False Flags & Bad Banners

When’s the last time you clicked a click ad?

Banner ads. They make me think of the bulletin board at our local Whole Foods, overflowing with the chaos of haphazardly printed and pinned flyers and coupons.

But then I realize, wait, those bulletin boards are interesting. They’re microcosms of macroeconomies, palimpsests of the everyday grit and perseverance of our neighbors — small-business owners putting in honest work and trying to help themselves by helping other people. Trying to make it.

And bulletin boards are superior to online advertising in another important way: you never have to look at them if you don’t want to. Or more accurately, they don’t get in the way of anything. They respect boundaries.

But banner ads. Yeesh. It’s become easier to block them, but it’s hard to avoid them entirely.

First, a Caveat

Advertising of all types gets scapegoated for all types of things. A lot of this is fair, but usually it’s because a lot of advertising is bad. But it’s not advertising’s fault — it’s the fault of the companies willing to churn out trash, and the creative agencies that know better but let them get away with it because they want to keep the account running for more easy money.

These are the type of weird banners I get on VPN sans ad-blocker. (Extreme Millennial voice: That jacket is FIRE.)

Like any TV commercial or billboard, digital advertising can be beautiful or otherwise visually arresting, clever, compelling and even irresistible. Here’s a perfect example of a particularly smart execution: Svedka Vodka’s Halloween horror campaign featuring online ads that “haunted and taunted” users everywhere they go (a good example of my theory that the best advertising works like Jju-Jitsu to turn weaknesses and vulnerabilities into strengths, in this case the trackers that everyone hates).

So admittedly, banner ads and their ilk aren’t inherently bad. So why are they usually bad?

Because that best-case scenario linked to above is rare indeed. The online ads still seen in the wild more often than not justify this old New York Times article calling them “one of the most misguided and destructive technologies of the Internet Age.” (OK, “destructive” might be a bit much, unless you think of the destruction of aesthetics.)

This old description, from Andreesen Horowitz managing partner Chris Dixon, still seems perfectly apt: “It’s almost like a prank that was played by the technology industry on the media industry 20 years ago.”

Do they even work? Who’s paying for the garbage? And why does everybody still feel the need to make them? Why do we do this to ourselves.

OK, it’s not this ad’s fault that I’m not cool enough for these.

Let Us Count the Offenses

Design suffers. They make sites uglier and disrupt the user flow (the Washington Post on mobile is my most hated offender, with ugly ads every two paragraphs; ESPN.com is another atrocious example).

Functionality suffers. They make sites clunkier, slower to load, and more likely to crash.

Crap proliferates. They incentive lowest-common-denominator shite content. Because they’re so ineffective, banner ads are the cheapest media-buy around. And also because they’re so ineffective, you have to get them in front of an exorbitant amount of people for them to have any measurable effect. And to rope in the most people, websites resort to transparent clickbait. And the cycle continues.

Privacy suffers. I haven’t bothered to add ad-blockers to my work computer. We use a secure network and a VPN. What that means is, most banner ads I see are ridiculously random.

But sometimes, and this has happened on more than one occasion, we’ve noticed that whatever service has been serving up a given banner ad has done so by listening in on conversations. I got an ad for tunics after making an offhand remark about tunics. I got an ad for Cheez-Its after finding a (rare) bag of Cheez-Its in the snack pantry and alerting colleagues. Coworkers have pointed out ads about stuff we were just talking about — and by that I mean topics we never searched for or even typed.

Cookies are creepy enough. Keystrokes a step beyond. But the microphone hacking? Or worse, the webcam hacking? It’s getting creepy out there.

I’d mention Facebook here, except that B.S. Hall of Famer deserves its very own Our Golden Age of Bullshit post (or series).

But have you heard of Oath? Oath is owned by Verizon and operates as the parent company to Yahoo and AOL. I learned from the invaluable Bob Hoffman (aka The Ad Contrarian) that Oath recently released new terms of service stating that each of its companies “has the right to read your emails, instant messages, posts, photos and even look at your message attachments.” In a sane world, such a proclamation would be Yahoo’s and AOL’s final death knell.

By the way, what is Yahoo even for now? I mean, they’re still around, I guess. They generate revenue through click ads. I remember visiting their giant campus in Santa Monica for a pitch, just a few years ago. Yahoo is no longer on that campus (it’s mostly Hulu now).

Corruption is rampant. The Association of National Advertisers openly concedes that there was about $6.5 billion in ad fraud last year. But can that estimate be trusted? It sort of has a “Suuuuure I shot the sheriff, but no way in hell did I shoot the deputy!” ring to it.

But according to the Wall Street Journal (again, all credit to Bob Hoffman for highlighting this issue) Adobe’s independent analysis of online advertising revealed that 28% of traffic was non-human, meaning bots or other fraud. One bot alone called HyphBot was found to be faking hundreds of millions of video views per day. It’s well out of control, and if that number is correct, fraud is an order of magnitude greater.

Not much criticism to offer here I suppose — well played.

To Click or Not to Click

Again, like all advertising, individual executions of online ads could be great. They could perfectly express a thought, benefit, and/or value proposition through humor, cleverness, beauty, or whatever else would match that brand.

But collectively, they are terrible, ugly, disruptive (in the negative sense), and usually justified by outright fraud.

The problem is not advertising but culture. Ours is the Golden Age of Bullshit, where it’s more common to chase the easy way toward any goal, to hell with the consequences. As long as someone’s making a quick buck.

In a report published in December, Media agency Magna estimates that $291 billion will be spent on online advertising globally by 2020.

And I guess that explains the whole situation better than I ever could.