Monday, March 23, 2009

Digital Advertising to the Lowest Common Denominator: The Economy Made Me Do It

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 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.

Back in NY, we moved on to cabs: the small screen tvs in the back of the taxi are inevitably without sound – even if the sound works, most cab drivers have their own musical choices blasting through the divider. It's a bit disconcerting to listen to Hindu radio while watching images for the show Celtic Women Live! The Gothamist has debated whether the malfunctioning sound controls are intentional, but I'm not enough of a New Yorker to weigh in.

For my three teen companions, the cab's touch screen maps were fascinating for about ten minutes, until we discovered that they were slower than reading street signs (or a hand-held GPS) and often not sophisticated enough to shift between two block radius and a larger parameter. The vast majority of touch screens didn’t work – despite the constant pounding they received from the teens, who insisted that if they just kept tapping it, it would eventually provide information or entertainment. Even if we’d been able to control what came across, none of it could actually count as programming (unless you count the entertainment value of pounding...).

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.

What's disturbing (and not good for long term development of digital media) was how much digital signage was non-functional in environments where people could really rely on it. On the subway and PATH trains, information boards were never displayed on the correct platform and throngs of people were forced to rush over to another track to read the only three working screens that could tell them about delays, departures, and time changes. I don't think it's unrealistic to expect that other forms of transportation could be at the same level of technological sophistication as the airport. Without it, there's a loss of good will towards the industry along with potential revenue.

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.

The key issue for digital media is saturation. Even those amazing Times Square billboards get old when the content isn’t fresh and the message is unconnected to the lived realities of consumer needs. The more companies place advertisements with abandon in every possible niche, the more likely they will water down the potential impact of digital technology and marketing campaigns. At some point, even the aesthetic and intelligently constructed ads will lose appeal.

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.


Anonymous said...

All this talk about "engaging" the consumer is bunk! Coming up with new artsy fartsy ads is way too expensive. Didn’t we learn anything from the dot com bust of 2000? Pummel them to death and they will get the message! More ads in more places mean more eyeballs on your product. Think of your viewer as the lowest common denominator... they are stupid sheep! Bring annoying banner ads to the real world.
Head On, apply directly to the forehead! One of the most annoying ad campaigns ever! Also one of the most successful. Don’t believe the vertical market dead weight that spend their time in a suit at trade shows! Think for yourself!

Bill Gerba said...

The problem with your approach is that if you annoy your shoppers, they're apt to leave... and never come back.

Websites don't really have the same problem (well, at least to the same extent), since people seem to be more fickle and forgetful than in bricks-and-mortar stores. So while "head-on" might have worked on TV (where you can change the channel), or the web (where you can quickly surf to another site), doing something incredibly annoying in your bricks-and-mortar store might lose you a customer for life.

Anonymous said...

They won't buy your stuff if they don't know about it. More signs means more eyeballs and more sales! Spend ad dollars on getting more eyeballs not on artsy fartsy content. Keep it simple and treat consumers like the sheep that they are!

Public-Mutual said...

The digital advertising is a idea for any industries and businesses.

You can advertise your short video in any elevator that come with LCD screen.

Annie said...

Head On is an interesting example for you to choose -- many of these ads are deliberately cheesy (consider the Snugglie, that blanket-like thing, as the most successful example). People are attracted to it because it's funny -- not because they're stupid and the product isn't somehow engaging to them.

I think my main point about a place like New York is that you can reach saturation -- and it's not just the customers you have to worry about in terms of digital signage, but rather the local and state rules that could limit the amount and types of ads, consumer backlash against "visual pollution," and eventually, finding yourself out of place in a shifting landscape.