Why is the smartest ad format in the world so…stupid?

It’s the most sophisticated technology the industry has ever seen. It targets you with thousands of display ads every day. So why can’t you remember any of them? Haydn Kerr and Wihan Meerholz share their thoughts, calling on creatives to embrace the limitations of this form of advertising.

Hey marketing industry, how does it feel to be the ATM of the internet? Here in New Zealand, we pump hundreds of millions of dollars into display advertising every year. And this pays for websites and content for the public to freely enjoy. That’s nice, I guess. But can we talk about all the crappy banner ads we put all over that content and what we really get out of our investment? 

We’re not getting the clicks. Apparently, you are more likely to climb Mount Everest or survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad. Click through rates have fallen to 0.1 percent (ICEF). And to make matters worse, most mobile clicks are accidental (Retale), thanks to what the industry calls “the fat finger problem.”

We’re not getting the attention of our audience either. People literally do not see display ads. According to an eye tracking study by research firm Lumen, our eyes simply avoid the ads as if they were dog turds on the footpath. And the result? Only nine percent of ads in this study got a second of attention. The other 91 percent were glanced at or completely ignored. What other industry would accept this much waste?

We’re not making any great ads either. We could reminisce about the wonderful campaigns we remember from TV and radio or the viral sensations of the digital world. But banner campaigns? The fact is you’ve probably seen five million digital ads in the last 10 years – can you remember any of them?

So why is that? The blame can’t be placed on the technology. We truly are talking about the most powerful system in the ad world – billions of ads delivered in a fraction of a second, all targeted to your specific interests and behaviour.

Think about it. Every time you open a webpage, you trigger a global auction for your eyeballs. Ad platforms are analysing your data and bidding for your attention. So, you only see the most relevant ads from brands that value you the most. But still, they fail to get your attention, 91 percent of the time.

As the ever-quotable Damon Stapleton says: “It doesn’t matter how quickly shit gets to you, it’s still shit”.

And that’s really the issue. Display advertising is just not good advertising. The medium needs us to work so hard to grab the audience’s attention, but the creative industry has stopped trying. I feel we have bought into the idea that it’s impossible to make a good banner ad and so we’ve given up.

So why are display ads so bad? One major reason is the limits of file size. Websites like Stuff and NZHerald have limits as low as 80KB so designers can’t use rich imagery or good animation. It seems weird that we can upload gigabytes of video to YouTube or Instagram, but we can’t put eye-catching animation or interaction into a banner ad. Isn’t it time we lifted the limits for a better creative experience?

The next issue that has to be discussed is production budgets. How can you make something good when the budget is nil? “Use existing assets” – it’s a phrase you see on most banner briefs. As an industry, we’re happy to invest $200 million in media per annum so why are we not prepared to invest a cent in the creative so that our media spend actually works? 

But here’s what’s really missing: creatives who embrace the limitations and take this challenge. Yes – display ads are ignored. Yes – your palette is limited. But isn’t this the kind of challenge that creatives crave? When everything is stacked against you, that’s when the power of your idea can shine. It’s a $200 million industry – just waiting for the transformative power of creativity.

To prove it can be done, we’ve pulled together five contenders for the best display ads of all time. It’s telling that most of these examples are over a decade old – the time has surely come for new campaigns to raise the bar.

1. The World’s first Banner

AT&T, 1994

Almost 30 years ago, the first banner went live on hotwired.com. And nearly half of those who saw it clicked on it. But this wasn’t just because it was new. If I saw it now, I’d still want to click on it because it plays on your curiosity. 

This is an ad for AT&T, but you wouldn’t know it. Its role was to deliver traffic. So, the brand was prepared to sacrifice recognition, in order to gain clicks. 

Today, this wouldn’t fly. You’d need the brand, the product, the campaign assets. The client would expect awareness and traffic. But perhaps we need to be more single-minded about what we want our banners to achieve?

2. “Hunter shoots a Bear”

Tipp-Ex, 2010

This campaign breaks the wall between the ad and the content in a way that still feels surprising. It begins like a regular YouTube video, until the hunter reaches into the banner ad, grabs the Tipp-Ex, and invites the viewer to change the title of the video. You could change the title of the video directly on YouTube, thanks to the Tipp-ex corrector and then you’d see an ending that matches the title, with more than 50 different hilarious endings to be discovered.

When I saw this in 2010, I thought “WHAT!” And if you did that today, you’d get the same reaction. In 100 days, the Tipp-ex YouTube channel got +35.5 million views, with an average brand exposure of five minutes as people played with the ad to try and unlock new endings. This led to a doubling in purchase intent – all thanks to a banner.

I loved this ad because it literally stepped outside the box, but it is essentially a product demo – every person who engaged with the ad experienced the product.

3. “World’s Longest Banner”

BMW, 2011

“We bet that you hardly ever read ads. Yet, for some reason, you’re reading this one right now.” A classic opening for a classic long copy ad that just happens to be inside a banner. And that’s what makes it extraordinary.  While we’re all trying to make our banner ads as short as possible, the writer behind this campaign crafted 5,500 words! In a banner ad! That’s five times the length of this article. And every word is lovingly describing the new X5, illustrating that this was truly a special launch. 

This is a copywriter taking a big swing.

4. “Useful Banners”

3M Post-its, 2015

Finally, a banner worth sticking around for (see what I did there).

Retargeting banners usually remind us of products we don’t want to buy. But what if that technology could remind us about something we want to remember? 

3M used banners to create post-its for the web. Write a post it note and it will stay with you, no matter which site you visit. And you’ll also remember the brand too. I was actually sad when the campaign ended and I couldn’t create reminders like this. And I’m not alone. The banner had an active engagement of almost 50 percent. And here’s the real achievement – 97 percent of the users chose to see their retargeting banners again.

5. “QR Code Superbowl ad” Coinbase, 2022

OK, so it’s not a banner ad. But it could have been right? When Coinbase broadcast a bouncing QR code during the superbowl, it crashed their site and got the marketing world fizzing. But all I saw was a classic, traffic-driving banner ad, that just happened to be in the world’s most expensive ad break.

I can’t help but notice how similar it is to the very first banner ad. No branding. Just an irresistible play on our curiosity, drawing us to take action and visit a website.

Haydn Kerr is Executive Creative Director, and Wihan Meerholz, Lead Creative at Tribal Aotearoa. 

This article was first published in the 2022 June/July issue of NZ Marketing magazine.

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