Why Digital Advertising Is Anything But 'Creative'

Several years ago, when people really cared about Windows vs. Mac OS, I heard a joke that went something like this: “If cars were designed by Microsoft, we would constantly have to stop to reboot them.” Today, I am compelled to make a different joke: “If our highways were designed by advertisers, billboards would jump in the middle of the highway whenever we tried to drive by.”

Bob Liodice, President-CEO of the Association of National Advertisers,  reminisced about a time when digital advertising was seen as a way to create two-way conversations with consumers and create a level of loyalty impossible to generate with other media. Today, digital advertising has become nearly unbearable, interfering with virtually anything in which we may be interested. In a recent humorous but pertinent blog post, Ari Rosenberg eloquently points out that publishers and advertisers are effectively abusing consumers at every turn.



The transition from the physical to the digital world opened up incredible new opportunities. Today we can find information and discover new things at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger; we can communicate with people on the other side of the world as easily as if they were next door; we can purchase items and have them delivered to our door in less than 24 hours.

Along the way, this transition has spawned wonderful new technologies designed to make our lives easier and more enriching. For example, HTML5 delivers astounding capabilities for interactive media. In the right hands, interactivity can be used to improve childhood learning, to help people with disabilities, to simplify complex tasks and generally to improve our online experience.

In their frantic hunt for eyeballs, advertisers have perverted these new technologies to peddle their offerings by interfering with anything we try to do -- and publishers have gleefully jumped on the same bandwagon. In the hands of advertisers, HTML5 can create overlays that block access to content, expand ads when we scroll by them, pop up ads when we make the mistake of hovering near certain words, and place annoying banners in our way.

In my opinion, the current state of affairs reflects an utter lack of creativity on the part of advertisers. Successful advertising requires that an ad reach and engage the consumer. Engaging the consumer requires creating good, high-quality content that the consumer will find valuable.

But creating good content is hard and requires true creativity. Instead, most advertisers focus on reaching consumers -- through whatever means are necessary. It seems a majority of creative energies are focused on how to get ads in front of consumers whenever and wherever they are trying to do something interesting. Visited my site recently? Let me make sure you keep seeing my ads wherever you go. Want to watch a video? First you have to swallow my pre-roll. Want to leave my site? Let me throw up a lightbox or popup begging you to stay.

This focus on “being seen” is both short-sighted and dim-witted. It is short-sighted because in the long term consumers get annoyed by intrusive advertising and loyalty disappears, eroding the long-term value and trust that publishers (and brands!) are trying to create. It is dim-witted because the reaction of any consumer to advertising contains an emotional component as well as a cognitive component. Even if the content is good and relevant (a rarity these days), interfering with what consumers are doing will at best be forgiven, but more often lead to rancor and disapproval – not exactly a sound strategy for building a brand.

Publishers need to focus their resources on creating high-quality content. Advertisers need to focus their creativity on making ads that engage and move consumers. And both of them should resist the temptation to chase quick hits, focusing instead on technologies that can better align content and advertisement while improving the consumer’s experience. Only in this way will digital advertising live up to its promise and generate true and lasting value.

This post was first published last year.

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