Ad Nauseum

Ad Nauseum - February 2002
(Credit: Net - Issue 93)

Lawrence Robinson discovers why online advertising isn't working

Advertising is a low trade, full of miscreants. I should know, I used to write copy for online and print advertorials, that mutant hybrid of the soft-sell ad and objective feature.

They were slick tales about health products doused in exclamation points and deceptive catchphrases and testimonials, with all the integrity of a Republican manifesto. I think it was Zelda Fitzgerald who once said that the American Dream itself was founded on the infinite promise of American advertising. If that's the case, the Internet is slowly jolting the dreamers awake.

Even at a time when Internet traffic in the US is at an all-time high, revenue from online advertising is strangely tumbling. Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix recently slashed its estimates for online advertising spending over the next few years. 2001 estimates are now at $5.7 billion, down from $7.3 billion. Demand is currently so low for online advertising space that prices are about half of what they were last year.

When asked to come up with a good explanation for the persistent slump in online advertising, Internet analyst Safa Rashtchy of US Bancorp Piper Jaffray said: "It may be that the Internet is a medium that is more like the telephone than the television. People have tried to do advertising over the telephone but it just never really worked well."

In 1998, for example, the San Diego company Broadpoint launched its Freeway service, offering free long-distance telephone calls in return for listening to adverts over the phone. The subscribers completed an online questionnaire so ads could be targeted to their specific interests, then dialled a special telephone number and, for every ten to 15 seconds of advertising they listened to, they received two minutes of free calls. Despite attracting around 400,000 subscribers, though, the service folded in early 2001.

Still, it seems unlikely that Web ads will follow phone ads into the oblivion of everlasting engaged tones. The problem is not that the Internet is an ineffective advertising medium but rather that many of the advertisement formats used have been ineffective. There are exceptions of course.

Companies such as BMW, Volkswagen and Skyy Vodka are fuelling a new advertising and entertainment format. They've discarded the soulless deviants who want you to believe that you can reach orgasm by simply washing your hair and replaced them with short film-makers. Instead of pushing their products with annoying banner ads or TV commercials with all the subtlety of a concrete enema, the 'advertainment' shorts subtly keep the brand name in front of viewers as a story unfolds.

More than seven million viewers have watched the shorts and the company's sales were up by a third in June. Skyy Vodka ( similarly commissioned three short films with the only parameter being that they had to contain a Skyy 'cocktail moment'. The rest of the creative input was left to the films' directors, who included acclaimed Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland. Ford funded the three-picture 'Focus in Film' series (check out and Volkswagen, the 'VW Drive-In' ( /drivein).

Product placement in American movies and television shows is not a new concept, but it still remains probably the most honest form of advertising available. If the story is good enough in itself, then it doesn't really matter what car the character is driving or what drink he has in his hand. Seeing a cast member of the hit US comedy Friends sip on a Starbuck's latte or spotting a bottle of a brand name shampoo lying around as a prop in the background only adds to the realism of the scene.

New York-based Unicast has now developed 'superstitial' adverts ( that pop up on the screen and tell a short story through animation or a slide show. The key aspect of superstitial ads is that, rather than making viewers wait for their browser to load and buffer the video, they load in the background and don't appear until they're ready to play. The ads can also be interactive, which may help them to rise above the level of traditional TV commercials. One spot for Absolut Citron shows a bottle covered with lemon peel and a peeler. As the mouse moves the peeler over the bottle, the peel unravels, revealing a shimmering bottle of Absolut beneath. The 300-plus Unicast clients currently using the format report that an average of 12 per cent of viewers who click on a superstitial make a purchase, compared to 0.4 per cent for those who click on a banner ad.

There's been a lot of debate about the best way to promote products online. If the infinite promise of American advertising is to remain the keystone of the American Dream, the answer should be creatively. Hell, I've lived in America for seven years now, and I'm still waiting to be convinced it's possible to reach orgasm mid lather.


Official websites



Skyy Vodka


Talking Television with Greg Tingle

Great moments in product placement

What Is Coke?, by Greg Tingle & Yvette Moore

Motor Cars and The Media - A Dangerous Mix?, by Greg Tingle

Vodafone streaker stunt rings up priceless publicity

Advertising Agencies - Why We Need Them, by Greg Tingle


Online Advertising