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Published: 8/18/01

The Direction of Advertising on the Web (Part 1)

By Silas T. Sheep

I came across a link today which led me to this site. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go to the link and try to figure out the name of the publication. No fair peeking at the URL or title bar of your browser window! Try to figure it out from the information on the page alone. When you click the link I built, it'll come up in another window to make it easy to get back here... I'll wait... da deeeee .... la da daaaaaaa ... la laa la la laaaa laaa .... (Don't you hate the music they have on most phones when you're on hold?) la la la la laaa laa la la ... the sheep from Impanema is bleating you ... baa baa baaaa -- Oh. You're back!

Did you figure it out? If I hadn't seen the name in the link I clicked, I would have been hard-pressed to discern the advertising at the top of the page from a masthead. While this is not the home page of the publication, the home page isn't much better. The publication's name is about the same size as the advertisements and still plays second fiddle on the page.

And then I started to think (which isn't actually too out of character for a sheep despite what humans may think) and realized that the trend everywhere is to smaller and smaller mastheads with advertisements placed above or right along side them and often the same size or larger. It isn't just the Internet where this is the case, and I guess I could blame or thank USA Today for starting the trend of selling ad space in its masthead.

I suppose my main question is, if the advertising is bigger than the identity of your publication, what does that do to the credibility and accountability of your effort? Continuing on, why is it advertisers seem to think plastering their stuff in every possible place makes us buy their crap any more than when it is in a logical place and we look for it there because we are shopping? Despite what some may think, the only place for the impulse buy is in the store itself. This goes for both click-and-order and brick-and-mortar stores. Once at the store, you may see something which catches your eye which you add to your cart, real or virtual, but a giant flashing advertisement in the masthead or not isn't generally going to make me rush over to the site or out the door to buy whatever it is. Even the idea that exposure is good isn't incredibly viable here. All right, forgetfulness runs in my family, but I certainly don't remember what the two advertisements that started me on this were selling. Now that you've gone, returned, and read through all of this, do you?

I think what I'm working up to here is that advertisers just don't get it. They continue to inundate us in every nook and cranny in their attempts to grab our attention, but all they are really doing is being lost in the information overload. I don't notice advertising anymore unless I'm looking for something and actively scanning ads. Advertising has become the background chatter of modern life. It's mixed in amongst the bleat and squeal and moo. It's a barely perceptible hum now which occasionally rises to the point of annoyance and probably is insidiously working on us unconsciously and creating all sorts of psychological and health problems. You know that hen that's always on edge or the person in the cubicle next to you who is always ill? They live in a noisy environment, yet do not understand that the every day sound and bustle they've grown used to is working just below perception.

Unfortunately I don't know what a solution may be. The critical mass of advertising is such that advertisers get enough results from their methods to justify continuing them. Snail mail junk mail is considered successful after all with just a 2% return -- and many places count simple inquiries in that return, although usually it is actual sales that matter. The click-through rate on Internet advertising is looked at a little more critically. It isn't high enough for a lot of advertisers, so sites are developing new ways of waving their advertiser's products under our noses so they can continue to get that much needed ad revenue. So, we get pop-up windows, flashing and blinking banner ads, large ads which take up the majority of a browser window in the middle of articles (like in the I'm about to link to), and a relatively new phenomenon called "Gatoring." (Here it is; and here is an article about it. The debate over the fact it is "opt-in" -- you download it and agree to its fine printed terms -- and how successful it is can be saved for a later article.) Another attempt to ride on the fruits and labors of others is Microsoft's "SmartLinks" and its derivatives which insert advertiser links onto pages as they come to your browser. If users load this sort of software for themselves, fine. However, there has been debate over whether people were clear that such software is being installed, and thus the links could be misconstrued as coming directly from the visited site. This opens up a can of worms best left, again, for another article.

I shouldn't be surprised. We live in an incredibly commercial society driven by consumerism. Even in the current economic downturn, the consumer index is incredibly high. (And they think sheep are bad; at least I'm not out running up credit cards to buy and wear the latest greatest billboard ... er ... fashion. Ahem!) I just heard a news report yesterday indicating economists are scratching their heads over that one. Still, despite the consumerism, I guess I am surprised that a publication would allow the advertisements to take higher precedence than it's own name. A publication is a bit different from a sports stadium, but it amounts to the same thing. What is next? FedEx NYTimes? USAir Houston Chronicle? Nike ESPN Online? Hey, I know a lot of these places are already part of big corporate conglomerates, but they had been keeping that out of the mastheads at least! I don't know if I'm reading The News anymore or just a list of approved daily fluff from BigFlashyAdvertiser which may or may not be designed to keep me happy and buying their product.

Stay tuned! I may bring in a guest writer for Part 2 where I plan to examine a bit more of this in depth, including more on the SmartLinks hubbub and some other articles which speak to similar issues with online advertising.

Best regards,

Silas T. Sheep

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