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The Evolution of Advertising: From What We Hate to What We Can’t Resist

People hate advertisements.

At least that’s what we all say.  Ads interrupt the content we want to enjoy.  They distract us with flashing lights and throbbing colors.  They try to be funny or touching, or try to make us feel tough and superior – but it feels contrived.  Often, they make us feel inadequate.

Indeed, the underlying goal of advertising is to give us the sense we’re missing something.   That’s its purpose in life.  And what we’re missing, of course, is the product that’s the focus of the ad.

Everybody gets that.  And we don’t mind that someone is trying to persuade us that their product will make us better people.  This is America.  People sell stuff.  It’s a living.

What we mind is when that message interrupts reading about today’s salacious news headline.  Or makes us wait through a 30-second ad before we watch our YouTube on how to cook escargot, even though we’ll never eat snails.  It’s just fun to watch.

Attention has tremendous value nowadays.  Consumers don’t give it easily, and they resent having it taken.

But businesses need people to know about their offer.  And we’re in luck because people love their phones so much it’s becoming an addiction.

As the mobile revolution continues, advertisers must craft ads that do the opposite of interrupt or distract.  Instead, they’re so native to the content platform they barely look like ads at all.

Ads We Hate, Ads We’ll Live With

The Nielsen Norman Group has an ongoing study of the most hated online advertising techniques.   Through all their research, we can glean several important points.

  1. Overall, people negatively view ads which “force” an interaction, delaying access to primary content.  When online users feel they’re losing control of the experience, they’re unhappy.
  2. Pop ups, auto playing videos, intracontent ads that move main content down the screen, mobile ads that take up the entire screen, heavy ads that slow load times, and deceptive ads garner overwhelmingly negative responses from users.  The report states plainly:  Don’t run these types of ads if you want people to like you.
  3. Despite all this, people do not actually hate ads, nor are they hardline against seeing them at all.  They simply want them to be relevant and to not directly interrupt the primary content.

Comments from participants in this study are illuminating.

“I like ads that do not obstruct content. I can glance to the side and decide if I want to open but am annoyed when I don’t have that choice.”

 

“I am fond of links to the side and at the end of my pages. I can’t tell you why, but I like them and am much more likely to click on them and check them out than anywhere else.”

 

“Ads that pop up in the way, force you to close them, or flash for attention just make me hate the product being advertised. “

 

“Video ads before a video you want to watch are okay as long as they are short and give you an option to skip after so many seconds.”

Again, we hate this stuff:

  • Pops up
  • Slow loading time
  • Covers what you are trying to see
  • Moves content around
  • Occupies most of the page
  • Automatically plays sound

So what do people like?  The ads that got the most positive responses blended into the platform or related to the user’s primary task.  For example, Facebook sponsored posts that format right into news feed got more favorable responses:

retargeting facebook ad

For brand-level marketing that is not a direct advertising pitch, Facebook posts can be really powerful.  Here are tips for creating Facebook business content.

We’ve noted before how effective native advertisements that blend in with primary content can be.   This study confirms the effectiveness of that approach, but with a caveat.  Deceptive links that look like information but turn out to be a sales pitch are the most vehemently disliked of all ads.  The lack of upfront disclosure is a huge turn-off for online users.

 

From Interruption to Engagement

The game is changing.  Advertisers aren’t trying to create ads so cool that you’ll be happy for the interruption.  Instead, advertisements are being integrated into a digital ecosystem designed to engage people to the point – some argue – of addiction.

One of those people is Tristan Harris, a former product designer at Google who founded an organization called Time Well Spent.  His position is pertinent to understanding where digital advertising is headed.

 

Observing people today, it’s hard to dismiss Tristan’s argument.  And the evidence continues to mount that people are being “seduced” by their phones, drawn into platforms that advertise via engagement of native content.

A good example of this is influencer marketing, where a popular media figures promote products via their personal channel.  In this case study on Instagram, we had a client that got a staggering increase in sales when a popular singer posted images of the products she liked.

These ads are effective because they are a natural part of an experience that people are already deeply engaged in.  The key is to make the content fit the experience rather than interrupt it.  Advertising has the chance to reach new levels of effectiveness as a seamless part of platforms that are addictively engaging.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy once said:

“A good advertisement is one that sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

He would be astonished by what’s happening today.

 

Ads We Love – Because They’re Content We Want

Marketing and advertising are part of the watershed moment we are living through involving mobile technology.  A generation of people is growing up with the advantages and vices of mobile connected life.

Today advertising is caught between the past and the future.  It’s tied into technology and content that’s so engaging people can’t resist it.  As ads become more native to devices and platforms, they’ll be more persuasive.

But at the same time, the philosophy that guides advertising is anachronistic.  The mobile experience is currently being designed to extract attention, to force our subconscious to focus our energy in ways beyond our control.  This ties back into the same types of disruptive advertising people have long resented.  Consumer like having the perception that they are in control, and when a media platform disrupts that perception, its persuasive effectiveness is diminished.

In time, people will adapt to mobile technology and force it to align with what they want from it.  As people begin to realize apps and social media platforms are manipulating them because their goals are advertising revenue, their methods will be rejected.

People don’t want to reject advertising.  They welcome ads that provide info on things they need and desire.  But the dislike of manipulative, interrupting ads continues to grow.

Yet advertising utopia seems tantalizingly close.  A way to deliver ads to people who will want the product at the moment they most need it is upon us.  The technology is on the brink.

The future of advertising is seamless integration into the content people are already deeply engaged with.  Content that offers you a product you want at the moment you need it won’t be seen as an advertisement at all.

Whether that will become a different level of manipulation that “seduces” consumers remains to be seen.  We are a system of businesses that have to advertise.  We sell.  It’s a living.

But like Verbal (aka Keyser Soze) says at the end of The Usual Suspects:

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

This may also be the greatest trick advertisers ever pull off.

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