On Viewability: Or I'm Sick of Seeing Kate Upton in a Milk Bath

It's Embarrassing That Marketers and Publishers Are Arguing Over Something so Basic

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I play "Words With Friends," the hit mobile game (motto: "We're totally not Scrabble"). For the past two months, between every round of humiliating wordplay, I've been served ads for another mobile game called "Game of War." The ads, including one that started life as a Super Bowl spot, feature swimsuit model and "actress" Kate Upton in the role of a quasi-Viking warrior goddess or something.

Sometimes I can skip the ads after a few seconds. Sometimes I can't. But I can always see them. I can't not see them, unless I literally turn my phone away from me, which would look pretty weird to anyone watching me (though not half as weird as them spying on me in the bathroom while I play "Words With Friends").

I'm sick of "Game of War" and its ads. If you'd told 15-year-old Ken that one day he'd have a cordless magic space phone that could hold entire libraries, answer pretty much any question, map the globe and show him video of a half-nekkid swimsuit model sitting in a milk bath -- and that adult Ken would grow bored, even frustrated by the sight of this model -- well 15-year-old Ken would call you crazy and wonder why the hell he was using that phone to play "Not Scrabble" in the first place.

But, hey, at least the marketer of "Game of War" is getting its ad seen 100% of the time.

You may have noticed that I haven't used the word "viewability" yet.

That's because I'd like you to actually view this article and, by this point in the Great Viewability Debate of 2015, just seeing the word "viewability" makes people want to do anything but look at something.

For those of you who've been sitting this one out, perhaps opting to spend your time on the infinitely more interesting topic of programmatic buying, viewability is this crazy notion that when a marketer pays for an ad to run, it should, you know, be seen by people.

This is a debate that's so perfectly representative of the marketing and media world.

After all, megamarketer Anheuser-Busch InBev once spent millions of dollars to market its No. 1 brand, Bud Light, on the concept of "drinkability." On the surface, the claim is ludicrous. All beer is drinkable. But this is advertising, man, it's deep; you gotta go below the surface. What Bud Light really meant by drinkability is that it's a beer for people who don't like the taste of beer!

This ad's got viewability! Hey, it's like a regular ad, but this one? This ad people can actually see!

Imagine taking your car to the mechanic and he gives you one low price to do something to your car—and then a premium price to actually fix the problem. Or going to a restaurant and being charged a low price for food, but then receiving the option -- at a higher price -- of food that is, you know, edible.

In a way, marketers are getting what they pay for. Many of them first moved into the digital and mobile spaces thinking they could work miracles on the cheap. For years, they weren't so much diverting ad dollars to digital as shaking out their pockets and digging under the couch cushions for change and saying, "We're doing digital over here!"

But now that so many more people are living in the digital and mobile realms, they're realizing that successful advertising in this space requires—get this—strategy and content and planning and all sorts of things that cost a lot of money. And if you're going to spend that money, you want the end product to be seen, maybe even engaged with.

This sort of accountability is the sign of a maturing model being held to the same standards as traditional media.

Kind of.

While it's not apples to apples, marketers pay a lot of money for TV and print ads and don't seem to obsess quite as much on viewability. Sure, you buy an ad on MSNBC, it's going to be 100% viewable -- to Chris Hayes' immediate family and the Elizabeth Warren Fan Club. A print ad is 100% viewable -- to that bored guy in the waiting room.

Viewability is important. I'm not denying that. But it's the bare minimum of what publishers and marketers should be striving for. That it's even up for debate should be embarrassing for all involved. Marketers should pay a fair price and at least admit they've paid a lot more for a lot less in the past. Publishers should quit discounting ads and then trying to make up the difference by charging for things at the bottom of the page.

In the digital and mobile spaces, what I'd rather see marketers and publishers focusing on is addressing the problems with targeting and tracking. If you're following me around and scraping my data, you should be serving me better ads. And even if "straight guy between ages of 18 and 55 who plays games on his phone" does fit your profile for "Game of War," it shouldn't take three months to figure out that I'm never going to click through, no matter how many times you show me Kate Upton.

And then everyone can get back to the ever-present central issue of advertising: selling things with creative executions that stop the viewer from flipping the page, changing the channel, scrolling through the timeline or hitting "Skip Ad."

Ken Wheaton, the managing editor of Advertising Age, writes our Last Word column. His latest novel, "Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears," was published in 2014.
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