Friday, March 15, 2013

When Advertising Crosses The Line


After publishing my first few posts on this blog I became curious about all of the available options to control it. I ran through the list of tabs reading the options and thinking about which ones I might adjust or tweak. I got to the "Earnings" tab and suddenly perked up a bit. I know that successful bloggers with thousands of regular readers can earn a tidy profit by allowing advertising space on their blogs. Now, my readership is nowhere near those numbers. My earnings, if any, wouldn't add up to more than a few dollars a month. Still, in my ever-optimistic mind, I smiled at the thought of my blog achieving critical mass and earning me a steady stream of cold, hard cash.

Human Behavior

What is the number one extension or add-on for web browsers? Well, that partially depends on who you ask. Most top-10 lists will be sure to feature AdBlock somewhere, with many placing it in the topmost spot.

Do you fondly remember the early days of YouTube? Early on, you could view a video without the need to hover your mouse for five seconds before rapidly dismissing an advertisement. Admittedly, not all videos have this problem. Google (who owns YouTube) allows flexibility for channel owners to decide how invasive the ads should be.

Have you noticed that since PVRs have become commonplace, watching live TV seems, somehow, more painful than it used to be? Those commercial breaks we used to tolerate are now prolonged interruptions leading to impatience and frustration (unless you needed the bathroom break). Many people have become self-professed experts at fast-forwarding over the commercials and hitting play just in time for the show to return.

It seems, based on our behavior, that people don't like advertising much. We block it, we skip it, and we change our habits just to avoid it. Some of us have even begun changing our brains and started developing banner blindness. All of these facts start to make a person wonder how anyone can advocate advertising at all. Surely, those people must be trying to justify their greed for those shiny advertising dollars.

(...and don't call me Shirley)

The Other Side

Quick: What are the ingredients in a McDonald's Big Mac? Go!

(highlight to view the answer):
Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.

Did you get it?

How about this one? Complete the following jingles:

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener.
Plop, plop. Fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it is.

Each one of these marketing phrases was broadcast several years before I was born. How could I possibly be so familiar with them? It seems that some advertisements have a certain je ne sais quoi that allows them to endear themselves to us and become part of popular culture. They have become burned into the cultural psyche.

One of my personal favorites was Molson Canadian's "I Am Canadian" advertising campaign. This series of ads inspired a wave of national pride and fraternity for Canadians (this was before the Canadian Molson and US Coors companies merged). These ads connected with me personally and helped to fill me with pride in my country.

When I was a kid, say seven or eight, I used to like some of the commercials more than the television shows. I would play in our living room while my parents watched TV and I would perk up only to watch my favorite commercials. I loved to sing along with the catchy jingles. I loved the brightly-colored and animated commercials most of all.

I don't think you would find many people complaining that a restaurant puts a simple sign outside of its doors inviting customers inside. I certainly can't complain when they slap enticing pictures of their tasty dishes in the window. Some people love to window shop. They love just looking at the stylish displays in the store windows which beckon consumers to come inside and check out their other products and deals. Most people won't balk when an acquaintance offers them a business card if it suits the topic at hand. This sort of available enticement tends to be overlooked as a form of advertising.

It seems to me that it's not as simple as judging advertising as good or bad; right or wrong. Clearly, some ads bother people more than others. Some may even inspire them, or at least amuse and entertain them. Others manage to get their point across without ruffling too many feathers. How, then, can we know which are good and which are not? When does advertising cross the line between acceptable and questionable?

Crossing The Line

I think we can all agree that we don't want to be treated like a sucker. Nobody likes to play the fool. Advertising should not bend the truth, and most certainly should not lie to you outright. This sentiment is even built into our legal system. Perhaps most abhorrent of all is the ads that are misleading in their purpose. They entice you with an offer that sounds too good to be true. Those foolish enough to fall for the bait will be taken for a ride and dumped unceremoniously out on the curb, their wallets lighter for the experience. Don't forget web page ads that disguise themselves as content.

Have you ever met a salesman who won't take no for an answer? Did you enjoy the experience? When someone puts information out in plain sight for me to see, I can choose to engage with him or choose to ignore him (recommended). If that person then begins to hound me as if I just wasn't paying attention, it can really get my hackles up. Guess what, I saw you just fine the first time and chose to walk past you. How likely do you think you are to get anything good out of me now that I have been interrupted?

In much the same way, aggressive in-your-face advertising tends to receive very negative reactions. People begin to curse not just the products being sold, but the people who made them and their ads. Most people are content to ignore modest web advertising and continue browsing the site. When the advertising becomes more intrusive, the reaction becomes stronger. Who hasn't thrown at least a minor fit trying to find the browser tab with the obnoxious smiley face ad complete with sound effects?

My final guideline to avoid crossing the line is directed at service and content providers: don't double-dip. No, I'm not talking about the time George Costanza double-dipped his tortilla chip. I am talking about when providers try to accept money from both advertisers and consumers. This can be seen in various forms: a movie theater showing ads before the movie that patrons paid $12 a piece to see; magazines or web sites charging a large monthly subscription fee, but still cramming tons of ads between the content; DVD or Blu-ray discs that play unskippable ads when they start up. Why should consumers pay good money to watch your advertising? Who are you serving? Make up your minds already.

Getting It Right

It seems that the path to advertising with a clear conscience is fraught with pitfalls. With so many ways it can be done wrong, we will need some guidelines for getting it right. Where can we start?

If you're going to interrupt me, make it worth my time. As I mentioned earlier, some forms of advertising are more invasive than others. Some forms are a pure and unadulterated interruption. If you're going to interrupt me, please do whatever possible to appease me. Do something amusing, entertaining, inspiring, or compelling. Present your message if you must, but do not linger longer than the task requires. Your interruption will leave an emotional impact regardless - make sure it's positive and not one of frustration or anger.

Be forthcoming. Most advertising is trying to drum up business so that the advertiser can sell more widgets, or get more people to use their service. The bottom line is money. Most people understand that people need to make a living. They won't hold it against you if you make it clear that you're asking them to participate in a business transaction. It's not that complicated, really. I will give you X if you give me money. Don't try to hide the fact that you are asking to be paid.

My final guideline is to be accessible. We tend to accept advertisements that are intrusive but explain how the advertiser can meet our needs right now. While car ads at the movie theater may alienate moviegoers, ads suggesting that we all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat are more acceptable. It's better to choose to advertise to consumers who are interested in your product or service now, than to those who have no need of it until the unforeseeable future.

I wish that I could say more on how to get it right. Frankly, it's not too difficult to find ads that avoid pissing people off. Inspiring them, on the other hand, is an incredible challenge. When everything comes together just right, a brief segment of airtime can transcend advertising and become its own cultural icon.

What Do You Think?

As I explained at the beginning of this post, monetizing my blog, given my current readership, would barely be worth my time. I'm pleased to find that the ads available to me from Google AdSense tend to be of the mild variety. They exist on the periphery of the blog and don't tend to interrupt the reader. They are even intended to be geared to the interests of the user and the contents of this blog.

Imagine with me, if you will, that you have a successful blog that could potentially rake in an additional $1000 every month. Would you enable ads? Would it be selling out? What would you be concerned about?

What are some things that advertisers do that cross the line for you? Let me know what you think in the comments.


Joshua Ganes

1 comment:

  1. Advertising is an interesting "evil"!?! Anyhow I did know all those commercials even what is in a Big Mac. You did watch the commercials more than the shows. I do remember that. I guess you have to decide if it's worth it to add advertising or not. Like you said it wouldn't make much right now but maybe one day. I think I might if it wasn't too invasive.