Determinism, The Golden Goose And Pre-Roll Ads

John Stuart Mill's theory of determinism states -- in very simple terms -- that we are the unavoidable product of our environment and experiences, that our perspective on life and what we encounter is shaped by that of our past. If you buy the premise, then it's this aspect of human nature that plays a large part in how we conceive and respond to new paradigms.

After 50 years of television in our lives, the advent of other platforms that are capable of delivering video is one such paradigm.

It's hardly surprising, then, that the ad formats that have been adopted to date for online video have basically been repurposed TV spots of one length or another. The notion of the pre-roll or mid-roll ad is very much lifted from our TV conventions and is a continuation of the intrusive model of advertising that has become so much a part of the TV landscape.

However, the television is not the Web, and it is inevitable that we would enter into the current debate about just what the right formats are going to be for the future of online video-based advertising.



The fact we are still attached to the 30- or 15-second spot is not only about an inability to move away from predetermined practices, however. There are some pretty powerful economic imperatives that meant the early days of online video were inevitably going to result in pre-roll and mid-roll ads. After all, how many advertisers have ever made significant and distinct production budgets available for fledgling media before they are proven?

Even though most of us believe that the current approach will morph to something more reflective of the nature of the user's involvement-based relationship with the medium (not to mention its interactive capabilities), this isn't going to happen until such investments in what will start as experimental approaches have been justified. The catch here, of course, is that this requires a degree of collaborative experimentation and subsequent publication of the findings to inform decision-making (call me naïve for thinking collaboration could happen; this effort was missing during the development of previous emerging media opportunities, making the process much slower than it really needed to be.)

Even now, as people are beginning to question the length of pre-rolls and mid-rolls (Jeremy Allaire of Brightcove recently proposed 3-second pre-rolls), we still seem to be stuck in the advertising-as-intrusion mindset. While a 3-second spot will undoubtedly be less intrusive than a 30- or 15-, it's still intrusion.

Even that most nontraditional of video sites, YouTube, is talking about testing pre-roll ads this summer, just when it is starting to look rather old-hat.

Personally, I believe that a model more aligned with traditional sponsorship thinking and the association of brand values and positioning with the content (as perceived by users) shows greater long-term potential, particularly when planned as part of a broader campaign that leverages interactivity for data capture, secondary content and even sales.

Wherever users have the level of control they enjoy on the Web, surely the challenge will be to leverage that control to involve them to mutual benefit? That means going beyond straightforward video spots to something more thoughtful, which effectively complements the traditional TV spots on traditional TV.

It isn't straightforward, and it will take time to build the case for one approach over another. Hopefully in the meantime we won't see an overkill of pre-roll, if there are tangible and sustained signs that users really don't like them. There's no sense in undermining the notion of commercially supported video by holding faith with an ad format that may turn out to be inappropriate while we search for the solution.

After all, we wouldn't want to kill the golden goose before it's even had a chance to lay the golden egg, would we?

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