The crap online and a better way to ding the dong

3 min read

Online ads may be kind of like living without your spleen: ultimately, you don’t notice.

We’ve been making a conscious effort around here to notice when we . . . notice online display ads. The answer is somewhere between “rarely” and “almost never.”

We’re wondering why these ads have become so hard to see, despite being everywhere we look. The answer seems pretty simple: they are crap.

Online advertising is easy, and it’s cheap, and so many advertisers continue to regard it as a standard part of a “see what sticks” effort. (Although, to be fair: Crummy advertising certainly isn’t confined to the Internet.)

The result, when you summon the wherewithal to find it, is chopped-up ads with too much copy and dopey stock images. They’re kinetic and garish—the red-faced, shouting toddler you’d rather tune out, and just as scrutable. If they tell you anything at all, it’s nothing you feel compelled to act on.

On behalf of my industry, I apologize. We’re assaulting you—and for what? There’s certainly no benefit to clients from display ads that are easy to overlook. We’re also insulting you by tossing out words that ignore your humanity.

Not everyone’s mucking it up. Pringles earned clicks and clicks with an ad that starts with a story and goes off on a tangent that never ends. I couldn’t quit you, Pringles ad. Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 9.23.28 AMEven when you mocked my clickery.

Given that the Pringles ad includes an anecdote about reaching inappropriate content at the office, this seems like a perfect time to mention another ad that inspires (NSFW) action—a spicy illustrated number for AIDS prevention. This one starts with a simple illustration that stands on its own—a penis that the visitor can “walk” through myriad temptations, which leap outside the border of the ad. Chase them down and the sketched erection becomes artfully sheathed (a fact it immediately and vigorously takes full advantage of).

Subtract the automatic attention-getting factor of an erection on the screen, and it’s easier to see what these ads have in common: they involve the visitor—through action, story, and the delicious thrill of intrigue. How long can that Pringles story go on? Which temptation will lure the eager wang?

Each of these ads starts with a very simple image and just enough copy to get the ball rolling. (Ahem.) That’s the goal right there, always: Show—and tell only enough to create intrigue. Nobody cares about the six reasons your landscape architecture program is the best in the Midwest. They’re bored by your all-natural ingredients and immune to the allure of your company’s latest award.

What works, at heart, is the same principle that works in print: Throw me off. Tell me something surprising. Frame a story I’ve never heard before.

Why would I want a cream to give me wrinkles? Now that—that, I must know.

So, no: visitors are not bothered to take notice of most of the ads they encounter on their screens. We aren’t—even when we’re looking for them. That isn’t a failure of our attention but of the advertising itself. It’s not clean or clear, and it’s not bothering to grab us.

We’re here, always—and we love clicking. But more and more we’re all too sophisticated (or jaded?) to do it. It won’t happen just because someone bothered to put up an ad. We, as visitors, owe advertisers nothing. Which is all we’ll give if they keep giving us crap.