Learning From iAds
Another round of hand-wringing over the value and effectiveness of Apple iAds begins today with an article in The Wall Street Journal reporting that Apple is “softening” its approach to brands and agencies about the format.
An IDC report on mobile media spend sees Apple’s former dominance of the market receding. Google is now responsible for 24% of U.S. mobile ad revenue in 2011, the company reports, with ad network Millennial at 17% and Apple at 15%. This represents a decline for Apple, which last year when the iAd was introduced shared the top ranking with Google (both 19%).
WSJ says that after Apple's famously overpriced introduction of the format last year, the tepid response among many agencies has forced it to retreat on pricing, become more cooperative with buyers, and host the kinds of dog and pony shows of iAd attributes that all mere mortal media sellers have to do.
Some brands like Unilever argue their iAds have been very effective and keep coming back for more. Many others in the industry complain that Apple’s creative control and the iAd’s reach only across iOS devices remain hurdles. IDC analyst Karsten Weide is especially critical, arguing to WSJ that “Apple we believe will, over time, fade into the background. It was attempted to make sure that even consumers' advertising experience on Apple devices was perfect, but it hasn’t really worked.” Forbes writer Robert Hof declares that iAds was Jobs’ “last big failure.”
As usual all of this talk surrounding iAds has more to do with the cult of Apple (polishing or tarnishing it) than it does with the work. As a longtime critic of the iAd, I take no glee in or even care much whether iAds is declared a flop or not. For me the Apple cult pretty much jumped the shark this year anyway. Watching the press spectacle at the Grand Central Station opening of an Apple Store has started to make me a bit embarrassed to tap those Apple-headlined links anymore.
Samsung’s recent TV campaign mocking Apple fanboys is a little too flatfooted for my tastes and actually unintentionally highlights how much more creative Apple’s own TV spots are than the competition. But they register a cultural moment when some of us have just had enough of this relentless Apple polishing. On the other hand, I am not altogether sure that 15% of a market like this can be declared a failure yet, anyway. For the sake of sheer propriety, it is nice to see Apple actually do mortal things like speak more directly to the media buyers. WSJ reports that agencies and brands are being brought to Apple in order to educate them on the format.
It always seemed ironic that a “revolutionary” ad format for mobile ultimately relied on the most regressive digital format of all: the animated banner. In the end, you don’t get to these lush units unless you respond to the same damaged dog whistle that has plagued the Web for over a decade now. Despite all my app travels, I find that the iAds gallery app is where I have to first encounter the iAds. I gave up answering the call of the iAd banner a long time ago, in part because it was not clear whether I was clicking into a rich-media experience or just a developer iAd that linked to the app Store. This piece of the iAd ecosystem just seems daft to me.
I am more interested in whether iAds have shown us anything creatively interesting. Jobs advertised the iAds at their introduction as TV-like engagement on a phone. To me, that always seemed a misfire. Most TV spots are deservedly ignored because they are bland, blatant pitches or just background noise. They are effective more in their relentlessness than anything else.
The real challenge for mobile advertising is not how well it can mimic TV or the Web -- we have seen iAds that do both. A lot of the entertainment ads in the iAds ecosystem are just trailers that land on microsites. Which is not to say they can’t be fun. The CNN unit leverages the otherwise stolid Wolf Blitzer to offer a litany of funny reasons why you need CNN Live on iOS (because you lost the fight for the remote control, for example).
Many of the auto and telecom units are just mobile iterations of branded Web sites as well. And again, there is some creativity at work here too -- almost too much at times. The Nissan Versa spot piles it on. There is the reiteration of the TV campaign at start, a 360-degree swipable view of the car interior and then tapping into details that allow things like music downloads. There is at times with these iAds a sense of urgency-- a need to fill it with tappable moments, the widest range of interactivity. Apple famously favors the companies that make the best use of all the toys in the box, and this gets out of hand.
I am not convinced that the “tap here” prompt in mobile rich media is an effective basic engagement tool in the long run. Maybe I am jaded from ritually looking at every mobile ad I can get my hands on, but the downside of a kinetic interface is that the user may quickly feel as if she is jumping through hoops in someone else’s interest. The recent Radio Shack iAd has me dragging gift items to the center of the screen to do pointless interactions like scratching on a DJ turntable. Really? On a platform that includes Infinity Blade II, am I really supposed to feel a sense of wonder at this?
I still maintain that the most engaging iAd I have seen (perhaps the best memorable mobile ad yet to me) is for the Pixie capsule coffee maker. This app prompts you to tap as well, but it engages you in fast-moving graphics, a funny voiceover that talks familiarly to you in the second person, and an arc that actually makes your interactions part of a narrative flow.
Stop pitching us and try entertaining us. If you are going to make us jump through a hoop, give us a landing that makes us feel rewarded rather than tricked -- or worse, obedient.
I have no idea if iAds are a flop or not in the market. As a lab for new ideas the results are mixed at best, although that might be the best role Apple could take with this format. The iAd gallery provides a service to us all by pulling these creative attempts into a single place where we can compare them and evaluate their creative effectiveness. If the price and the kibitzing from Apple gets agencies to think harder and more creatively about what mobile advertising can do, fine by me.
What is still missing in the iAds is situational awareness. If this platform wanted to “revolutionize” advertising, let alone mobile advertising, it might start with leveraging context in new ways. Blasting a TV-like experience anywhere and everywhere seems like a teenage wet dream of TV and ad executives of the 20th century. It doesn’t seem to move us toward understanding the implications of mobility for our century.