The Negative Effects of Online Ads

We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that tells us that certain forms of online advertising – spam, excessive pop-up and pop-under ads and scumware-generated ads – are not well tolerated by Internet users. We talk to friends who tell us that they’re never going to buy anything from Company X because Company X beats them over the head with a dozen pop-unders every time they surf their favorite websites. We see posts to online bulletin boards and newsgroups, calling for a boycott of Company Y because they use unsolicited commercial email to reach consumers.

With all of the consumer backlash we hear about, I’m surprised that we don’t see more studies on the negative effects of intrusive online advertising.

Many online advertisers have conducted a simple ROI analysis on each of their online campaigns. Generally, they know that if they spend $X, they get $Y in sales within a few days. However, do many of these same advertisers know all they possibly can about the potential negative effects of intrusive advertising on their brand? Probably not.



Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should do away with any form of online advertising deemed intrusive by the consumer. Rather, I’m trying to focus attention on the long-term viability of brands that advertise online if those brands engage in online advertising practices that consumers find objectionable.

What do we know about the negative effects of spam? Many times, an advertiser knows that if he sends spam to a few hundred thousand people, he’ll get a few thousand dollars’ worth of business in return. But has the advertiser studied what happens to the people who didn’t respond to the spam? What percentage of those people will swear to never buy anything from the advertisers because of their advertising scruples?

When a business is in its formative stages and is just beginning to tap into online marketing, angering potential customers doesn’t matter much to the advertiser, as long as a certain percentage of potential customers respond to spam or click on scumware ads and convert. However, for a business to grow and prosper, it needs to be able to continue to acquire new customers. If an advertiser has reached a large percentage of his target audience with a message that detracts from the brand, new customer acquisition could prove to be a problem in the long term.

I’d love to see an advertiser perform an online intercept study that asks people if they’ve seen an Orbitz pop-up ad. Odds are that most people have seen it, and since it’s apparently not frequency-capped, odds are they’ll remember it, too. But awareness does not equal branding, and I’d love to see what those ads are doing for Orbitz’s purchase intent. I’d bet that they’re doing more harm than good.

We do so much to fine-tune and optimize the response we get from online ads. We test different media environments and different pieces of creative using third-party ad servers that require a significant investment of time and money. Yet, we don’t see a lot being done to optimize the brand impact of our online advertising. How long will it be before we realize that the use of certain tactics can be damaging to a brand? How long before we respect that notion and avoid paying money to negatively predispose people to our products and services?

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