For the advertising industry, cyberspace is a discomfort zone. It
slipped in under the radar, and has been a growing - and baffling -
threat ever since. Like most of their industrial clients, advertisers
were slow to appreciate the significance of the web, and as a result
much of the early advertising on the medium was done by low-status
companies of amateurs. And it showed, with naff animated gifs, snake-oil
hucksterism and brain-dead banner ads that slowed page downloads to a
Even when online ads evinced a glimmer of intelligence, it was often
with the cunning of the trickster rather than the creative ingenuity of
Remember those banner ads with scroll bars or close boxes replicating
functional elements of the Windows interface? Every so often one would
be fooled into clicking on them - more out of instinct than judgment -
only to be transported to some unexpected (and usually unwanted) segment
of cyberspace. The first time that happened one might grin sardonically,
much as tourists half-applaud the mendacious ingenuity of street urchins
in Naples. But the second time ...
Mainstream advertising has up to now accorded the net a low creative
status - much as it did radio advertising a decade ago. The creative
juices of the industry still flow to where they have always gone - to
television and display advertising in its various forms. The problem is
that these forms are inextricably bound up with 'push' media - where a
small number of content providers decide what is to be produced and then
push it at relatively passive consumers down a limited number of
The thing about the web is that it is exactly the opposite - a 'pull'
medium. Nothing (apart from e-mail) comes to you from the web unless you
explicitly identify it and pull it down to your browser across the net.
This radically changes the rules of engagement for advertisers, because
it gives real power to the consumer. And because the barriers to entry
to cyberspace - whether as publisher or trader - are so low, the number
of content providers is growing almost exponentially.
The result is a community of 400-plus million people who can instantly
go elsewhere at the click of a mouse, and who have a cornucopia of
options from which to choose.
The advertising industry built its expertise on putting seductive
messages in places where people cannot avoid them. And as a result,
advertisers initially tried to replicate in cyberspace what had worked
so well for so long in what John Perry Barlow memorably called
The result was the ubiquitous banner ad, that infuriating rectangle
consuming valuable screen real estate at the top of a web page. The
brain-dead business model underpinning this idea was that if you built a
site that attracted millions of eyeballs, then those page-requests could
be turned into revenue by selling advertising space on the site. Users
could not avoid the ads - so you could be sure they would see them; and
a proportion of them would 'click through' to the advertiser's site,
where they would - hopefully - buy something.
This theory sustained countless business plans but, alas, it didn't
For one thing, most web users dislike banner ads and adopt all kinds of
strategies to avoid them - even downloading free programs such as
AdBlocker and WebWasher, which filter out banners before they reach the
And because the web is a pull medium, avoidance strategies can be very
Secondly, it turns out that click-through rates are much lower than
originally anticipated. This has led the industry to conclude that
banner ads are less effective than conventional ones. The truth is more
complicated and may have something to do with the fact that online
advertising is the first genre for which we can have precise metrics of
If there were correspondingly accurate measurements of consumer response
to billboard or TV advertising, we might find they were even less
As Barrie Cree, the solutions director of Zenith Interactive, says:
'Nobody says a poster campaign was dreadful because 99 per cent of the
people who drove past it didn't stop their car, read it and take the
Faced with the discovery that traditional methods don't work on the web,
the advertisers are uncertain about what to try next. The majority seem
to be adopting what one might call a World War One strategy: if at first
you don't succeed, fail again. Recently the Internet Advertising Bureau,
a trade body for web publishers, announced guidelines for even bigger
and more intrusive banners - including a big 336x280 pixel shape which
appears right bang in the middle of a page. Another format, dubbed the
'skyscraper', will be a 160x600 pixel block on the page.
The new online ad formats represent a semi-comatose response to the
challenge of this new medium. A better strategy would be to try to
figure out how the distinctive features of the web and the wider
internet might be harnessed for advertising. Instead of fighting the
wave, why not ride it?
In a push-media world, advertising became the channel through which
companies addressed their customers. But it was a one-way conversation.
The thing about the net is that it not only enables companies to talk to
their customers individually, but also that it enables customers to talk
back. This is a fantastic business opportunity. The trouble is that most
companies have got out of the habit of listening. Maybe listening is the
most useful thing advertisers could do in the internet age.