|I blame it on sitting on my father's knee while he was reading Popular Mechanics. Or maybe it was just those lost years in advertising, but I have to confess that I like banner ads.
That Pop Mechanics bit isn't just a trivial hook. In those (now retro and chic) 50's magazines, the first 25 or so pages were the home of the small space ad. 'Make money in Plastics', they shouted. 'Draw Me and Win an Art Course', 'Earn $$$ flocking sofas', 'Learn Meat Cutting at Home' and all for the cost of a stamp sent to some post box in Akron, Ohio. Fighting for their column half inch, the proposition or creative concept had to hook you at first glance. Sometimes the tiny body copy added a purchase incentive, but mostly this was small space advertising painted with a broad brush. It wasn't just Popular Mechanics of course, there were hundreds of magazines and newspapers that depended on the small space ad dollars to stay in business. These ads have a marketing tradition back to the first newspapers, and even today there's enough clever and creative work being done in the small space format, to have it's own section in our respected advertising award annuals.
I propose that those ubiquitous web banner ads, that make your hard disk hammer as the animated gifs play from the cache, are worthy of the same respect. In fact, I believe that unless they get more of that respect and attention, we'll lose an opportunity to create a distinctive advertising medium. Given how ephemeral all online matter is, we'll not be able to refer back to this material in twenty years time with any of the same sense as 50's nostalgia, even though their reflection of our wired culture is probably greater. So pay attention now boys and girls, to a short history of the Banner Ad.
Where and why? Obviously the graphic web ad had to wait until someone had invented the web (natch!) and a browser that could display it. Mosaic was the big talk of the town in 1993 (and pretty much old hat just a year after, with the release of Netscape 1.0). Trying to find any history of the birth of online advertising has been fruitless but the first banner ad I recall seeing was on Lycos in 1994. I wrote a piece about web advertising in 1996 that attributed Hot Wired to having the first ads (which I'm now sure wasn't true, but they were certainly why the format was quickly set). Those first banners were uniformly amateurish and I even saved some examples because they were so bad. Awkward and poorly designed, they were caught up in posturing as professional advertising.
The Marketing department regrets. Looking back it appeared to have been the same entrepreneurial Marketing Manager who decided to set up the web site, who wrote the Banner ads for it. Confusing printed flyers with 'billboards on the super-highway', the messages where rarely clever or creative. And they were static. It seemed that all the energy was being used up in the argument whether a web site was a branding exercise or a direct marketing opportunity. Like those sites, the early banners had no real focus. It's hard to believe now but even the option to 'click me' and 'come to my web site' was added almost as an after thought. They were display ads, full stop.
The animated GIF. GIF 89A's appeared like a confetti coloured plague dancing across pages everywhere. Some home pages consisted of nothing but 'these cool animations I've found'. It seemed as if the discovery swept through ad land at the same time, and the animated gif banner was born. No one had a grasp on file sizes or download times and there were some bandwidth hogging examples that almost forced you to turn off images ( well, maybe.... almost).
Timing was (and still is) erratic. A slow connection / slow PC meant that you never saw the end of the message before clicking off, or it changed so fast that you had to refresh the page a few times before you could see the message. There are some good examples where timing meant surprise, and a clever use of no repetition meant that you weren't quite sure if you really had seen it until you refreshed the page.
It's just really a skinny television commercial! At its best it was, and TV techniques and motion graphics added a familiar look to these widescreen animated windows. Dissolves and transitions were done laboriously in Photoshop. Cartoon styles worked well because of the smaller sizes of the limited colour palettes. It was on Hot Wired that I saw the first ads in a square format, (distinguished by the <advertisement> </advertisement> text tag that was obviously there more for cleverness, then assuming that we wouldn't be able to tell it was an ad because the shape wasn't long and narrow!)
But when the web screams interactivity why watch a slide show? The first HTML ad with check boxes and drop down menu's seemed to solve the problem. Everyone had to have one. Some examples I've saved have more code in them than in the pages that came below them. Combination ads that used an animated message and a text entry window tried to squash the best of both worlds into the tiny allotted space, and usually failed.
Other Formats. The GIF's attraction of being viewable in every browser still makes it first choice, but there are a number of other formats making a play for attention. There are a number of Java applets, VRML versions complete with interstitials (look it up), GIF mini movies and Macromedia's Flash is an obvious choice for ads since its integration into the latest version of the big two browsers. Pick your site and you can assume that your readers will have the plug-in. (For example because you're here, I know you've got the plug-in, so load this one, the first playable Shockwave ad from Hewlett Packard. )
Do they work? Sure, I click on them all the time. As I expect anyone involved with the web as a business does. But I keep reminding myself (and the people who work with me), that we're different. We have good connections to the Net, fast computers, big screens, latest browsers, all the plug-ins and a financial imperative to browse. The majority of web users aren't so lucky. 'What's it look like in 256 on 640x480' is a small mantra I chant daily in the studio, and even with a 14 inch second monitor set to 256 colours on every Mac designer's desk, they often forget they are different to the rest of the Web world. And design accordingly.
So although thousands of us click on the new ads we like, we're still a small market, unless you are targeting web developers. Then you have to accept that not everyone feels the same way about banner ads. They may not all go as far as ISP's setting their cache to eliminate the ads, (I can see their banner ads now. 'Sign up with the Ad Free Network. Save hundreds of dollars in download time, speed up your page views, stop your children being led astray, don't be tempted by the material world ever again! While the go broke.)
There is still ethical resistance on the net to the fact that advertising has invaded a public space. Programs to eliminate the ad banners from your browsing present advertisers with the same kind of challenge that 'zapping' with the remote control presents to TV ads, or fast forwarding across ad breaks on pre-recorded programs. If the ads are relevant to you, attractive and clever, you'll watch or read them. If they don't have at least one of the above features, they are seen as an intrusion to be removed. Just as there are bad TV commercials (I still watch Canberra TV sometimes -shudder-), there will always be bad banner ads. At their best, they can work in ways the small space ad in a magazine could only dream of.
Small space ad 1950
More 50's nostalgia?
Discussion on Ad Costs
There's a good list of links to Advertising related sites at the University of Texas. It includes a number of links to dedicated Web Advertising agencies and 'how to' banner ad sites.
Do It Yourself
What size for which site?
RESOURCES TO AVOID
The Creative Web Advertising section on the Fairfax site (created by Euro RSCG who still haven't heard about Flash and expect you to wait five minutes until their enormous Shockwave home page loads. Just to leave it with a click). The Fairfax section obviously hasn't been updated or proof read for months.