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How bad ads kill good ones

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaAnd the curious case of the hotel that couldn’t say goodbye.



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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Disruptive advertising may be shooting itself in the foot

Omigod. Not another disruption...

I LOVE newspapers. There’s something about the smell and the rustle of paper as you pore through headlines assured of the gravitas and honesty that ink brings. Headlines like, “Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say”, or “Enraged cow injures farmer with axe”, or “Mom on veggie diet gives birth to green baby,” provide insightful counterpoint to a morning cup of Joe.

But over the years there’s been a disturbing trend. Headlines have been overtaken by rambunctious advertising that wraps around newspapers and magazines, obliterates front covers, and wiggles, jumps, expands and explodes on your screen. It follows you, tracks your every move, and attempts to interpret and forecast your life using behavioural algorithms written by prepubescent teens who seem to do a lot better than your overpaid shrink.

Bold, head-turning, and intelligent advertising can enhance the look and feel of a magazine and add enormous value for publishers and readers alike. Ad money drives media enterprises – not owner funds.

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But things have moved into high gear. The omnipresence of advertising makes it possible to squeeze dollars out of virtually everything. Here’s editorial of the future – “Our colourful headlines are brought to you by Panorama Paints and the preceding full stop would not have been possible without generous sponsorship from The Buck Stops Here Financial Planners. The gorgeous white page margins come to you courtesy of Magic Photo Frames and all this repetitive waffle has been curated and supplied by the Hong Kong government. Do click on their logo if you have time to occupy.” One para and everyone’s happy.

Much advertising masquerades as editorial, but isn’t. It is of course the oldest trick in the book. Often, Google itself is the culprit, having abandoned its maxim, “Don’t do evil”.

Advertising commonly works in two ways – sneakily by stealth, or by being ‘disruptive’ (a word that marketers love despite its obviously negative connotation). Stealth advertising comes in various forms, most commonly, ‘advertorial’, where headlines and fonts use guile to pretend they are nothing more than normal editorial written by a credible hack. Google sponsored ads on search results, once sequestered in a light yellow box, then in an even paler backwash, now dominate the top of the page sans any background separator and just a miniscule icon that says ‘ad’ if you peer really closely.

{Privacy has become a key issue following the NSA spying leaks and this has led to the rise of new search engines that do not track browsing data...

Disruptive advertising on the other hand, does exactly what it says. This technique – employing expandable banners and ‘rich media’ that leaps across your screen with pop-up videos, music, and click-here discounts – often annoys and turns away readers who are keen to find a specific answer to a specific query, and quickly. Online surfers are not commonly readers in the Dostoyevsky sense who savour every weighty paragraph of Crime and Punishment or subtle turn of phrase. They have a peek, pick up a nugget or two, and move on. They are information seekers. They are impatient and in a hurry, the more so if they are browsing on a mobile device.

There is a huge difference between dawdling readers who might take in the sights, and information seekers with attention deficit, yet many advertisers fail to make a distinction. Instead, they have turned to what the industry likes to call, ‘creative disruption’ – a gentler and cleverer way to smack your teeth.

Viewers have meanwhile turned to open source products like Adblock and Adblock Plus that will effectively turn off all ads (video advertisements too) on websites including YouTube and Facebook. And people are increasingly turning to such options if their own browser’s defence is not sufficiently diligent.

There are 50 million Adblock Plus users. According to PageFair, “[Adblock] usage grew by nearly 70 percent between June 2013 and June 2014,” largely among younger surfers. As many as “41 percent of 18-29-year-olds” polled said they use Adblock, whose total reach is estimated at 144 million. Disconnect is another open source crusader with a free and paid premium version.

Privacy has become a key issue following the NSA spying leaks that showed even heads of state get snooped on. And this has led to the rise of new search engines like DuckDuckGo that do not track private data or browsing habits. There’s start page, which scans and borrows Google’s search results and passes them on to you, acting as a buffer middleman; and its parent company, ixquick.

Rather than sending a strong signal to advertisers and ad agencies, ad blocking has pushed them into high gear, provoking a veritable onslaught of nuisance messaging. From the viewer’s point of view it’s a bit like searching for a rare book and finally arriving tired and sweaty at the library only to face a sudden interruption by a mariachi band, a herd of migrating wildebeest and a pirouetting circus elephant all at once. Disruption is a technique that grabs attention but it is an annoyance that also diminishes the advertised brand.

I visited a hotel site recently. Later I noticed, unsurprisingly, that an ad for this hotel was following me around the Web. I hate stalkers. So I cleared my cookies and cache and history but, lo and behold, the ad was still there, like some irksome ingrown toenail reminding me at every turn of its devious existence. I decided to test its resolve and headed for a newspaper site. The ad was there. I visited an online travel agency and it was there. I searched for “nuisance ads that follow you” and the site I clicked into had the same ad, this time as a pair – top and side. I tried a porn site and it showed up again. Squeezed in between double D breasts it was perhaps just being ‘creatively disruptive’.

Advertising works best when it adds to the information, or conversation, in a subtle, engaging manner. This way, contextual advertising gets consumed while the reader imbibes the editorial content. There is no conflict in this approach as long as advertising – witty, informative, entertaining, or visual – is clearly seen to be what it is. Problems arise when ads are simply mutton dressed as lamb. Disruption is, in fact, killing regular advertising as readers switch off. What we need today is not creative disruption but creative advertising. Otherwise, please disconnect.me.

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