Sunday, June 3, 2012

Too Much Ad'ing

I've just about had it with online ads. I realize that it's the only way for a lot of websites to make money and it's certainly the only reason a social networking site like Facebook is supposedly worth enough to create an IPO feeding frenzy. I'm not complaining about ads in general as they are necessary and, once in a blue moon, even useful. But the madness has to stop! There are only so many places to post, staple, tape or bury ads while still maintaining a page's basic usefulness. I think we've now passed that point of sanity and moved into the land of marketing chaos.

I remember the first moment things were getting out of control. I'm sitting there, reading a post somewhere about something and, like everyone who spends a lot of time online, I'm quick to notice hyperlinks. So, there I am, reading along and I notice a blue, underlined word and out of reflex I hover the pointer over it, intending to see what the link points to. Before I can even think about actually clicking it, a big window pops up with some advertisement that vaguely relates to the highlighted word! Only afterwards did I notice the double-underline that seems to denote these 'ad mines' that are deployed all over the place nowadays.  Next came the 'mouse trap' ads that lurk innocently along the margins just waiting for an unwary mouse pointer to wander close and then they pounce, opening up a big, expanded ad across a third of the web page. These also took me by surprise the first time. It only takes a little sloppy mouse work in the wrong place to yank you out of whatever you were doing. Sometimes you're lucky and the ad will snap back when you drag your pointer back to neutral ground, but often you have to find the ghostly little 'X' in one corner or the other of the ad to make it go away. So now, not only do I have to avoid passing the pointer over double underlined words scattered throughout most of the articles I read, but I also have to carefully circumnavigate the entire ad section to avoid accidentally tripping one of them as well. Makes for a pleasant reading experience, as you can imagine.

But that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg! It's no longer unusual for a page to contain ads with embedded movies. And not just movies you can choose to play if you happen to be interested in the product. I'm talking movies that just autostart as soon as the page loads. At least so far, most run without sound unless you click on it. Thank Gaia for small favors! But some just start blaring away at whatever volume your computer happens to be set to. Or maybe, as I've run into recently, the page loads normally, but after a second it darkens and a movie will open in the middle of the page and start playing.  In some cases you can't even close the ad till it plays a certain length of time, thus holding the contents of the page hostage. Once you get to the page though, it's still not clear sailing. Huffington Post, for example, has a really annoying ad strategy. Sporadically they will have a huge banner across the very top of the page, usually for something like a big movie opening. So far so good, as you can just scroll down and go about your business. But not so fast!  Just about the time you see an article you might want to read . . . presto, the ad retracts and the entire page slides upwards, taking what you were reading with it. That one is particularly infuriating and I've gotten so I just let the page load and wait 30 seconds or so till all the shifting is done before actually looking at anything. It's a stupid way to do it, as it just annoys people which is not generally a good marketing tool.

Even if you avoid the movies, mouse traps, ad mines and timed animations, the advertisers have still more tricks for you. In recent years I've seen more of the in-line, stealth ads sneaking in. As odd as it may sound to combine 'stealth' and 'ad' in the same description, it fits. These ads are carefully placed throughout the text of the article and sometimes even look, at a glance anyway, like they are part of it.  There will be an extra line or two and a very low key 'sponsor' note, but usually not enough to be obvious till you start to read it and wonder why the article on Greece's money troubles seems to now be advising you on mortgage opportunities! Imagine reading Moby Dick only to stumble over ads for Holland America cruises and you get the idea.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of marketing tricks to be found in the wild, but they are some of the most invasive. And with the rise of Google and Facebook, among others, the ads we see are eerily targeted. I did some searches six months ago or so, for a laptop bag and I still see ads from one of the companies I visited popping up on all sorts of pages now. Sure I could clear all the browser cookies and probably give my stalkers the slip, briefly at least, but I find it annoying that I have to. I also find it annoying how long page load times have gotten for some sites due to the dozens of highly visual ads that frame, and sometimes infiltrate, the articles themselves. Some of these pages are, graphically speaking, 95% ads or more!

One other thing the online ad onslaught has brought us is 'click bait'. Articles that either exist almost entirely as a lure for readers or pages that are crafted so the article takes up the maximum amount of pages. The most obvious form of the lure strategy is to use an title that is usually somewhat, if not wildly misleading. We've all seen a title that grabbed us only to find out that it had little bearing on the actual story. But it got you to click on it, so the advertising god was appeased. The other appeasement trick is to create slide show 'articles' where you usually have a picture and maybe a short paragraph of text on each page. This often manifests in things like 'The Top 10 . . .' or '5 Ways to a better . . .' and other similar variations. More often than not you'll find these lists to be generally brainless. Filled with either obvious or highly subjective and inflammatory information. In any case, you are unlikely to get anything of substance from them. The web site itself however, will rack up huge number of page hits and thus, making itself look like a great place to advertise!

As I said, I know we can't get away from relying on ad revenues to fund our online world, but is it too much to ask to back it down to sane levels? I keep trying to imagine what things would be like if we applied the current online marketing strategies to our everyday lives. Imagine sidewalks, where every square was an advertising tile that lit up with targeted ads as you stepped on them. Imagine phone calls with brief pauses in conversation so we could hear a word from our sponsors based on the current topic of discussion. Imagine TV shows where the characters turn to the camera unexpectedly to extol the virtues of the new Subaru WRX they just bought. Wait a sec! That one I've already seen. The SciFi, er . . . I mean SyFy channel tried that a few years ago with their original series Eureka. It was a horrible thing to see, and they seemed to realize that quickly as the practice ceased after a few episodes. The point is that I think we've already hit the saturation point with online ads. I regularly find myself thinking, "I will NEVER buy anything from this company", after encountering some of the more egregious marketing traps. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is reticent to click ads at all. I mean, who wants to be stalked by some company you were vaguely curious about for ten seconds one day? Who wants to encourage strategies that annoy the hell out of you? The marketing brain trust needs to remember that there is a fine line between enticing us with products and just generally pissing us off.

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