Sunday, February 6, 2011

Anyone remember when ads just sat there blinking at you?

It's not the first time I've mentioned this, I've mentioned it before, and no doubt I'll mention it again. And as you can probably guess I'm going to mention it now. It's the one thing which really, REALLY gets on my nerves, the one and only thing I would happily ban from the internet completely under pain of death. I'm talking, of course, about ads that won't shut the fuck up.

Back in 2007, when those loud screaming smilies were driving me insane, I had thought this was as bad as web advertising could possibly get. Oh boy was I wrong.

For one thing, incredibly loud, obnoxious and infuriating though they were, you could contain them. They only made noise when you moused over them. If they were placed in side banners then you could easily avoid them. The problem was that they were often placed sneakily in the body of textual content like mines in a harbour which meant that you had to steer your cursor carefully around them.

Still, whenever those ads shrieked at me I knew, deep down, that it was really my own fault. No point blaming an ad that's specifically designed to only make a noise when a mouseover is detected. No mouseover, no noise.

That covenant between browser and advertiser lasted for a good few years. Since then I've seen countless ads based on the same mouseover principle, some, like the smilies, that drove me crazy and others which, I have to admit, were very, very clever. Examples of these were ads that learned to take advantage of Flash's then-newfound (this is 2007 I'm talking about remember) video capabilities to create interactive video ads where users could affect the outcome of the real video output depending on where they clicked. What I liked about them was the fact that they were more than mere ads but rather cleverly implemented multimedia applications that built upon the web's strong tradition of interactivity. Plus, instead of garish old skool gifs inducing mass seizures with their incessant strobing and flickering, these ads sat perfectly still and quiet in the corner unless moused over. And by that time these 3rd generation banner ads had become so common that accidental mouseovers were rare.

By the end of 2009 and into 2010, however, something started to happen. All through the summer of 2009 and into the Autumn (that's Fall for you Yanks) internet advertising seemed mainly consist of a phenomenon known as Evony Boobs.

At the time there was a lot of buzz around these ads and their slow descent from medieval fantasy artwork to soft porn which caused no shortage of controversy.
The cheek of them! What cynicism! To think that mature, intelligent video gaming geeks would be seduced into playing a crappy (and, as it transpires not even remotely sexy) online Civ clone just because of a banner-adful of boobs! Two years on I need not tell you that the boobs won.

Evony - cleavage sells
An Evony cleavage queen - and this is one of the tame ones

The Evony boobs campaigns set a precedent for all other online games, in particular the never-ending deluge of Warcraft clones, to try to be bigger, louder and brasher than their competitors in order to get more signups. After that it was only a matter of time before the Treaty of Mouseover was broken. (Xmas 2009 by my book)

From there on in the web just got louder and louder and louder. Full sound and video ads for online games would be triggered automatically blaring out Final Fantasy action cutscene-style music at maximum volume. So loud, in fact, that even though I usually set my speakers or headset to a reasonably low level, the sound is still deafening.

And that was it, the floodgates were open. From there on in it was considered fair game, even for large companies, to disseminate their loud, obnoxious video ads throughout the web. Ads deliberately designed to play automatically even before the page has fully loaded. Which, as you can imagine, is a nightmare if, like me, you're in the habit of right-click new-tabbing dozens of links in one go until you find the thing you're looking for.

I'd been so busy evangelizing about how great internet-enabled TV will be that I'd forgotten it's a double-edged sword. That whilst the web will change the way we view TV forever that there might be some serious blowback and that some of the more nauseating aspects of TV would also begin to materialise on the internet.

If you look at it from that perspective you can see evidence of this already. Certainly the Evony ads are a watershed moment with one blogger cleverly comparing them to something out of the movie Idiocracy. Indeed the Evony ads are perhaps the most blatant example of the TV network executive mentality ever seen on the web, no imagination, no innovation just slavishly dredging the very squalid depths of stupidity and vulgarity in a bid to be always lower than the lowest common denominator. Indeed you can just picture some thick-headed executive sociopath slavering over the Evony campaign results before storming into his timid, terrified graphic design team bellowing "more boobs!"

At least the Evony ads were silent, this new autoplaying breed, which started with Warcraft clones, has now spread to the mainstream. At the time of writing I'm currently working Sausage-side. The sort of ads favoured here are generally the type of bile-building nastiness which we were grinding our teeth to ten or fifteen, or in some cases 20, years ago.

German TV doesn't have commercial breaks so much as sporadic temporal interference from a parallel universe. A robotic, dystopian Daz doorstep challenge universe where the Wethers Original granddad is still knoodling with his grandson, all men are fat guys in blue overalls who spend their weekends sawing timber and young women achieve orgasm from eating yogurt. Eventually Overalls-man and Muller-women get married and have a bunch of blonde, bowl-cutted Nutella children that hatch out of Kinder eggs. Mother then lives out her entire miserable life making instant meals and cakes for her goofy-looking family who all start pulling strange faces and going "mmm" as the camera pans around the dinner table. It's that same brand of weary, bug-eyed Betty Crocker crap that Americans were already wincing at back in the 1950s. But in Germany it's cutting edge. I give it 38 years at least before they get to the whole, man decides to make dinner whilst women laugh at him but it turns out to be great because he used some stuff out of a jar, type ads. Right now, however, the idea that a man might swap his blue overalls for an apron is too radical and subversive for German television.

So what's my point? Well my point is it never bothered me before because German TV is so utterly atrocious I never watch it thus their painfully retro commercials remained sealed in the idiot box dungeon dimensions where they belong. And all was well, until a couple of months ago, when they suddenly broke free.

Now whenever I go online I run the risk of getting accosted by large German chemical corporations and culinary war criminals like Doctor Oetker trying to loudly convince me to buy their "fresh and tasty!" soup with a pitch that was already lame back in 1983, often five at a time, depending on how many tabs I open.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you say, then why don't you use something like Adblock Plus and run NoScript for good measure. Well I can (and often do) do that, but doing so still doesn't mean I'm safe from the tyranny of loud ads.

Take YouTube. Used to be a time when you went to YouTube and the worst you'd see was a silly little semi-transparent overlay with a regular AdSense unit on it. Click on the X and it's gone - simple. Now, rather unimaginatively for Google, they've just copied the forced ads concept from other websites. In their latest lame attempt to try wring some sort of proper revenue from the site Google have enabled a new pre-roll ad feature. This means that it's now not uncommon to click on a YouTube video and get deafened by a full video ad which you have to sit through before finally getting to see the video you want to watch. It's particularly annoying when you're trying to watch a video sequence with the volume set to regular and then some BIG LOUD AD FOR AMERICAN BULLSHIT comes on. Wow, that's great, YouTube, thanks for the tinnitus.

YouTube is also inadvertently responsible, as the most popular video hosting site, for the evil that is autoplay. You know, you're looking for some information or company details and suddenly you get this BIG LOUD VIDEO AUTOMATICALLY PLAYED AT YOU. This is the sort of tactic MLM "Gurus" and other "how I got rich quick doing nothing" types love to employ, usually in conjunction with a "Are you SURE you want to leave this page?" type popup when you try to exit, ideally set to make it next to impossible for the average user to do so, for maximum irritation.

Proper business websites should not resort to these sort of cheap tactics, it's basically like having a great big neon sign over your door saying, "Hey! Look at me I'm a complete scumbag!"

Thing is a lot of traditional marketing types see that and think it's great because it creates IMPACT!! (They love that word.) How do they do that? Can you do that? I want that on my website... oh here we go again with the pushy sales website gimmicks...

Never, ever try and ram things down people's throat on the internet. Always give your site visitors a choice and never forget your company website is just one click from oblivion, one tab in ten, where the other nine are your competitors.

When a visitor comes to your site they want to be able to find the information that they want to find not what you want them to find. Ambushing them with a sales pitch video that automatically plays on your landing page might seem like a great idea but it isn't. It only appears that way to those from a traditional marketing background who have as yet failed to realise that the web is not a broadcast medium.

Radio and TV are broadcast mediums. They're unidirectionally broadcast and therefore also passive mediums. The web, on the other hand, is an active, multidirectional medium. You click, you search you navigate until you get to the content you want. Anything that impedes this process will invariably end up backfiring disastrously.

There are rules for advertising on the web, just as there are rules for radio and television. Imagine how crazy people would go if they weren't able to flip channels during ad breaks or if the number one song came on the radio and then halfway through an ad for floor polish starting playing right over the chorus.

And yet I see these rules being broken time and time again; people trying to plaster website after website with loud, shrieking digital graffiti because they still don't get it. The whole point of internet marketing is that it is the opposite of broadcast marketing. You don't have a captive and passive audience, in fact you won't have an audience at all if you persist in screaming slogans at passers by instead of trying to connect with people. Nor will you ever be taken seriously unless you are seen to actively participate online.

Then again, as the Evony vamps have so amply illustrated, if all you want to do is make a fast buck and don't care how tacky you look then really big boobs and an even bigger budget will probably do the trick. That's, of course, providing you have the wealth and resources to completely carpet-bomb the worldwide web with your adverts. And, since everyone and their uncle are all hell-bent on doing the exact same thing, your saturation bombing campaign could wind up costing a hell of a lot more than you had initially estimated.

Yes, it's dark days indeed for the web. The advertising genie is finally out of the bottle, the gloves are off and my metaphors are running thin, thinner than my patience. It's enough to make me yearn for screaming smilies and the fart button, the good ole days when the internet was a wild frontier of Active X exploits, trojans, spyware and filth and the worst thing lurking at the end of a hyperlink would be a Russian-made Stormworm variant instead of smaltzy ads for insurance companies or pink-liveried shocktroopers accosting shoppers with Vanish stain remover.

Seriously, can't we just go back to purple flashing "buy now" gifs, hitcounters, Comic Sans and dancing babies?

Oh and these things - seriously how cool were they?

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Mia from Miami said...

I HATE those mouseover ads, I always forget about them, and then they scare the hell out of me when I sweep my mouse pointer over them by mistake. And those soft porn fantasy game ads? Those are plain offensive. So I feel your pain.

room divider nyc said...

I feel all the pains of you both. Meaningless ads are just add frustrations.

Sewing Machine Los Angeles said...

Message to advertisers: Enough with useless mousever ads, nobody likes those.

virtual serial port said...

Very true, I’ve experienced a traffic lost when I added Kontera on one of my websites. It’s hard to get your credibility back once you lost it.