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Death of a salesman

Bad ads are killing good ones as readers go deep under cover. And the curious case of the hotel that couldn’t say goodbye.

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, February 2015

Not another disruptive ad...

Not another disruption. Great advertising always has a great idea - or logo - wth instant brand recall..Then there's the nasties - Photo/Illustration: Vijay Verghese

I LOVE newspapers. There’s something about the smell and the rustle of paper as you pore through headlines assured of the gravitas and honesty that ink brings. Headlines like, “Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say”, or “Enraged cow injures farmer with axe”, or “Mom on veggie diet gives birth to green baby,” provide insightful counterpoint to a morning cup of Joe.

But in recent years there’s been a disturbing trend. Headlines have been overtaken by rambunctious advertising that wraps around newspapers and magazines, obliterates front covers, and wiggles, jumps, expands and explodes on your screen. It follows you, tracks your every move, and attempts to interpret and forecast your life using behavioural algorithms written by prepubescent teens who seem to do a lot better than your overpaid shrink.

Bold, head-turning, intelligent advertising can enhance the look of a magazine and add enormous value for publishers and readers alike. Ad money drives many large, if fading, media enterprises – not owner funds.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


Much advertising masquerades as editorial, but isn’t. It is of course the oldest trick in the book. Often, Google is itself the culprit, having seemingly abandoned its much-quoted maxim, “Don’t do evil”

But things have moved into high gear. The omnipresence of advertising will make it possible to squeeze dollars out of virtually everything. Future editorial may well look like this – “Our colourful headlines are brought to you by Panorama Paints and the preceding full stop would not have been possible without generous sponsorship from The Buck Stops Here Financial Planners. The gorgeous white page margins come to you courtesy of Magic Photo Frames and all this repetitive waffle has been carefully curated by the Hong Kong government. Do click on their logo if you have time to occupy.” One para and everyone’s happy.

Much advertising masquerades as editorial, but isn’t. It is of course the oldest trick in the book. Often, Google is itself the culprit, having seemingly abandoned its maxim, “Don’t do evil”.

Advertising works in two ways – sneakily by stealth, or by being ‘disruptive’ (a word marketers love, despite its obviously negative connotation). Stealth advertising comes in various forms, most commonly, ‘advertorial’, where headlines and fonts use guile to pretend they are nothing more than normal editorial written by a credible hack. Google sponsored ads on search results, once sequestered in a light yellow box, then in an even paler backwash, now dominate the top of the page sans any background separator and just a miniscule icon that says ‘ad’ if you peer really closely.

Disruptive advertising on the other hand, does exactly what it says. It barges into your sunny Sunday morning and turns it into a pig’s breakfast – or an IMAX show, depending on your age and point of view.

This technique – employing expandable banners and ‘rich media’ that leaps across your screen with pop-up videos, music, and click-here discounts – often annoys and turns away readers who are keen to find a specific answer to a specific query, and quickly. Online surfers are not commonly readers in the Dostoyevsky sense who savour every weighty paragraph of Crime and Punishment or subtle turn of phrase. They have a peek, pick up a nugget or two, and move on. They are information seekers. They are impatient and in a hurry, the more so if they are browsing on a mobile device with a limited bandwidth package where time equals money.

An earlier study in Advertising Age examining US Internet users’ attitudes towards ads showed that 63 of the respondents ‘somewhat or strongly’ disliked ads on their mobile phones while just 18 percent were disagreeable when it came to magazines.

There is a huge difference between dawdling readers who might take in the sights, and information seekers with attention deficit, yet many advertisers fail to make a distinction. Instead, they have turned to what the industry likes to call, ‘creative disruption’ – a gentler and cleverer way to smack your teeth and make you alert to all the benefits of the advertised product.

Disruption emphasises clicks as this is what many advertisers prefer to pay for. It’s called PPC or ‘pay per click’. An interested reader who clips out a coupon in a magazine or clicks on a banner ad is certainly doing something useful from the advertiser’s point of view. But random clicks from web junkies and trigger-happy kids or from ‘click farms’ – that churn out fake engagement via bored housewives and students eager to earn a quick penny – is simply rubbish bloating any stats file. Fake clicks are big business.

Viewers have meanwhile turned to open source products like Adblock and Adblock Plus that will effectively turn off all ads (video advertisements too) on websites including YouTube and Facebook. And people are increasingly turning to such options if their own browser’s defence is not sufficiently diligent. Adblock Plus runs on Chrome (which already has excellent features like ‘incognito browsing’), Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Opera and Android.

Adblock Plus will disable tracking and do much more to ensure the reading experience is uninterrupted and private. There are 50 million Adblock Plus users. According to PageFair, “[Adblock] usage grew by nearly 70 percent between June 2013 and June 2014,” largely among younger surfers. As many as “41 percent of 18-29-year-olds” polled said they use Adblock, whose total reach is estimated at 144 million. Disconnect is another open source crusader with a free and paid premium version.

Privacy has become a key issue following the NSA spying leaks that showed even heads of state get snooped on. And this has led to the rise of new search engines like DuckDuckGo that do not track your private data or browsing habits

Privacy has become a key issue following the NSA spying leaks that showed even heads of state get snooped on. And this has led to the rise of new search engines like DuckDuckGo that do not track your private data or browsing habits. If you consider this simply quackery, try start page, which scans and borrows Google’s search results and passes them on to you, acting as a buffer middleman; or its parent company ixquick.

Rather than sending a strong signal to advertisers and ad agencies, ad blocking has pushed them into high gear, provoking a veritable onslaught of nuisance messaging. From the viewer’s point of view it’s a bit like searching for a rare book and finally arriving tired and sweaty at the library only to face a sudden interruption by a mariachi band, a herd of migrating wildebeest and a pirouetting circus elephant all at once. Disruption is a technique that grabs attention but it is an annoyance that also diminishes the advertised brand.

The assumption that consumers are used to interruption and will accept it as something normal or routine does not hold water. In a study that appeared in the American Communication Journal (Fall 2014), the authors pointed out, “As ‘rich media’ advertising, or ads that contain both audio and video elements increases, so too will the interruptions to information seeking and the level of user annoyance.”

I visited a hotel site recently. Later I noticed, unsurprisingly, that an ad for this hotel was following me around the Web. I hate stalkers. So I cleared my cookies and cache and history but, lo and behold, the ad was still there, like some irksome ingrown toenail reminding me at every turn of its devious existence. I decided to test its resolve and headed for a newspaper site. The ad was there. I visited an online travel agency and it was there. I searched for “nuisance ads that follow you” and the site I clicked into had the same ad, this time as a pair – top and side. I tried a porn site and it showed up again. Squeezed in between double D breasts it was perhaps just being ‘creatively disruptive’.

It’s quite possible the ads were served using a chain of ad retailers who were somehow compromised. More likely, the advertiser was trying to maximise reach without regulating quality.

Interestingly, during the early days of publishing in the 19th century, advertising and editorial lacked clear definition and ads packed most gazettes. The 1914 Great War and the second world war provided singular impetus for the return of editorial to newspaper front page dominance as white-knuckle readers clamoured for information. Editorial displaced advertising from magazine covers and newspaper front pages, which remained the prized possession of committed journalists – for a while.

In the American Journalism Review Donna Shaw, writes about the early days: “As ads and stories trickled in, they simply were dropped onto the page, starting with the first column. The newspapers generally were four pages; front and back were filled first. So the newest material went inside.”

“You didn't want the latest stuff on the back page or the front page – you wanted it on the inside where it wouldn't smear on people's clothes,” says Kevin Barnhurst, a professor in the department of communication at the University of Illinois.

Advertising works best when it adds to the information, or conversation, in a subtle, engaging manner. This way, contextual advertising gets consumed while the reader imbibes the editorial content. Humour always works. The brilliant US Super Bowl ads are always worthy of mention. Competitions enlist the help of smaller companies and individuals for this outpouring of crass, class and comedy as brands like Doritos and Budweiser vie to engage record numbers of sports fans.

There is no conflict as long as advertising – witty, informative, entertaining, or visual – is clearly seen to be what it is. Problems arise when ads end up being mutton dressed as lamb. Disruption is, in fact, killing regular advertising as readers switch off. What we need today is not creative disruption but creative advertising. Otherwise, please disconnect.me.


Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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