It’s one of the truisms of life: everyone hates ads. They’re intrusive, annoying, and ruin otherwise good content.
Or do they?
Truth be told, I think there’s a real place for ads in our world. Personally, I don’t mind a company trying to sell me something, especially if it is relevant to me, and I would much rather deal with an inert picture than an actual salesperson. In some ways, it’s a win-win, me finding out about stuff I like, not having to deal with other people, and the company possibly making a sale.
It’s worth pointing out that the biggest television event of the year is awaited almost as much for the ads as the main event.
The Super Bowl.
In 2014, the NFL’s regular season was viewed by approximately 202.3 million people. (Note that this isn’t views, but the count of how many people tuned into a game at some point). That means for each of the 256 regular season games, on average, 790,000 people who hadn’t watched a game before tuned in, out of a total of 17.6 million watching the game.
The Super Bowl was viewed by approximately 168 million people, about 10 times as many as the average game, and totaling more than 200 times as many unique watchers. Now, it is the most important game of the season. But is it 10 times as important as the average game? Is it 200 times as important?
But there’s something else going on, something that you don’t see with other major sporting events: people showing up to watch parties who otherwise don’t watch sports. They’ll proudly announce they’re there to watch the ads.
When was the last time you turned on the Olympics to watch the associated ads? Or the World Series? Or went to the movie theater and paid 10 bucks not to see the film, but all of the previews that came before it?
Yeah, I’ve never done that. Hopefully, you’ve never done it, either.
What’s going on with the Super Bowl? Why do people who normally avoid football tune in, to watch ads, of all things?
I have a few guesses:
- The ads are new. They’re interesting, in part, because they haven’t been seen before.
- The ads are funny. We like to laugh, and after the faux-seriousness of the holiday season, it’s really refreshing to get to laugh non-stop at advertisements.
- The ads feature people who are participating in the main event. You see players, coaches, and commentators, better integrating the ads into the game.
- The ads don’t repeat. You see it once, and it doesn’t wear thin, unlike the many ads that play 6 to 8 times in a 3-hour time block.
So, what can we extrapolate from these strategies? Can we make advertising better by applying some of the patterns that emerge during this event?
Rules for TV
- Limit how often your advertisements run. It’s okay if you buy multiple slots for the same program, but make sure you run different ads in each slot. An ad should never run more than twice every 3 hours. There are diminishing returns to running ads—don’t push the ad into the “negative” territory by overusing it.
- Make your ads fun. Why is it that so many companies wait for the Super Bowl to run funny and engaging content? There’s the entire rest of the year, which is less expensive to advertise in, I might add, in which funny content will stand out just as much as it does on Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps more, since the ad will stand out relative to the competition.
- Tell a story. This is possibly the second-most common strategy during the Super Bowl, behind humor. Off the top of my head, Coke and Budweiser spring to mind as companies that always do this. It’s a great way to maximize the effect of purchasing multiple ads in the same program. If you do it right, people will want to see your last ad, the one that ties up the story.
Rules for the Internet
Advertising on the Internet is a completely separate beast, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.
The first fundamental problem on the Internet is that ads can be incredibly intrusive. I can change the channel on the TV when advertisements come on, or just ignore the static images that line the Interstate, but ads on the Internet are increasingly designed to force interaction. The most famous example of this is the pop-up ad, which, thankfully, seems less prevalent than it used to be.
The variety that draws most of my ire right now is the 30-second unskippable ad on YouTube. Formerly, YouTube seemed to utilize two kinds of ads: 5-second unskippable ads, and 30+ second ads that were skippable after 5 seconds. What’s brilliant about those longer advertisements is that you had the opportunity to evaluate if they were relevant and if so, to continue watching. If not, on to the content you came for! Now, you are often asked to watch a video that’s not skippable, and in some cases, is longer than the actual video you want to see. How is watching a 30-second ad in order to watch a 15-second video justified?
I know I’m not alone in feeling this frustration. The use of ad-blockers is on the rise. While researching this topic, I found some interesting stats about why people are increasingly using this tech: 30% cite security as their number 1 reason, 29% interruption, 16% speed, 14% too many ads (source: businessinsider.com).
Let’s tackle these major reasons.
- Ads have long been known for their ability to transmit malware and viruses. I think as people become more tech-savvy this problem will decrease, but it does indicate that the bad guys are winning. For now.
- Interruption, speed, and too many ads. I think all three of these categories (together combining for 59% of the reasons people give for installing an ad-blocker), speak to the same idea: ads often degrade the user experience on the Internet.
Are these problems fixable? Perhaps not in their entirety, but let’s make a list of rules that would help lessen the pain.
- Try not to serve malware. (Duh).
- Ensure your ads are as lightweight as possible, so that page load times remain fast. This makes a huge difference in the parts of the country where Internet service is slow and unreliable (like Lucas, Texas!)
- Limit the number of ads. More ads means more money, but it also drives people away from your website. There’s a balance.
- Finally, make sure your ads don’t restrict access to the content that people came to see. Luckily, pop-up ads, the arguably-worst offenders in this category, appear to be way less prevalent these days, but there are other kinds of interruptible—like YouTube ads. There is a caveat: I like some interruptible ads. When you click a link to Forbes.com, you are first taken to a page with a large ad on it, and a 5-second lockout, but, and this is a big “but,” there’s also some sort of inspirational or thought-provoking quote on the page that lends it some value. I never feel like my time was completely wasted by the ad because I’m not forced to interact with it in any meaningful way.
Ultimately, these rules are not going to make people want to watch advertising. That’s just not a realistic goal—but, if applied, I believe that some combination of these rules would make people less ill-willed towards ads, making for a healthier, more sustainable advertising ecosystem.
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I hadn’t realized that we see stories in ads by companies over time. Creating a narrative in which we want a resolution is a really powerful tool, and good for you for pointing it out. However, companies don’t usually know when we are going to sit down and watch television for three consecutive hours in which they can present us a story. Maybe they could get away with 3 commercials split across an hour, and air it during something that a lot of people watch that has commercials like… uh… Grey’s Anatomy? Is that show still on? Something like that, or how Lost was. Something that is relatively popular and at least an hour. 30 minutes would be a lot. But that being said, we see the exact same commercial frequently within 30 minutes, so maybe a full story would be okay.
Alternatively, putting out new commercials frequently is a lot of effort, that companies want to see big returns on. The Super Bowl guarantees a return on that investment of effort. Season finales for big shows might see a similar return. But you can bet your sweet meats that when I turn on the television at 2:30 in the morning I am going to see that same old ad about Mesothelioma that has been playing since 2008 (I looked up how long that ad has been playing, I thought it had been upwards of 15 years, but it’s only been 10).