by Liz Walter
When British writer Norman Douglas wrote in 1917 that ‘you can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements’, he probably never imagined just how far that theory would be tested in the following century. While some advertisers have been content with pithy catchphrases and addictive jingles, others have pushed the boundaries of taste and social mores to their limits in their search for the arresting image that will imprint a product’s name into the consumer’s mind. Possibly the most famous (or notorious) examples were those of the fashion firm Benetton, which provoked outrage in the 1990s with images that included a man dying from AIDS and a nun kissing a priest.
In a less shockable age, it is difficult to imagine a similar advertising campaign having such an impact, but instead new techniques are being used. Attack ads used to be only used by politicians wishing to denigrate a rival, but are now being produced by companies such as the communications giants T-Mobile and AT&T, who have recently been battling it out fiercely and expensively in the marketing arena with negative campaigns against one another.
Another, often more entertaining, form of advertising is ambush marketing, where a company tries to exploit a connection with a prestigious event without paying for the privilege. This approach works best when accompanied by a dose of humour, as when the UK betting company Paddy Power bought up billboards close to London Olympic venues and put up posters that read:
Official sponsors of the largest athletics event in London this year.
There you go, we said it.
(Ahem, London, France, that is)
There was, apparently, an egg-and-spoon race taking place in the small French town of London at around the same time!
Nowadays, it is less the content of advertisements that is changing, and more the means by which they are delivered. With the massive shift from bricks to clicks, with more and more of us shopping online rather than going to stores, advertisers have had to come up with new ways of grabbing our attention.
One particularly annoying method is the page takeover, where an advert, often a video, appears on a web page you want to look at. Many of these ads have a minimum watching time before they can be clicked away – in effect they are the price you pay to view content you want. Social couponing has also become big business, using discount vouchers distributed online to tempt customers to buy new products and services.
More subtle is the placement of click bait – items that encourage a browser to click on a particular link. This technique is used both in product marketing and in other contexts where catching the user’s eye has particular benefits. For instance, some IT recruitment sites, understanding how bored applicants become with reams of ‘software developer’ jobs, have taken to advertising posts such as ‘Ridiculously talented Ruby Developer’ or ‘Creator of Interesting Things’.
Click bait may work for advertisers, and it certainly encourages link diving, where people click on link after link, taking them further and further away from their original search. The obvious downside of all this is the temptation for cyberloafing – spending way too long on the internet when you should be doing other things.
In this world of couch commerce, one constant bugbear has been the final stage of the process. Missing deliveries or having to wait in for them detract from the ease of internet shopping, so many companies have now started click and collect schemes, whereby customers order online but pick up the goods themselves, often from local shops – good news for last-minute buyers such as the man who picked up Christmas lingerie for his wife from a local shop at 10.43 on December 24th last year.
Some owners of brick-and-mortar stores are becoming infuriated by showrooming, where potential customers go in to examine goods and then go home to buy them more cheaply over the internet. Not surprisingly, they object to providing free advertising space for online suppliers. Deciding how much to spend on advertising, and how best to spend it is a huge issue for businesses, and probably many would empathize with the US businessman John Wanamaker, who said, ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.’
[image: Half an hour of web ads by dno1967b, on Flickr]