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Last Updated: Friday, 11 July, 2003, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Why online ads do not work
Why do most people ignore ads on the web, even if they are amusing or interesting, wonders technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Nescafe jars
Some ads for Nescafe coffee have been memorable
Some adverts really stick in the mind.

The surrealist beauty of the Dunlop tyres ad that used the Velvet Underground song Venus in Furs, the kitsch of the Gold Blend couple, posters from the 1970s for the fizzy drink Cresta, with a bear saying "it's frothy, man".

But none of them are online. In fact, I suspect nobody reading this will be able to recall a single web advert or campaign. They just don't seem to stick in the mind.

The UK branch of Interactive Advertising Bureau, (IAB), the trade organisation for online advertisers, has recognised this, and feels that their creative output is not getting enough attention.

Last month they set up a website, the Creative Showcase, where online ads can get "the recognition and acclaim they deserve".

There is even a monthly award for the best online ad. This month it is house.co.uk, a site for finding plumbers and other tradespeople.

One reason for doing this is an attempt to break the vicious circle that means that online advertising does not get properly funded, so it does not seem to work, so there is no money to pay for ads.

Blocking it out

The IAB believes that if the best people were paid good money to create web adverts then we would all be clicking on them like crazy. But then, they would say that, since they are being paid by the industry.

Bill Thompson
When I am online, looking for information, the ads are in the way and I block them out
Bill Thompson
It would be deeply cynical and unhelpful to point out that perhaps online adverts do not actually deserve either recognition or acclaim.

It would not even be true, since I have just spent an entertaining half hour looking at some of the ads they have given awards to and they are surprisingly good.

Unfortunately I would never have noticed or clicked on them if I had visited the websites where they were being featured, because I never do.

Even when I am aware that there is something flickering or moving in the corner of my field of view, I filter it out and do not remember which company or product was being advertised.

Admiring a British Gas advert on a showcase website is like reading an advertising magazine or going along to an awards ceremony. You see the work in isolation, and look at it carefully, having decided to spend the time doing so.

But when I am online, looking for information, reading the news or simply surfing around aimlessly, the ads are in the way and I block them out.

Ad-free zones

Advertising is one of the few sources of revenue for websites, especially news and magazine sites. A recent survey of the business models of news sites by web expert Dr Frederick Schiff argues that advertising income will remain central for many sites, even though research indicates it will never be more than half of total revenue.

Vogue magazines
Vogue uses banner ads and pop-ups on its site
But if the ads do not work, what is going to be done?

You can tell that the sites themselves know that the adverts are an irritant, because why else would they offer subscribers an ad-free version?

Vogue magazine does not publish a more expensive, ad-free, edition, but The Guardian will soon be doing this, following many other media websites.

Part of the problem, for me at least, is that the web is still such a poor medium, in terms of speed of access, navigability, layout and quality of content, that the adverts turn a website from being barely usable into one that is just unacceptable.

My screen is small, and I do not want to waste the space displaying adverts when I have such a limited room for the material I want to read. And my connection - even a broadband one - is not so fast that I do not resent the time spend downloading images for ads.

When I eventually manage to find my way to a page that seems to have some useful information on it, then I do not want to have to deal with an overlaid ad that has to be clicked on to make it go away, or a large banner that occupies most of the screen for five seconds before shrinking, or a banner with flashing graphics and sound.

Presentation problem

If I am flicking through a magazine the ads stay where they are put - on the page.

Wonderbra ad
Making an impact: Bra billboard attracted much attention
If I am watching TV or at the cinema then the appearance of the ads is well-flagged and I can anticipate them and - if I am not interested - turn away while they are on.

But on the web the ads are there, trying to grab my attention, and I resent and resist this.

At the same time, I do not want to have to pay subscriptions for every site I visit, or provide masses of personal information that can be sold to marketing companies to provide some sort of income stream, so I would like to find some way to make advertising acceptable.

Having reviewed some of the ads features on the Creative Showcase, I have realised one thing.

Some of them are really rather good, and if they had been presented to me in a way which didn't irritate or annoy me then I might well have looked at them properly.

Perhaps the real problem is presentation, not the fact that they are adverts. I want a way to be made aware that the ads are there to be looked at, as happens when I flick through a magazine, without them being too intrusive.

Unfortunately the trend from the advertisers seems to be to make them even harder to avoid. I think it is the wrong strategy if they really want us all to be reminiscing about great online campaigns in years to come.


Can online ads ever work? Do you close a pop-up as soon as it appears? This is what you said:

I don't even start to read ads because there are just so many of them and the vast majority are offering services or products I have no interest in at all. If there was a quality ad that had something to say it would be buried in dross.
Leonard Rothstein, UK

I think the problem is that everybody wants something out of the web and it leads to a mess. The web was created for the sharing of information and it still does this very well. However a large amount of people want it to do and be a lot of other things. This includes advertisers. I think some hard decisions need to be made when it comes to the content of mainstream sites.

Lets use "lads mags" as an example. Most of them have interactive gimmicks on them, which cost money to design. This money needs to be recouped, which is done by using annoying ads. So here's an idea, have a time lag of two months behind the current issue (therefore protecting magazine sales) and just put the photoshoots, interviews and articles on the site. This type of design will require very few "gimmicks" therefore, saving money on design.
Christian, UK

When I go on the net, I am there for a specific reason and can't be bothered looking at any kind of ads. For me personally, there is no way that they could ever be made attractive. I am just not interested, and find flash and pop-ups an obstacle, preventing me from getting to where I want to go. TV adverts are slightly different as when I am watching TV it's not to get a particular piece of info, so ads popping up in the middle of a programme are not as invasive or time-robbing. I have to admit though I do find myself flicking through other channels to avoid them.
Jennifer Mannion, UK

My husband is an advertising copywriter and he is appalled at the lack of quality if internet ads. But advertising on the web is so much in its infancy that companies appear to have put very little thought or planning into their campaigns. Given time, though, they may get their act together and figure out how to do it. But on the other hand they may not.
Tessa, US (ex UK)

If TV adverts ran in a banner down the side of the TV screen, caused the audio to drop out and the picture to slow down and if you actually looked at one it changed channels to QVC and would not let you back to the programme you were first watching, people would block TV adverts too. Adverts should be optional.
David Miller, UK

I will actively avoid supporting products / companies that interfere with what I am doing on the internet. marketeers should stick to forums where they can be sure people are looking for a particular service.
Duncan, Netherlands

Adverts adverts on TV work as we have little choice other than to watch them. On the net you chose to look where you want. Also, there are far too many adverts and many of them are popups which are annoying or links to products that aren't actually a good deal.
Graeme, England, UK

The web is a pull medium, where users decide what content they want to see. Therefore, users are upset when content is forced upon them. TV, on the other hand is a push medium - viewers watch a schedule that has been created for them, and adverts are part of this. Hence they are less bothered about seeing them. Accordingly, the type of advertising which works online is viral marketing.
Karl, UK

If you want to find something on the net, you do a search. Therefore ads are useless because if we wanted to find that product or service, we would have entered the appropriate search term in the first place. Therefore ads will always be an annoyance, and a necessary one, as otherwise most websites couldn't exist.
Milo McLaughlin, Scotland

Hmmm, online adverts. A plague on the internet. I am not surprised there are good ads out there. But can you be bothered to go through all the crap that's advertised along side them? I know I can't. If I want to buy something, I will go to a online store or a real life shop. I don't even let pop-ups load up any more. And is it my imagination, or are they getting bigger?
Michael Peirce, England

I, like many other advertising professionals in the early days was extremely enthusiastic about the web as an advertising medium. While retaining some of my non-digital advertising duties, I started to get involved in the online side. What concerned me then was that other evangelists were embracing the medium, but focussing only on the direct response side. This meant that from very early days the medium became one where effectiveness/response would be measured at the micro level - by campaign, by individual ad placement. There is no other medium that comes in for this type of scrutiny.

However, if outdoor/poster advertising is deemed to be effective, then advertising on the web must also have a value. Method of delivery is important and intrusive methods can only do the medium damage. If one major site went back to the press model with static ads, no sound, and great positioning within editorial, then I'm sure we would see a brave agency or group of advertisers embrace this and commit more brand oriented advertising to the site.
Neil, UK

Long live filtering software. Ads I merely find annoying - but I can get rid of most of them with simple filters that preserve page layout but get rid of the annoyance. Pop-ups? Never see the things. Cookies? Not unless a site won't work without them. If you don't want to see ads on the web it's easy to get rid of them. There's a lot of good, free, software out there to get rid of the damn things.
Pete Fenelon, UK

I think advertisers could make a lot more of the flexibility of the web as compared to TV and cinema. I would be much more likely to read ads if I knew they were targeted at my interests; as it is, I ignore all of them because most of them are of no interest to me. It isn't worth the bother to filter the junk from the useful stuff. Also, I'm more likely to read ads at times of day when I'm in no hurry, for example at home versus at work. Bugging me with ads at bad moments switches me off to them at all times, and may even cause me to actively avoid buying from the advertisers because I associate them with irritation!
Paul Duff, UK

I would have to agree that whilst surfing even with no place to go, pop-up ads are always filtered out. With so many of them offering adult services, I cannot afford to let them through. My six-year old son surf's the net for his favourite kids sites and having them just arrive on the screen is just unthinkable. The net as everyone reading this knows is getting wider, faster and more easy to use, users just need to make up their own minds and block them out as I do if they do not want them.
Ian Child, UK

I find online ads highly annoying, and have my computer configured so that 90% of them are blocked out and do not load. They get in the way and actually cause me to dislike an advertiser more as a result of seeing it, than be more enticed to buy their goods/service. That said, I do like the well thought out, original, creative adverts you sometimes see, though in the minority, and think that if these were well presented as the article says, and not intrusive, I would be more inclined to pay a bit of attention to them.
Luke, UK

What nonsense. The job of an ad is to sell. No to be creative. And yes, they can sell online. The ads just have to be relevant to the contents of the site. If I'm looking to buy a car on a car magazine site, I will happily click on a banner for a car which looks interesting and so will many others.

My own business is fully funded by banner ads. I make a piece of software which many find entertaining, called LiSA - it speaks with a real human voice when the user gets e-mail. It sells very well, but only on websites which where people are already in the mood for something playful. On a general site like Yahoo, I am wasting my money. And how creative is my ad? It's creative in that it says what it needs to say to convince, nothing more, no confusing gimmicks. It doesn't need to build a brand or be memorable, it needs to sell then and there. And it does.
Frode Hegland, United Kingdom

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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