Commentary

Tap Spam: Am I 'Engaged' Yet?

Ipad2-AI was on the seventh or eighth tap in this full-screen rich media ad for McDonald’s on my iPad the other day when it struck me that I was neither learning about the product or liking the brand. I was just tapping the screen -- pretty much to see what the ad would do. Suddenly, I'm a tap monkey on someone else's string. And the longer I stared at this attempt to engage me, the more I came to see how inane the premise was and how my response was more of a reflex than anything else.

I don't even want to try to go back and remember what the product was, except that it had something to do with it being a new wrap, and McDonald's had put me into some cityscape with the product looming oversized over everything and everyone. My job -- and make no mistake, it was a job -- was to tap on balloons and little markers that would either respond to my interactivity or give me details about the main product. The tapping wasn’t getting me anywhere. If anything, it was getting me to look at how inane the whole premise of the ad experience was here. I'm in a brand's cityscape? Really? I am tapping on simple animations of things just to see how they react? Is this me being “engaged?”

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There is a tendency in the touchscreen world to keep people tapping no matter what. The early digital magazines did this ad nauseam. They made you feel as if you needed to attend the page rather than read it. Luckily, a couple of years after the digital magazines first appeared, most of them have either run out of enthusiasm for overdoing the enhanced magazine, or just ran out of time and money, without much profit to show for it. But advertisers, on the whole, often junk up there tablet ads--  especially with meaningless invitations to tap. In the first year or so of the iPad's life, this may have been cute and perhaps engaging.

But I found myself feeling used. Just as TV advertising battles the remote and general distraction by getting us to look regardless the relevance of the content, tablet advertising also runs the risk of emptying the creative of meaningful content simply to keep the user there as long as possible. And it occurred to me, as I was letting loose balloons and turning on streetlights in this ad piece, that it really shouldn't be that hard to engage someone in meaningful ways within an ad. I would just as soon have had a visual non sequitur in this cityscape -- perhaps a simple puzzle game that actually would entertain me for a few minutes, to a lot of product points that I was supposed to tap to discover.

I recognize that the kinetic interface of touchscreens is almost irresistible to marketers. And there is good reason to believe that the active touch and swipe involves the user in ways that are more direct and less abstract than the mouse interface ever allowed. I think it is another instance of an emerging principle of mobility and mobile devices.

Once we truly appreciate the intimacy of these experiences, then we not only have new tools to engage people on new levels -- we also have a new ability to get under people's skin in a bad way, abuse the intimacy of these platforms, and even unwittingly call attention to the banality of most advertising itself. Which I guess is another way of saying that mobile is a bit like the media that preceded it --only more so. It dials up the risk and the reward for being that much closer to the consumer in more than just physical proximity.

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