Does anyone actually see display advertising?

Does anyone actually see display advertising?

Chris Worrell

Chris Worrell, European research manager at Specific Media, fears that the relentless obsession with numbers has drowned out creative inspiration in the digital world. Has chasing the click allowed us to lose sight of the very purpose of advertising?

We are a nation of advertising cynics – it’s brainwashing, it’s lies, it doesn’t work. Anyone who has ever attended a consumer focus group on advertising will be familiar with this sentiment. But they will also have had to contain a wry smile as those very same consumers not more than ten minutes later begin discussing with fervour their favourite adverts, the ones that make them laugh out loud, the ones that tug at the heart strings, the ones that made them feel warm inside – be it a classic billboard, a beautiful TV spot or a cinematic masterpiece.

Advertising at its best is inspiring, thought provoking and moving. But has digital missed the party? Is it just about 1’s and 0’s with creativity a mere afterthought? This seems a bizarre thing to suggest for a medium that reaches so many people at so many points in their day across so many devices.

BMW X3 "world's longest" web banner

But what are the really memorable digital campaigns? Where are the advertising icons of digital? The ones that get talked about in the office the next day, that spark off debate in the pub after work, that stop the consumer in their tracks and make them think differently about a brand, about themselves, about the world.

Granted there are a few, and the growth of video and social media certainly lend themselves to a more creative approach to digital. But if we think of a digital unit in the same way as we do a billboard or newspaper page, the lack of ‘wow’ campaigns is startling.

My fear is that the relentless obsession with numbers has drowned out creative inspiration in the digital world. Chasing the click has allowed us to lose sight of the very purpose of advertising – to inspire, to motivate, to sell.

Slightly off topic, I read recently an anecdote about Betty Crocker cake mix in the 1950’s. (Bear with me here). Sales were down, and the brand manager wasn’t sure why. In today’s world we might mine some data, analyse clickers, listen for buzz. But numbers only give you half the story. They tell you what, not why. In the case of Betty Crocker cake mix, it was pretty simple – the cake mix was too easy. American housewives were embarrassed at how little effort it took to bake an amazing cake. They wanted to do more than just add water and stir. They wanted to bake.

The reason for referencing a cake mix when discussing creativity online? It highlights the need for softer insights: Less reliance on numbers and data and more emphasis on imagination.

We’ve recently launched a new tool to aid creativity – we ran a pilot with BBH last month. It’s not the answer, but it’s a start. It utilises the latest innovation in web cam technology to understand how consumers interact with digital advertising.

It allows us to measure how many people actually notice an advert (despite respondents telling us they never notice advertising online!), how long it takes them to notice an advert and how long they spend with an advert. This can then be benchmarked against results from over 150 or so similar studies – so we can begin to really understand what works and what doesn’t. We also have the opportunity to ask questions after the test, to get anecdotal feedback on the digital advertising that has just been seen.

Monitoring glances at web adverts

From our pilot study of over 360 consumers, examining brands including Audi, Barclays and Lynx, we discovered that on average 11% of a consumer’s time on a webpage was spent with advertising, that time taken to notice advertising varied between one second (for the top performing creative) and 8.5 seconds (for the worst) and advertising exposure varied from less than half of respondents to all of them.

We feel the tool is important for two key reasons. The first is that it allows us to measure the effectiveness of advertising beyond direct interaction – whether people notice ads, how long this takes and how much time they spend with them – irrespective of whether they click on them. Secondly, and consequently, it focuses attention on creativity in addition to the 1’s and 0’s that have for so long dominated the digital debate.

Display advertising online is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. We have come a long way from the days of shaking banners urging the consumer to ‘click here’ or ‘download now’, but still a wealth of opportunity exists to get even more creative – to inspire and engage the consumer when they are online. The role softer insights can play, to understand the why and not just the what, just as Betty Crocker did in the 1950’s, could well be the spark that ignites a creative explosion in online. The banner is dead. Long live the banner.

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