Why Banner Advertising should go down the gurgler

There is a monumental swirling mass of waterborne toxic plastic and debris called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It offers me a visual metaphor for the Internet, though of course the Internet is bigger.  We’ve developed an infinite ability to create crap and find a place to leave it so that we can conveniently ignore it, or selectively see what we want from amidst the mess.
Take advertising. It’s been elevated to an art form in many media; advertising is sometimes enjoyed more than the content it pays for. But online promotional activity is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of the advertising business. Banners, buttons and ‘skyscrapers’ pollute content sites with their insistent flickering.

One of the problems with this form of advertising is that clicking a banner or button links you to another place on the web, and not always to a useful or nice place. So I stick with the content I sought out and ignore the siren calls of neurotic touts. Like many consumers I have developed banner blindness. I don’t even see the messages.

Not only does banner blindness lead to pathetically low click-through rates, but it does nothing to enhance the reputation of digital advertising or the brands that use it. The artistry in the best television or print advertising cannot be supported in the junk market. Why assign a creative budget to a throw-away? What self-respecting creative talent wants to produce clutter that simply swirls around in the sinkhole of the web?

Maybe Apple’s entry into the advertising fray with iAd will change things a little in the mobile arena. Their product cleverly addresses the fundamental flaw of banner advertising on the web by allowing the user to remain within the application they are using. This interstitial form of advertising is similar to an ad break on television (though with the added function of allowing the ad to be closed) and, like television advertising, the ads can be used to fund free content and applications because Apple will share 60 percent of the value of the ad with the developers who embed the code into their apps. On the other side of the ledger, Apple also offers a creation service where, for US$50,000 or more, it will produce an interactive experience for your brand that will suit the format—to Apple’s high aesthetic standard.

Attracting attention with flashing, flickering doodads on the web is the lowest form of advertising (matched only in the real world by ugly, intrusive billboards that appear without invitation or any relevance). It’s little wonder they are ignored, but still they hover and lurk ineffectually: visual spam.

Maybe the rise of search as a marketing tool will bring about the demise of junk banner advertising. Directing visitors to online experiences that are specific and relevant makes much more sense than cheap, random, in-your-face intrusion. Creating brand experiences delivered online that people will talk about and share on Facebook and Twitter will also be more and more significant. Human curation and recommendation will trump a nasty hawker’s pitch every time.  

This column first appeared in the current issue of Idealog magazine. Happy to report the magazine (which I co-founded) has just won the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA) Business Magazine of the Year…which it has done every year since we started publishing. A great credit the talnted team who make every issue come alive with stories about creative New Zealand businesses. Subscribe here…it's worth it.


  1. I agree on many respects, however there have been cases where I have found banner ads useful in directing my attention to things I find useful. Yet it is only in the realm of fashion/shopping blogs that are run by a person who's style I admire, and because the banner ads are often affiliate based advertisements of clothing stores they support/wear. Naturally, I am interested. I think it is a rather particular example, as what you have detailed above is the norm.

  2. In some cases curated advertising - where the interests of the user are matched by the advertising material in a very specific sense - can complement the content.

    I was interested to hear a remark by a top designer at Pentagram Design that some publications on the iPad will be popular in part because of the advertising…the interruption of the ad will be content and as engaging as the content of the publication itself. The only reason why advertising is historically so dire (in all media) has been the fact that media economics demand the interruption of content 'cut through'.

    For what it is worth I think the entire advertising model is about to change…hopefully for the better.


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