I recently spent some time in New York City, one of the most concentrated advertising environments in the world. Indeed, a city as rich as this shows you the best and the worst of what’s possible. The digital displays in Times Square have changed so much in the last few years that I was in awe for at least half an hour. Even the aerial view from the top of a distant skyscraper was stunning.
But five rides in a taxi cab, some "research" on tourist venues, and a few adventures on the subway, and I was back to thinking about how much advertising – and digital ads especially – gets plastered across the US without consistent planning for content, use, or environment. Consider how true this is in a digital environment like your computer as much as it is in your real environment. "Bad" banner ads and pop-ups suddenly seem like a good idea according to Ad Age:
Direct-response ads of all kinds, such as those for lowering bills, avoiding computer viruses and checking credit scores, are flooding into unsold ad inventory. Windows that open underneath a page -- the so-called pop-unders of the late '90s -- are making a comeback, and ad execs say they're seeing more in-text ads from the likes of Vibrant Media and Kontera as publishers attempt to squeeze incremental dollars from each page...Andy Atherton from Brand.net claims, "It signifies a shortage of alternatives and a hunger for revenue...This isn't a new issue, but in this climate it's harder to say no to any ad if there is money attached to it."It's never a good strategy to let panic drive your marketing plan. Even worse when good ideas are badly implemented for lack of research.
Moving out of the cabs and into tourist spots, the digital kiosks and screens actually did offer excellent information, but it was often too deeply intwined with POS material pushing tourists to buy digitized photos of themselves against the Empire State Building, to upgrade your harbor tour with a video/audio component, or to usher you into the gift shop. I began to feel as if New York was, in fact, Disney-ified, as Alan Bryman and George Ritzer predicted.
As we drove away from New York, I was back in front of more digital screens at gas stations – again, mostly generic advertising and television shows rather than point-of-service info related to travel, rest area amenities, or relevant traffic news. These screens were certainly functional, but is functional really all we're aiming for?
Most analysts suggest that digital media will remain a growth area despite the economy – but I’m hoping that the recessionary fears don’t translate into sloppy market research and design. Just because you have a trapped audience (in the cab and at the gas station) doesn’t mean the advertisements have to be miserable. Recently Ad Age commented on the ubiquitous belly fat banners that have been running on all manner of web pages – indeed, they are successful when other ads are failing. However, it’s not clear that success in generating attention is going to translate into success in sales. Similarly, the long term effects are not worth it.
More positive placement for digital signage pays off in alleviating public complaints and draconian “landscape” laws about digital signage. A well functioning video/media system should be vital to any public transportation project (imagine, ideally, a part of new infrastructure funding). But if marketing and design folks don’t do more to sort out the chafe from the cream, the moment of connection will be lost in translation.
cab and gas station image courtesy of the New York Times. and Penton Media, Inc. cityscape courtesy: Zoe Rubinstein.