Commentary

Internet Advertising, The Perverse Effect And That Damned Mr. Whipple

Not long ago, a major newspaper devoted its advertising column to the well-known online LowerMyBills.com "dancing cowboys" ad. The article ruminated on a seeming contradiction: An advertising campaign that had annoyed the daylights out of Internet users was also deemed a "surprising success." How could this be?

The answer eluded the principals in the article, but not a team of researchers who worked on a series of online advertising studies over the past five years. Those studies reveal a fascinating quirk about Internet advertising that should quell the enthusiasm of those who see the Internet as the perfect advertising vehicle: The more eye-catching the Internet ad, the greater the annoyance felt by sizable numbers of Internet voyagers. Two typical responses reveal this "perverse effect":

1) I truly dislike ads that use flash and constantly redirect readers' eyes to them, distracting focus from the article. This is beyond annoying, and I will not view/buy the merchandise being sold.

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2) I don't like ads that move. They distract my eye. While you might think this beneficial to your advertising client, in that I read the ad, this is not the case. I will resize the window to remove it from my view and skip looking at it further.

Notice the use of the word "distract"-- among the most employed terms by our respondents. In that word resides an important lesson about Internet advertising, and here's why: The Internet is a "teleological" medium. That is, most visitors to websites have a clear purpose: to get pricing information; to read email; to find out the best fares for a trip to Mexico. You have to click on this and navigate around that to get to the page. You have a screen to study, a mouse to maneuver, a scrollbar to operate - all in addition to the piece you are reading. The Internet demands a good deal of concentration - and the truly focused rarely welcome distractions.

On the other hand, magazine readers, when asked about print ads, will often use a related word --with a wholly different connotation. You'll hear: "I was attracted to the picture, especially the colors." Why is "distract" used so often and with such antagonism by viewers of Internet advertising while the sweeter "attract" is the more common term to describe magazine advertising?

The difference is in the medium. Magazine readership studies demonstrate that many magazine readers like the advertisements in their magazines. For some publications, more than 40% of readers agree with the statement, "I read this publication as much for the ads as for the articles." Not many Internet visitors crow so enthusiastically about Internet advertising (though some sites clearly do excite interest in the advertising).

Magazines are easy. You pick them up, and you have complete control over the page and how long you're going to stay with an advertisement. Magazines are transportable, and they don't go into a sulk and hibernate if you neglect them. It's all about control.

So, why did so many people dislike the dancing cowboys? Because the cowboys two-stepped across the screen, distracted people from their missions, and robbed them of control.

Why, then, was the ad so successful? Some advertising history might be helpful.

The LowerMyBills campaign was not the first to present the paradoxical relationship between advertising effectiveness and repugnance. An entertaining book, "Hey Whipple, Squeeze This," begins with a discussion of the source for the title, the Charmin television commercials of the 1970s: "When asked which campaigns they most disliked, consumers convicted Mr. Whipple. ...Charmin may have not been popular advertising, but it was number one in sales. ...And there is the crux of the problem. The Mystery. How did Whipple's commercials sell so much toilet paper?"

We will try to solve The Mystery. Both the Charmin and the LowerMyBills campaigns were effective because each contained two vital elements of effective advertising: 1) Both attracted the viewer's attention--even though they employed obnoxious protagonists to do so; and 2) each concisely enunciated a compelling product benefit and tied it to the brand name. "Please don't squeeze the Charmin" linked a desired quality with the brand: Softness equals Charmin. And even the most annoyed Internet visitor carrying a hefty mortgage had to be intrigued by the exceptional mortgage rate linked to the LowerMyBills name: "$510,000 Mortgage for under $1,698 month!" Product benefits don't come much clearer.

Both Charmin and LowerMyBills enacted what advertisers have been told for years by advertising gurus: Successful advertisers are often those who offer the most explicit statement of product benefits.

One more vital point about Internet advertising As Lady Macbeth says, "If t'were done, when 'tis done, then t'were well t'were done quickly." In short: Get to the point. So many Internet ads are composed with the apparent assumption that the Internet visitor has just plopped down in his or her seat, happy to sit back and wait for the advertiser to spin a yarn. Not so. The Internet ads that typically captivate readers are those that brand their name and state the benefit immediately. In fact, a large number of plain old static ads rank among the highest scoring Internet ads that we have studied. They are not flashy. They just quickly address the consumer's most pressing question, "What's in it for me?" Just as the dancing cowboys and Mr. Whipple did.

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