Despite Mad Men romanticizing the creation of advertising, the act isn't rocket science. You create a short story, in the tone of the campaign you've developed, place it on a medium that will hit the type of person who wants to know about your product, and bam: Your product will stick in the shoppers' minds when they're browsing the various aisles and shelves at the mall.
Yet, as even the mention of our endangered indoor shopping structures proves, this is mostly an outdated model. Sure, Super Bowl spots still cost the annual Gross Domestic Product of small countries, and radio ads are the same as ever whether they're aired on satellite or podcasts, but if you want to reach eyes and ears, it's foolish not to tailor your ads to this thing called the Internet.
But what was the last Internet ad you enjoyed? Hell, what was the last Internet ad you even remember? They're all over the place, millions of dollars are being spent, but are they having any effect at all? Most importantly, does it even matter, seeing as ad-blockers are beginning to return our beloved Internet to the pre-ad utopia it once was?
The easiest point of comparison for Internet-based advertising—for better or for worse—is the television ad. Both mediums involve screens, and the eyes watching those screens, and ears listening to those speakers, and the action generally takes place in the comfort of one's own private space. But the way ads work on TV is not nearly the same as they do on the Internet. At least, it shouldn't be.
“The whole idea of TV is you reach 50 million people simultaneously,” says Scott Symonds, the managing director of media for San Francisco-based digital agency AKQA. “And so you need a lowest common denominator message. But now we're in a totally different world.”
“[The Internet] has insane fragmentation, insane amount of inbounds. As an advertiser you sort of have the obligation to do better, to understand [the audience] better, and give them something more relevant and useful.”
Think of it like a dinner party. If you have only one or two guests coming over, you have a pretty wide range of options in terms of menu selection. Sure, maybe they don't eat meat, but the potential number of overlapping taste preferences is vast. Not so if, say, you're trying to feed 500 people at a blowout bash. There, diets and preferences are too varied. There's such a small sliver of acceptance in the middle of that Venn diagram that you're forced to settle for something bland and cheap. This may be why Little Caesar's is still in business.
“[The internet] has insane fragmentation, insane amount of inbounds,” Symonds says. “As an advertiser you sort of have the obligation to do better, to understand [the audience] better, and give them something more relevant and useful.” This is why, to Symonds, banner ads “suck.” They're meant to reach such a wide swath of people that they end up reaching no one at all.
On the Internet, attention is also at a huge premium, more-so than in traditional media. You can do your best to avoid TV commercials on live programming—walk out of the room, go to the bathroom, pick up a magazine or your phone, flip the channel, etc.—but it's still going to play. There's a timeline element in place: You have to get past the commercial in order to see what comes after the break. Not so with Internet ads: A user can scroll away or open another tab. A 30-second ad with a two-second mention of the brand at the end, then, is just wasted money.
“That doesn't work,” Symonds says. “No one watches four frames of a banner unfold over 20 seconds, or if you're in arm's length of a skip button on YouTube. If it's not developing some value within the first five seconds, you're going to skip or ignore.”
A brilliant series of ads from the always-meta Geico references this five-second window by delivering the entire message up front: “You can't skip this Geico ad because it's already over.” The actors remain in an exaggerated still pose for the remainder of the time. It's such an odd thing to see that it's actually tough to look away. This one, which is over a minute long and features a hungry dog, is the pinnacle of the form.
But if you have the name of your brand, or the kind of product you're selling, buried at the end—as so many other TV and radio spots do—you're doing it wrong. Those last ticks of the clock, where the modus operandi for the video's existence resides, are unobserved. No one gets that far. It's like spending tons of money on a huge billboard in the middle of the desert.
As the industry adjusts, digital agencies doing things the old-fashioned way will surely be weeded out. But, by then, will there be much of an Internet ad industry left?
The newly-coded elephant in the room is the ad blocker, which has been adopted at a swift pace. One surefire way to get around it? Make your ads look like they're not ads.
Thinkmodo is a New York-based agency that's been creating “viral video campaigns for brands” for the past five years. What does that look like? Getting the folks behind the 2013 re-make of Carrie to front the cost of a staged telekinesis performance/prank at a local coffee shop, surreptitiously filming it, shoehorning it onto the Internet, hoping it gets taken for a ride on the viral slipstream, and watching blogs and TV news shows do your work for you.
“We do not pay anybody,” says James Percelay, one of the co-founders of Thinkmodo. “We generate millions of dollars in earned media which, in my opinion, is more effective than paid media.” This is a wise tactic, seeing as audiences have become mentally savvy enough to block ads on their own. But does that mean the proliferation of ad-blockers won't affect this model at all? “We are somewhat immune to it,” he says.
This doesn't mean this viral-baiting method is completely invulnerable. Blockers are ever-evolving, and the parameters of what's considered an ad could theoretically widen. It's not out of the realm of possibility that someone will be able to figure out how to write code that blocks these attempts at branded viral content. But that's mostly besides the point for Percelay. The blockers are trying to mess with the well-established relationship that consumers have with their content. “An ad is what you have to pay when you watch something for free,” Percelay says. If the blockers continue blocking, at some point, audience members will be forced to pay, and we'll see how long that model lasts.
But what about the other more straightforward units of Internet advertising?
Symonds isn't that worried either, a confidence born from already having lived through an “industry-destroying” invention before. “We've had DVR in TV, and everyone was worried about everybody skipping commercials,” Symonds says. “But the truth is, everyone is so lazy, or laid-back to do so.” There is one group that, definitionally, isn't laid-back, and it's certainly highly targeted by marketers. “It would be hard to reach the most digitally literate folks. Those are the ones with ad-blockers.”
But there's a bigger reason not to fear the rise of the blockers, says Symonds, and that involves playing a bit of follow-the-money. The three richest technology companies are Apple, Google, and Facebook. “Facebook is immune to ad blockers,” Symonds says. “But Google can be hurt a lot. Apple too.” While Google's Chrome browser and Apple's iOS 9-powered phone both currently allow for ad-blocking capabilities, that may change if their implementation begins affecting corporate pocketbooks; nearly 70 percent of Google's revenue comes from ads, while Apple claims over 50 percent of all mobile ad monetization. “The second it gets a bit bigger, there can be counter-intelligence employed by publishers that can sniff for ad blocker software and deny them content,” Symonds says.
But maybe that's besides the point. Google, Apple, and Facebook are going to be just fine, ad blockers or not, because they'll find other ways to sell ad space on their platforms. As Nilay Patel at the Verge has noted, it's everyone else out there that will quickly be chiseled away from our current online environment:
[T]he collateral damage of that war—of Apple going after Google's revenue platform is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can't invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.
Remember 30 years ago, when TV options were basically limited to ABC, NBC, and CBS? That may be the end result of our bold Internet experiment come 2020. If you want to get your news or "Internet content" from any place other than BuzzFeed or its siblings, well, maybe don't install those ad blockers. Rather, do what we've all been doing since the first Internet ad appeared: Ignore, ignore, ignore.