”. The subway is broken, so he verbally requests a walking route, only for the map overlay to come accompanied by ads for trainers and deodorant. In an era of augmented reality madness, we will look back in fondness at the days when home page “takeovers” were considered a big deal.

Even when they’re trying to be nice to us, online ads are worthy of a bristle. Skip this ad. Continue to site. This ad will be over in 15 seconds, by the end of which time you will have forgotten why you visited the site in the first place.

It isn’t only me. It’s the half of the 1,250 US consumers surveyed by Adobe last October who agreed that “online advertising is creepy and stalks you”. It’s the 68 per cent of them who said online advertising was “annoying” and the 51 per cent who found it “distracting”.

It’s also the 54 per cent who agreed, when prompted, that “web banner advertisements do not work” – double the proportion that agreed with the statement that “no-one watches television commercials any more”. There are two main reasons why digital advertising has that special despair-inducing ability. The first is that much of the time we are online, our eyeballs are trained on the screen. When we’re watching TV shows on catch-up, for example, we are hostages to pre-roll advertisers. Hello, Nokia Lumia. Greetings, Microsoft Windows 8. I see you have some new products to flog. Now hurry up and go away, and bring on the opening credits.

There are times when we are not quite so captive. The new “on pause” advertising on RTÉ Player is obviously far less galling than pre-rolls, but is cute enough for its brand to make an impact. Every now and again, a combination of creative intelligence and appropriate placement will render us temporarily ad-tolerant.

Wave of experimentation
But the second main reason online advertising is such a trial is precisely because it is undergoing a frantic wave of experimentation. It’s the notice-me teenager of the advertising world – full of promise, still growing, but not really quite sure what its purpose in life is yet.

Sometimes it feels like the industry is finding new ways to induce rage every day. The polite way of putting this is that advertisers are investing in digital innovation. Who can blame them for seeking more effective formats? The phrase “banner blindness” was coined years ago to describe the way banner display ads had become like wallpaper to internet users, and uninspiring wallpaper at that.

Display ads can’t tell a story like a skippable TV spot or the patience-testing pre-rolls – awkwardly, three-quarters of those surveyed by Adobe agreed that “advertisements should tell a unique story, not just try to sell”.

So it’s understandable that advertisers are toying with intrusive, rich-media formats like expandables, pushdowns and (ugh) sliders that have that element of surprise.

Critically, this experimentation is coinciding with an expansion of ad inventory thanks to the arrival of real-time bidding in the market. There are more advertisements, but more available advertising space, and, inconveniently, this higher inventory has the power to curb price inflation.

Advertisers are aware of the risks of over-serving advertisements or formatting them to encourage accidental click-throughs, and they know that they tread a thin line between gaining consumers’ attention and demanding it by having a tantrum all over the screen. No one wants users to be so unimpressed that they investigate their AdBlocker options.

For content publishers, it’s a question of getting the balance right, and perhaps deciding, like some app publishers have, that their paying customers shouldn’t be exposed to advertisements to the same degree as the non-paying.

When something like Google Glass comes along, I miss the days of pop-up invitations to play Texas Hold’Em Poker. As far as their irritation potential goes, I can’t help get the feeling that digital advertisements are only warming up.