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Baltimore Sun Home Page Takeover Turns Back Online Advertising's Clock

Unintentional Throwback May Still Perform for the Advertiser

By Published on . 9

Online advertising has not come all that far from those "punch the monkey" banners that littered the early web.

Licensing beanstalk infographic

In a nod to web ads' roots -- or else a total disregard for their evolution -- The Baltimore Sun's home page on Monday featured an ad from Maryland merchant Jarvis Appliance that overtook the site with an aesthetic seemingly borrowed from PennySaver.

Jarvis Appliance's ad, which expanded automatically from a banner when visitors arrived at The Baltimore Sun on Monday and initially filled the margins as well, could be described as visually arresting, but not for the same reasons as an ad running on Vox Media's The Verge or GQ's iPad edition. It eschews current trends toward clean design and dominant imagery in favor of an old-school predilection for text -- in as many fonts and sizes as possible.

Most newspapers try to keep their big home page "impact units" a little more sophisticated. "It kind of looks like a print ad," said Eric Franchi, co-founder of rich-media ad network Undertone.

Others were less kind than that.

The Baltimore Sun's director of marketing and communications, Renee Mutchnik, did not immediately return a message left on her voicemail Monday. Calls to Jarvis Appliance were unsuccessful.

But the ad suggests one good thing for the paper. "It shows that The Sun is getting very local advertisers to presumably pay top dollar for key inventory," said Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Spanfeller Media Group and former CEO of Forbes.com, in an email. "For local papers to make it in the digital world they are going to have to move their core local advertiser to digital. In this case anyway, it would appear they are doing just that. Now all that said, the ad looks terrible. But at the end of the day if it works, it works."

And the helter-skelter come-on may indeed have done that, for the advertiser too. It got the audience right, at least. "From a media strategy standpoint, it's pretty good. They will reach a good percentage of the people who live in the surrounding areas," said Mr. Franchi, whose company works with a number of local news sites. 'It's just a matter of getting the creative right,"

And perhaps the creative wasn't so bad either. Maybe The Baltimore Sun and Jarvis Appliance noticed the '90s resurgence taking place in the fashion world and decided to bring it to online advertising. In a way, Monday's unapologetically in-your-face homepage takeover is a throwback. It could be considered "the Zubaz pants of online advertising," as Ad Age's Michael Sebastian described it.

Or maybe ugly can sometimes perform. Readers don't need to click through, or to wait out an elaborate video, to know exactly what's on offer this weekend, or even what the store hours are.

Amid all the traffic from Twitter rubberneckers, whether or not Jarvis Appliance ultimately wins may depend on how it bought the ad. If it secured a fixed price, potentially bundled with a print campaign, the increased visits to The Baltimore Sun could significantly expand the campaign's audience without costing anything extra. If Twitter traffic from outside Baltimore either wastes impressions or runs up the bill, well, Jarvis Appliance may need to sell quite a few refrigerators this weekend.

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