What’s Intrusive? Part II: Trespassing Allowed

Last week I asked, “what is intrusive advertising?” In my column, I tried to answer that question by suggesting that ALL advertising is essentially intrusive, and continues to feel that way to an audience until they get used to it.

Needless to say, from the feedback I’ve received and the posts found on the SpinBoard, there are an awful lot of opinions out there as to what constitutes intrusive advertising. Despite how intrusiveness might be defined, however, I found there were two distinct schools of thought about intrusiveness: there are those who think intrusiveness is evil, distasteful, and negative to the marketing effort; and there are those who think intrusiveness is what advertising is all about.

I happen to belong to the latter group, and believe that the very aretê of advertising is intrusiveness.

The primary objection that is raised when it comes to things like pop-ups, DHTML-like page 'take-overs,' or TopLayer is ”The ad creative slows down the load time of a web page. Viewers will be irritated so much they will stop visiting the site, opting for the more "user friendly" experience.”



Is this really true? If there is content users really want to get at, are they really going to find a new place to go for that content? That was the warning the early priests of online used to tell the unwashed tribe as they huddled around the fire, warming themselves against the dark. It is in essence the same argument against subscription services on the web – if we make them pay to come, they won't come anymore.

That might be true for the existential protagonist, unable to make a decision about whether or not he is for or against, but not for the committed user. If content is valuable to you, you will do what you must to engage it. Obviously there are different limits for different people as to just how much one will cope with to get at different content. But are a couple of Eyeblaster units on a site really going to drive users away from sites like or Yahoo!?

Not a chance.

Why? Because people, particularly the United States of America variety, are essentially lazy media consumers. It is the exception, not the rule, that someone cancels a subscription to a newspaper or stops watching a TV show because they didn't like an ad that may have run in it. Yes, the threats of boycott make media executives quake in their boots and call for revising or eliminating certain creative executions, but for the most part, Joe Soap doesn't care. People form habits, and once those habits are established, they are not easily broken. You get used to going to certain sites, reading certain sections of the newspaper, watching certain TV shows. The cement hasn't quite hardened yet on Internet consumption habits, but a lot of online media consumption patterns have been established. Most of those folks aren't going anywhere. Those who haven't been online long enough, or haven’t even been online at all, aren't going to know the difference one way or the other about the intrusiveness of ad units and will simply accept it as the way of things.

True, with online, the options for what there is to consume are far more vast than any other media, but how many of those other options are really being engaged? And can that plethora of sites that have the content NOT being supported by "intrusive" advertising really survive long enough to matter?

This may come as a surprise to some folks out there, but not all businesses are created equal and not every site deserves to survive. Those sites that want to make a living as an ad vehicle are going to have to find a way to strike a balance between the quality or service users visit for and maintaining an environment advertisers want to pay to be in. The unspoken contract between users and their media is that to have it, there are going to be ads. Some of those ads are going to be intrusive. If I am the advertiser, I'm hope they ALL are going to be intrusive. Or at least MY advertisement is intrusive.

Eric Picard made the point on SpinBoard that most of the objections to ad units that get in our way as we spend time online come from early adopters, people who long for the days of the Well, when volatile debate and engaging content consisted of who was better, James Tiberius Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard. As he pointed out, this small minority is not "the target audience of advertisers."

It is important to make the distinction between three methods of garnering attention: annoy, intrude, disrupt. Those Molson Golden radio ads, or the Country Crock TV ads, with the faceless couple that engages in droll and inane patois, like some dime-store version of Nichols and May, those were annoying. The AT&T Wireless snowplow Avenue A had running in December; those were intrusive. The X-10 pop-unders are disruptive. Two out of three are acceptable (you guess which ones). But all of them work.

My dad used to always say like it or lump it. Though I have no idea what that means, exactly, one thing is clear: advertising is only effective when your intended audience notices it. And unless most companies decide to sell their product without doing any advertising, leaving a small handful running but a few messages, ad units are going to have to be intrusive to get their share of your attention.

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