Last week, I logged onto 60 Minutes’ Web site to watch Barack Obama’s first post-election interview. About 20 minutes into the show, the screen faded to a commercial: A middle-aged man is digging through his attic when he comes across a box marked “wedding stuff.” A mischievous smile crosses his face, and next thing you know he’s decked out in his old powder-blue tuxedo, skipping downstairs to present his still-dishy wife with a bouquet of roses. Yes, this was an ad for Viagra. For the next 45 seconds, the couple danced around their house while an announcer warned of the dangers of drug interactions and four-hour erections. While they engaged in safe-for-work foreplay, I switched over to my e-mail.
Eventually, Steve Kroft returned with 15 more minutes of the Obama interview. Then another commercial: A middle-aged man is digging through his attic when he comes across a box marked “wedding stuff.” Mischievous smile, powder-blue tux, roses, dancing, four-hour erection. By now I’d committed some of the ad’s signature lines to memory, making a mental note to ask my doctor whether my heart is healthy enough for sex. Finally, 60 Minutes returned. A few closing thoughts from Obama and then, just before Andy Rooney, one more ad break. Mischievous smile, powder-blue tux, roses, dancing, four-hour erection.
At this point, I hated everything about priapic blue-tux guy. I hated his self-satisfied grin as he struck an Elvis pose for his wife, I hated that she couldn’t see him for the sex fiend he obviously was (why had he taken the blue pill if he’d only been planning on cleaning the attic?), and I hated that he’d helped lodge a stupid erectile-dysfunction jingle in my brain (“Vi-vaaaaaa Vi-agra!”). Most of all, though, I hated Pfizer’s sales tactics. Why did the company believe that I was a ripe candidate for Viagra? And worse, why did it think that the best way to sell me the drug was to repeat the same ad three times, as if my real problem weren’t erectile dysfunction but, rather, some kind of cognitive deficit that prevented me from understanding its message the first time. By the time the announcer told me for the third time that old couples “have a groovy thing goin’ on,” I’d had enough. Next time I get aroused while cleaning the attic, I’ll reach for Cialis.
Pfizer and 60 Minutes aren’t alone in this ad-repetition business. More than a year ago, I canceled my cable subscription, figuring I could get all the TV I needed through Netflix and the Web. This has worked out well enough: These days, you can find just about every prime-time show on Hulu or one of the networks’ Web sites. There’s only one problem: The ads are driving me crazy. Sure, I’m thrilled that there are fewer ads on the Web than on television, where every hourlong program is padded with about16 minutes of commercials. On the Web, I’m served only two or three minutes of ads per show, but those few minutes are often excruciating. Online video ads are repetitive, banal, completely unsuited to the speed and tone of the Web, and—for a medium rich with personalization—often clueless about my interests and tastes. The ads haven’t made me turn away from Web video, but they do frequently sour me on the products and services being advertised.
The first problem is variety. Advertisers like to buy up a whole show’s worth of commercials (as Pfizer did with 60 Minutes), but many times they don’t produce enough different spots to fill up the block. This is partly for budgetary reasons. The Web is a new medium, and for many advertisers it’s an afterthought to TV. The ads that companies put up on the Web are bastardizations—longer or shorter versions of 30-second spots first created for the tube.
For instance, consider Research in Motion. The manufacturer of the BlackBerry is a huge online advertiser, but the company has produced only a handful of Web ads. In each one, various unobjectionable pictures and logos depicting suburban life—kids playing ball, dogs running, happy people on vacation—all meld together to form a BlackBerry phone. What the announcer says next should not really offend anyone; rendered in print, the words look innocent: “Connect to everything you love in life with BlackBerry.” But trust me. Hear that phrase three or four dozen times and it begins to take on an air of menace. You become attuned to the precise, demonic intonation in the voice-over. Am I paranoid to think that the announcer is laughing at me—is she having a good time taunting me with the same nearly meaningless phrase over and over and over again? I think I’ve seen this ad roughly 17,000 times; it ran relentlessly in an episode of The Office I recently watched on Hulu. It does not endear BlackBerry to me.
Some of this repetition is by design. Anthony Soohoo, CBS Interactive’s senior vice president for entertainment, told me that advertisers choose to air the same ad many times during Web shows in an effort to boost effectiveness. This logic sounds like a holdover from the past: On TV, where any given spot is squeezed in among other ads for different companies, repeating a message may help break through the noise. But on the Web you rarely see two different ads side by side—there’s often just one commercial per break. When an ad stands alone, everything about it becomes more noticeable. And if the ad sucks, having it stand out isn’t a good thing. I’m sure I’ve seen commercials for Totino’s Pizza Rolls on TV and never scrutinized them closely. But it took just two Web viewings for me to recognize that “The pizza way to snack!” is perhaps the laziest ad copy ever written.
The shame about all this is that the Web should allow for much more creativity than TV. The Internet lets advertisers track a viewer like me over time, noting which programs and ads I watch and which I ignore—technology that, in theory, should let companies show me ads tailored to my general tastes. Advertisers can also break with TV conventions. Instead of running three minute-long Viagra ads during 60 Minutes, Pfizer could have aired six 30-second spots in sequence, perhaps telling a story—of desire, loss, sadness, epiphany, and finally rejuvenation—over the course of the commercial breaks. If done well, this conceit would keep people watching; for Viagra, especially, advertising on the Web might be liberating, allowing for messages that are more suggestive and risqué than Pfizer could ever get away with on TV. And such creativity doesn’t come at a steep price. Audiences on the Web are used to low-fi video, found footage, and allusions to other stuff online. Corporations might take a page from the Obama campaign, which ran many cheaply produced Web ads that featured viral videos, old movies, man-on-the-street interviews shot by hand-held cameras, and sincere testimonials from real people. This last method could be especially fruitful; the best Web videos (think Numa Numa, the Star Wars kid, the laughing baby, or Evolution of Dance) are those that seem authentically surprising. Imagine a Viagra ad featuring real men talking about how Viagra has changed their lives—wouldn’t that get your attention over blue-tux guy?
In addition to Obama’s videos, I’d recommend that anyone looking to produce ads for the Web consult the Onion’s video site. The satirical newspaper does two things well with the ads it runs alongside its hilarious videos. First, it puts the ad in the right place—they run after, rather than before, the Onion’s own content. Because the ad isn’t standing in the way of your video, it doesn’t annoy you as much—which is not only good for you, but good for the advertiser, too. The Onion can afford to do this because the ads it runs are pretty good—many reflect the Onion’s sense of humor, and are almost as entertaining as the videos themselves. This approach reflects how the Web works: It’s not important how many people see your ad, but how many people like your ad. If people respond positively to what you’re shilling, they’ll talk about the ad and pass it around; if people hate it, they’ll click away—or, worse, decide never to buy your wares. On the Web, there’s always something better to do than watch an ad.
Fortunately, a few others in the online video business are starting to figure this out. J.P. Colaco, Hulu’s senior vice president of advertising, told me that his company’s main goal is usability—the future of TV on the Web, he says, is fewer ads per show, with each advertiser paying high rates in order to target a compatible audience. Hulu is working with advertisers to reduce repetition; the company even has an in-house creative department to help advertisers come up with more Web-savvy ads, including ads that tell a story over a series of commercial breaks. Hulu is also developing algorithms to run ads that are tailored to your taste. As of now, each ad on Hulu features thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons. The buttons don’t do much now, but, in time, they will. If I click thumbs-down on every car ad, Hulu will realize I’m not interested in cars—and I’m not interested in that damned blue-tux guy, either.