Net banners are looking tired to seasoned surfers

A new IPA book aims to bring Net novices up to speed with e-commerce. But ‘old-fashioned’ Web advertising is already losing its power, writes Torin Douglas

You might think that, in the early weeks of the 21st Century, a book about e-media was a contradiction in terms. Why not publish the work electronically, instead of in a form pioneered by Gutenberg and Caxton? It would reach its audience a lot faster and would mean its up-to-the-minute references weren’t instantly past their sell-by date.

Yet this week, a volume entitled e-media, published by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, thumped on to reviewers’ desks. Soon it will clutter up the offices of harassed executives struggling to learn, as the book’s strapline puts it: “How to use electronic media for effective marketing communications”.

The Internet is full of such contradictions. Just as every half-baked e-business is spending a fortune on advertising in the ‘old media’, so it makes sense for the IPA to publish e-media in book form, rather than as hyperlinked pages on a flickering, banner-laden screen. By definition, the people who need an introduction to the marketing possibilities of the Web and e-commerce are not going to be experts on where to find that material electronically.

One result, of course, is that it isn’t quite as up-to-date as it might have been (though the choicest bits appeared last autumn on the IPA website). Some of the experts – such as the Telegraph’s Danny Meadows-Klue and Bates Interactive’s Mike Crossman – have changed jobs, their companies’ names, or both. And though most mention e-pioneers such as AOL, Amazon, Yahoo! and Excite, the book is refreshingly free of references to

I was invited to write an introduction to the book last summer, striking what I thought at the time was the right note – guarded enthusiasm, spiced with scepticism. But nine months is a long time in the clicks business, and when I picked up the published work I was nervous. Had I been too dismissive? I recalled making sneering references to anoraks and glib comparisons with CB radio. Would such Luddite phrases come back to haunt me?

I needn’t have worried. My wimpish instinct for get-out clauses had protected me. What I had actually written was: “And those who once dismissed it as a fad for anoraks, on a par with CB radio, now admit it is proving much more consumer-friendly than they at first thought.”

But that doesn’t mean consumers are begging to receive advertising on the Internet, or that advertising – as distinct from other forms of ‘marketing communications’ and e-commerce – really has much of a future in the e-media world. The IPA book introduces all the new forms of communication but, as its authors concede, it is not clear that many would be recognised as advertising.

The on-screen banner, as Ogilvy & Mather creative director Alun Howell observes, is the closest thing to traditional advertising on the Internet: “You find other people’s sites and buy a space the size of an Elastoplast to get your message across.” Unfortunately, it has already lost much of its impact.

“Internet users have become banner-blind through over-exposure, over-familiarity and an increasing confidence about how the Internet works and how to get the best out of it,” says Nick Barron of Expert Media. The “average clickthrough” rate, he says, has fallen below one per cent.

One answer is to liven up the static banner with movement and sound, but that, too, has its drawbacks. “You simply cannot expect people to wait five or ten minutes to download an ad,” says Chris Rayner of BMP Interaction in the chapter Rich Media, which he defines as “the integration of audio, video and animation into interactive advertising (usually within the conventional banner ad space)”.

In truth, some people will wait for an ad to download – but only if it has extremely powerful and popular creative content. Rayner gives examples, such as the pre-promotion of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which had thousands of fans downloading the trailer on the day it was released. Flat Eric also gained added momentum through the PC, rather than the TV. But I can’t see many people waiting more than 30 seconds to download the Chicken Delight commercial with which Unilever and Open have just heralded the dawn of the new interactive advertising age (even if the incentive is a free coupon and recipe book). Which is why the TV is likely to hold an advantage over the PC as an advertising medium if not an e-medium for some years to come.

On the other hand, the Internet must be a genuine advertising medium, because it has already generated creative squabbles. Howell claims that when he put the Guinness dancing man on to a screensaver, he was “lambasted by many new media gurus for proving that agencies knew nothing about the Internet. Ten million free downloads later and God knows how much free advertising, it is now in textbooks on Internet advertising”.

Including – thanks to himself – this one.


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