net.wars: Broadcast quality, broadcast alienation

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 February 2004

The latest evidence of the principle that all advertising people are insane is the announcement, a few weeks back, that Unicast has come up with technology to bring broadcast quality! 30-second TV-style ads! to the Web.

Wendy M Grossman

(But Mozilla and Opera users of the world unite! You can't even see the Unicast demo unless you have Internet Explorer.)

Don't get me wrong, the technology does sound clever. Up to 2Mb of video is pre-cached, so that it plays perfectly in full-screen, without any of the hiccups inherent in streaming video. TV advertisers can re-purpose their existing ads, understandably a selling point.

The instinctive reaction to the news that some 15 sites are trying out this new technology" is that if only some sites have TV ads, people will avoid those sites as much as possible. That could be a good thing.

But trust researchers to establish more rigorously what the rest of us know instinctively. Almost immediately, Forrester Research issued a brief report saying unequivocally that the format will stall because of consumer backlash and industry disagreement over payment terms.

Their reasoning: every ad (and this is confirmed on the Unicast site) will have a user-controllable close button. Users will take immediate advantage of this to get rid of the ads which, once the novelty has worn off, will be as annoying as pop-up windows are now. Or worse.

Forrester notes that some 30 percent of TV viewers leave the room or pay no attention to ads (I read or fool around on the Web during them myself). As TiVos, other PVRs, ad-marking VCRs, and Internet downloads take hold, more and more viewers skip the ads entirely, so these numbers are going to get worse. And Internet users are notoriously less patient, less passive, and less willing to tolerate disruption to what they're doing than TV watchers. Forrester believes that consumers will ultimately be willing to sit through only one such ad per day. (I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that in fact the number will be much lower.)

In Forrester's prediction, the industry will therefore begin to demand that they pay for "quality of attention" rather than raw numbers. We've had this battle before, too, in the pay-per-impression versus pay-per-clickthrough wars of the pop-up era.

My guess is that the first thing to go will be the close button. "Why are we making it easy for them to dump our ads?" I can hear some Madison Avenue exec cry.

Forrester's numbers do settle one long-running argument. Two years ago, the Interactive Advertising Bureau held that pop-up ad blockers were used by too small a proportion of the Internet population to matter. When ad formats were enlarged, for example, I predicted that one result of making ads bigger and more intrusive would be to drive more people to use ad-blockers. The numbers were jumping anyway: from 1 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2002. And the last year has seen both AOL and MSN ban the format after myriad complaints.

Forrester also notes that 64 percent of consumers get annoyed at the advertisers (I, for example, refuse to buy anything from X10 after the way they swamped the Net with ad pop-unders a few years back), and 28 percent have stopped using sites to avoid pop-ups. Then there were the 50-plus million people who signed up for the FCC's "Do-not-call" registry to avoid telemarketing calls. When will they get the message?

Probably not soon. The Interactive Advertising Bureau's UK chief executive, Danny Meadows-Klue, says that most ad spend goes into TV and press rather than online (obviously true) and the new format provides a way to gently move them into the online space as a stepping stone to the more truly interactive ways to use the Net effectively and creatively. "Automotive advertising's share of online spend has trebled in a year to reach 17 percent," he says. "It is up more than five-fold in real terms and that revenue is funding some of the increased breadth of consumer services users now have." He adds that the TV formats are only one of a hundred different new formats and "we should positively welcome the move."

Well, you see how different we all are. If the ad format ultimately drives consumers away, isn't it just as likely that the industry will wind up alienating its big spenders as well? Still: where are advertisers going to go? Ad formats are being forced to change as a result of TV viewer alienation.

The big online advertising success of the last few years in fact has been paid search. The phenomenon of the clearly labelled sponsored link on a sparsely populated Web page, off to one side where it won't annoy anybody, and appearing only when related terms are typed in by the user, seems to have taken everyone but Google by surprise. But it's logical: it builds on things users actually want to do and gives them a choice. That is the huge cultural shift that TV advertisers have to make if they want to reach us. It's as easy to build a video ad blocker as a pop-up blocker, you know.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).