"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 April 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Jocko Homo


Way New Fetishism
For many upper-middle class shoppers in the 80s, consumption was guided by the religion of quality. But the noveltyists follow the basic tenets of purchasing as philosophy - they come home with Sea Monkeys, vintage evening gowns, Dr. Seuss books, strobe lights, and BMX dirt bikes because these are the Other Purchases. The noveltyists feel they've moved beyond accumulating products as status symbols; instead, each item contributes to the creation of a worldview and an identity.
Five years ago today in Suck.

One thing everybody agrees on: The banner ad is still dead. Everywhere you look, the air is thick with snickering, obituaries and coping. Pompous blowhards set out to bury the premier non-spam form of online advertising. Reporters declare flatly that the banner "doesn't work" (San Diego Union-Tribune, April 4). The London Financial Times pronounces it "accepted" that "banner ads have a limited impact." Economy-busting technologies like WebWasher are obviating the entire market. Fraidy-cat advertisers, in a twist over banners' failure to "attract attention," (New York Times, March 17) are rolling over to a cluster of desperate new projects: bigger ads (which meet with consumer hatred), interstitials (an idea whose time has come and gone), and a proliferation of Javascript popups (no comment). In a neat encapsulation of the conventional wisdom, Fortune's Mark Gunther says what everybody else is only thinking: "We won't even bother reciting the problems with banner ads."

The latest genius to blow the whole passing-of-the banner story wide open is Silicon Alley Reporter CEO Jason McCabe Calacanis. In a recent column, the digital supersleuth absolutely refuses to mince words:

All of these ad executives sitting around for the thousandth time defending the banner ad, and how it works sometimes and how the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) was making progress with the new ad sizes, etc., etc. So, I just said it:

The banner ad is a complete, unmitigated failure: When we look back on this industry, it will be considered the biggest mistake we ever made. Furthermore, the IAB is a complete, unmitigated failure for sitting around and pretending that by making them a little bigger they are going to work.

Did I just say that out loud? I could just count the seconds before Richy Glassberg got me on the phone (which, of course, he did; he agrees with me ... sort of).

This is, of course, a complete straw man argument. At this stage in history, nobody is defending the banner ad. The very topic is cause for grumbling and embarrassment. At a recent, Calacanis-free conference, this reporter managed to get peals of laughter from the assembled crowd just by saying the term "banner ads" and pausing for effect. Indeed, smart cookies out to raise money for their Web ventures have adopted a general policy, when speaking to potential investors, of avoiding even mentioning that ad-based revenue may be part of the business plan. (The proposed Calacanis answer to the problem — full-page ads — sounds like something we remember from our youths, but no matter: Anything can be a possible solution as long as you haven't seen it fail yet.)

What's caused this accelerated morbidity? After all, the problem with banner ads is the same problem that had already become conventional wisdom two or three years ago, when Suck first declared the banner bullishness that we've clung to ever since. The problem is that people aren't clicking on them! Because all Web users are not falling into a state of buy-now zombification, like Jerry Lewis's landlady in Rock-A-Bye Baby, or the brainwashed teens in Josie and the Pussycats, the entire market must not be working. Through the fog of crushing depression and cheap booze that constitutes any discussion of webvertising, one piece of fake erudition is always sure to come up: "Banner ads? Those things only get, like, point-five percent clickthrough!"

The argument over low clickthrough raises an old question: What is the clickthrough rate for a billboard? For a radio jingle? How about a TV commercial? Or the one form of advertising that the banner most resembles — an eighth-page ad in a magazine? The decline of banners is a classic example of people not so much refusing to accept bad news as refusing to accept its implications. If the first direct measurement of consumer response to advertising yields results this poor, can't we just as easily conclude advertising itself doesn't work? And if that conclusion leads to a cut in the ad budget, wouldn't it be better to start with your useless, multizillion-dollar TV campaign, or those dead-on-arrival full-page magazine ads, than with Web spots that charge a relatively cheap (and rapidly dropping) $28 per thousand?

But then, maybe those results aren't so poor. After all, the point of a commercial is not to grab audience attention but to grab audience inattention. It doesn't take Dr. Wilson Bryan Key to figure out that advertising works best when you're not really thinking about it. Hands-on user involvement of the sort implied in a clickthrough is actually the worst thing that could happen to an ad. Do you really want customers thinking clearly about your ad's inflated claims and bogus sloganeering, seriously assessing the minute distinctions between your online flower delivery service and the dozen or so others? Repetition, as that proto-adman Leopold Bloom noted, is the key to advertising.

But even if we concede the whole branding vs. clicking debate, we must still consider that this industry-wide low rate of user participation is just that — an industry-wide rate. It counts both the occasional well-conceived and well executed ad, and the millions upon millions of dead impressions out there, the ad campaigns that run on years past their prime, the piss-poor banners whose only attraction is a forlorn "Click here," the whole mass of dead ads that generate zero clickthrough, and will never make it into the Banner Ad Museum, and lay like a flaming sack of poop on the doorstep of the future.

In fact, the field of successful banner campaigns is a substantial and encouraging one. When Ford Motor Company wanted to put the best face on its Firestone recall, it did so with a plain banner reading, "For official Ford news on the Firestone recall, click here," and eventually generated more than a 30 percent clickthrough rate. Beyond the fact that people are just interested in exploding tires, the story indicates how well an ad pitched to a specific event can do, and why Toyota, for example with its history of clever campaigns has enjoyed steady success. (A few years ago, at any rate, the company was claiming online advertising had generated more sales leads than any other campaign in its history.) The Blair Witch Project and the Austin Powers sequel were movies pre-sold almost entirely through web marketing, and The Lord of the Rings is shaping up to be another one. Granted, these have, in many cases, predetermined audiences who need no Web campaign to get excited, but does anybody doubt that the online campaign is helping prime the pump for an opening night in which Frodo and Sam and the whole gang will be mobbed by pustular fanboys?

A movie premiere or a tire recall has a time element that makes a banner ad easy to peg. But the element of timing is otherwise entirely missing from advertising in this supposedly up-to-the-nanosecond medium. When was the last time you saw something as simple as a banner ad tied to a 24-hour Presidents' Day sale? Why hasn't Kmart, which hypes its revenant Blue Light Special with a blue lightbulb on its page, not done the obvious thing and slapped together some once-a-week banners letting us know what tapes and CDs we can get at the Nice Price?

Overriding every conversation these days is a sense that we've tried everything to make banner ads work. In fact, hardly anybody has tried anything. That the banner is now declared dead, that Calacanis and many others are insisting that only TV commercial-style advertising will save us (despite the glaring problem that the Web still produces a quality of motion picture that would make Thomas Edison giggle), is just more proof that the Web's preferred means of exchanging ideas is through hyperventilation, screeching and hooting.

Which of course brings us to that paragon of both human de-evolution and successful clickthrough — Treeloot's infamous "Punch the monkey to win twenty bucks" banner ad, generally considered one of the most successful banners of all time. Punch the Monkey was also an early example of mislearned lessons in advertising. A million Iwon.coms looked at Treeloot's success with the spot and figured the secret of attracting an audience was to give away money. We have an alternative theory, based on the fact that the ad's popularity continued even after it became generally known that the site was actually giving away twenty "banana bucks." In the end, people didn't go to Treeloot because they wanted the money, but because they liked the monkey. Our continuing policy is that the Web doesn't need more advertising experts blaming the state of the medium for their own failures. It doesn't need more pundits looking to put our Banner Years behind us. What the Web needs is more monkeys.

Even in monkeyville, though, familiarity breeds contempt. Eventually even Punch the Monkey dwindled as a click-tease, not because people hated the ad but because they hated Treeloot. From such promising beginnings, Punch the Monkey became just another irritating ad, another piece of inventory, sitting out there unclicked, bringing down the industry average. Treeloot has never matched the power of that original spot. But once upon a time, this was the final word in banner ad innovation. Sadly, it still is.

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courtesy of La Vache Qui Rit


pictures Terry Colon

La Vache Qui Rit

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