The Dark Matter of the Online Ad Universe

What Happens When Media Weight Does the Opposite of What We Expect?

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The ARF's Ted McConnell
The ARF's Ted McConnell

Everyone is familiar with the ways that interactive ads annoy us. When challenged about this, creative people tend to respond by saying that an ad "got your attention" or "made you think." However, it's possible that online, these annoyances have real impact on brand perception, yet we know little about how online advertising can produce negative brand attitudes.

The domain of the "annoyance" dialog has historically been ad copy on TV, but compared to the internet, TV has a limited domain for intrusion. After all, a 15-second TV commercial, by virtue of being neatly placed in a pod, is subservient in its posture. It can't block your path toward a goal.

Opportunity to annoy
Enter the internet, where competition for attention on a cluttered screen makes for screamers in the ecosystem. The media itself, by virtue of rich-technology alternatives, becomes an active participant in the "Opportunity to Annoy."

Our generic pal, the media-consumer, is not always online to passively consume entertainment. They are most often there to accomplish something. We call it "lean forward," but that term hardly does justice to the emotional difference between being a spectator and an active player. Sometimes we say they are on a quest. This term is descriptive of goal seeking. From the consumer's point of view, if you get in my way when I'm goal seeking, you may have crossed the line. Even if the copy is benign, if it blocks progress toward a goal (e.g., finding a hotel, seeing a video), it does make me think. It makes me think this brand has decided to jump into the path of my progress with nary an apology -- this brand that desperately wants to acquire my devotion.

For those of you who are thinking this is rare, I just described a pre-roll. I also just described a pop-up, a "free" article that requires email registration, or any offer that gets me to click and then disappoints me due to, shall we say, an optimistic spin about what I would receive upon clicking. In all these cases, a brand intervenes in my quest, all the while declaring its identity. Does that hurt the brand? How would you know? The copy tested well. The media had weight. The audience was appropriate. What's not to like?

Measuring the madness
It's like dark matter. We can't detect it, but we think it's there. It might be enormous, but we can't count it. It's an online ad that did its job by all accounts, yet may have done precisely the opposite. In traditional online metrics we have ways of discovering whether an ad and its context caused my feeling for a brand to decline. In the ubiquitous Dynamic Logic model, it's called "Favorability": How do you like the brand? Most brand-effectiveness metrics have a similar question. Context-controlled measures can detect annoying copy but usually not the effects of that copy on an impatient surfer as presented by , for example, rollover text intercepts.

One might imagine that context-sensitive measures (like Dynamic Logic) could illuminate the dark matter, but perhaps they don't. Here's why: The survey itself was interruptive. Almost by definition the respondent was not hell-bent on achieving a goal. Also, the number of responses to such surveys is sometimes a fraction of the contexts in play. So you have, say, a billion opportunities to create ire in $2 million campaign, and the survey only checks with a few hundred of the seekers. The low response rate of such surveys just reinforces the idea that people don't like to be slowed down.

There is credible research regarding the question of how a brand's "prominent placement" (when the brand is the focus of attention) relates to both brand attitude and context quality in TV. Eva Van Reijmerdsal of the Amsterdam School of Communications Research has summed up several related studies in the Journal of Advertising Research: The studies show that the more prominent the placement, the better the audience's brand memory (as expected). However, one study showed that "prominent brand placement resulted in high memory scores but negative brand attitudes for viewers who showed awareness of the deliberate brand placement and had low involvement with the program." The researchers explain this by pointing to a defense mechanism that kicks in when we think we are the subjects of persuasion. This suggests the advertiser can avoid that immune response by not being too "prominent."

Who cares?
The other night at dinner, a digital agency leader said that "most ads are direct response, and DR people won't care because they see what works and do more of it." Good point, but the best opportunity for new online ad revenue lies with brand advertising, and if web ads are suspected of damaging brand attitudes, industry growth will be dampened, possibly significantly. Even if ads were not suspected of causing bad feelings for a brand, Dark Matter, if real, would manifest as poor results, and ultimately, results will drive online budgets.

The move to examine annoying placement is growing: The call for entry for TED's "Ads worth spreading" competition stated, "We're seeking to reverse the trend of online ads being aggressively forced on users." Here at the Advertising Research Foundation we wonder about how to measure phenomena such as this. We wonder what to call it. (Badvertising?) Here is my challenge to the industry: Does Dark Matter exist? How would we know? Is it slowly eroding the credibility of the web, or brands, with consumers? Who wants to help us find out?

Ted McConnell is exec VP-digital for the Advertising Research Foundation, board member for several high-tech advertising companies and a sought-after consultant. He had a long career in Procter & Gamble, mainly focused on developing opportunities in the internet for marketing and sales.
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