"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 May 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.






In an effort to capitalize on the

transient attention of Info Age

hummingbirds whose USA Today

intake consists only of Newsline

and USA Snapshots, the newspaper

recently announced its plans to

begin running advertisements

across the bottom edge of its

front page. Frankly, we fail

to see this as yet another

indicator of the collapse of

journalistic integrity. After

all, USA Today was created

mainly to give national

advertisers one-stop shopping in

the daily print realm; why

shouldn't it cut them in on its

page-one action? At the same

time, we couldn't help but do a

double take over the particulars

of the situation. Can it really

be that the increasingly

lucrative McPaper, crown jewel

in a publishing empire that

amasses more annual advertising

revenue than the entire Web, has

adopted that shopworn scapegoat

of Web hucksterism,

the banner ad?


And will Al Neuharth's imprimatur

burnish the banner ad's

lackluster image? Unfortunately,

probably not. Because despite

the remarkable growth rate of

online advertising - according

to the Internet Advertising

Bureau, total revenues for 1998

were US$1.92 billion, a 112

percent increase over the

previous year and, for the first

time, more than the amount spent

on outdoor advertising, such as

billboards, corporate graffiti,

sandwich-board people, strategic

litter, etc. - annual ad

revenues for newspapers and

magazines ($54 billion) and

broadcast and cable TV ($47

billion) continue to dwarf those

of the online realm. And

subsequently, the search for

some kind of magical online ad

revenue Viagra, capable of

invigorating limp CPMs,

eliminating unseemly ad

inventory buildup, and

overcoming the many shortcomings

of the banner ad, persists.



The shortcomings of banner ads

have been well-documented, of

course. To start with, they're

too small to attract much

attention, with the most common

iteration measuring in at a mere

468 by 60 pixels. Then there are

the aesthetic limitations:

without full-motion video,

sound, and comprehensive color

palettes, how can they expect to

compete against TV commercials

or even high-resolution print

ads? Finally, the one

proprietary virtue of banner ads

- their clickthrough capacity -

is becoming increasingly

irrelevant. Indeed, clickthrough

rates have dropped so low (0.5

percent as of November 1998,

according to NetRatings)

that we can't help but think

TV, with its abundance of

800-number ads and home shopping

channels, is the real clickthrough

medium of choice.


Because of the banner ad's many

limitations, online

entrepreneurs are continually

trying to improve upon the

format: superstitials,

customized cursor arrows, and

playmercials represent just a

few of their efforts thus far.

Neoluddites that we are,

however, we forthrightly

maintain that the banner has its

place in the advertising world;

it is, in fact, a highly

effective communications device

that is perfectly suited not

just to the Web but to the

entire contemporary mediascape.



One of its virtues, as a recent

Salon piece suggests, is its

overtness. Unlike product

placement, paid links,

playmercials, customized

cursors, and even sponsorship, a

banner ad doesn't mix

advertising and content. Of

course, given the fact that we,

as self-appointed media

dialyzers, actually consider

such ad-cult chicanery a form of

job security, we're more partial

to other aspects of the banner.

One aspect is the banner's

conservation of traditional Web

values such as linkability and

interconnectedness: Once decried

as a destructive force that

would ruin the fundamental

character of the Web, today

banner ads are often the most

prevalent form of off-site

linkage that many sites feature.


And while lazy ad agency types

decry the severe aesthetic

restraints that banner ads

impose, we think such restraints

are beneficial to advertisers.

Instead of resorting to

dubiously effective "image

campaigns," wherein art

directors and copywriters resort

to flashy technique and

aesthetic opulence to cover

their ignorance of what makes a

particular product valuable to

its target market, banner ads

employ good old-fashioned

salesmanship. Simply put, they

tell you what the product does

and what it will do for you.

This is especially true of

animated banner ads, which,

because of their staccato

nature, practically demand a

step-based approach: If you are

sad or frustrated, try our

product. Then you will be happy!

We know we've championed the ad

as art and the ad as

entertainment, but when all is

said and done, the ad as sales

device still holds the dearest

place in our hearts. While

billboards and print are too

static to effectively

demonstrate the causation that

makes for a convincing sales

pitch, and TV commercials are

too susceptible to visual

overkill, the banner ad is the

perfect vehicle for the sort of

no-nonsense, reason-why approach

upon which the advertising

industry was founded.



As persuasive as banner ads can

be, they're also pleasingly

simple. Unlike the latest

hyper-accelerated, TV-commercial

mini-epic, you don't have to

give your complete attention to

an effective banner ad to follow

it; in fact, you can often

absorb its message without

paying any attention to it at

all, especially if it keeps

endlessly replaying itself.

While people often object to

advertising, especially here on

the Web, aren't they really

protesting inefficiency more

than commercialism?

Interstitials will never be

popular, even when bandwidth

improves, because they fail to

accommodate multitasking.

Banners, however, are

well-suited to multitasking: At

the same time you're misreading

this essay, you're also no

doubt partially absorbing

the sales messages from our

beloved sponsors.


Because of the unobtrusive,

efficient nature of banners,

we're ultimately quite bullish

on their future, no matter how

many better-mousetrap builders

hope to make them obsolete. For

example, imagine how much the

National Enquirer, the Weekly World

News, and all those other

extremely visible, checkout-line

tabloids could charge for

cover-page banners. And if

ReplayTV actually does catch on,

what better way to thwart

viewers who fast-forward through

traditional TV commercials than

with banner ads that run across

the bottom of their favorite

shows? In the end, we imagine,

all it will take to get things

rolling is one highly successful

banner-only media entity. And

with a USA Today, front-page IPO

undoubtedly in the offing (its

all-but-guaranteed, first-year

revenues of $5.2 million compare

quite favorably to those of

some other recent IPO hopefuls),

can a full-blown banner

renaissance be far behind?

courtesy of St. Huck


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