Advertising That Giveth and Advertising That Taketh Away

No matter what jargon you use, there are really two kinds of advertising: advertising that adds value for the consumer, and advertising that takes it away. We’re smack-dab in the middle of the rise of value-add advertising and the inevitable decline of value-sucking ad models.

What’s the difference? Value-ad advertising provides something in return for attention. That something could be a lead on a product or service that solves a problem for the consumer (such as search advertising). It might be an entertaining experience, a smile, a “Wow!” moment that makes someone’s life a little bit brighter or more fun. Value-add advertising inserts itself into the attention stream without ruining the experience its embedded in and provides something in return for paying attention to it.

Negative-value ads are intrusive. They get in the way of the experience, whether that experience is watching a TV show, driving in the country, reading an article on the Web. Negative-value advertising commands attention, demanding we stop what we’re doing and heed it or breaking the stream of the activity we were engaged in before it got in our way. We may notice it, but it certainly doesn’t make life any better.

This distinction isn’t new. There have always been value-ad ads that consumers have readily sought out and turned to repeatedly. Witness the old Yellow Pages we all relied on before the Web. There have also always been negative-value ads that make our experience worse: checkered-suit-wearing mattress salesmen assaulting us from TV, billboards breaking up the countryside, pop-up ads that get in the way when we’re surfing the Web. Oh, and spam, the epitome of value-sucking advertising that not only irritates but also costs time and money (and lots of it; check out this site). For the better part of the 20th and early 21st centuries, most advertising has been the sort that depletes rather than adds value.

Why? We’ve come to equate attention and recognition with successful advertising. Sure, many TV commercials are annoying, but people remember them, right? And that nifty rich media unit that takes over the screen and sends bugs crawling all over the articles sure gets a lot of play on those ad industry sites and blogs. And the client’s really impressed.

Well, yeah. Soon, though, the novelty wears off and we all update our pop-up blockers to keep that stuff at bay. We may remember the screaming clown in the checkered suit, but it’s not like we’d feel good about buying a mattress from him. And that spam may have made us think our (insert appropriate body part here) is too small, but I seriously doubt that even if we gave in to our insecurities and bought the stuff, we’d become lifelong customers.

One of the most promising recent developments has been the meteoric rise in value-add advertising. The most obvious component of this category is search advertising.

Over the past few years, search marketing has grown to a nearly $6 billion industry. That figure shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been planning online campaigns; search marketing just makes sense. It’s targeted, it inserts itself into the buying-decision process, and consumers actually seem to welcome it. They should. Most paid search ads add value by making it easier for consumers to find what they’re looking for.

But that’s just the most obvious example. What about ad-funded applications, computer programs with paid links embedded in them? According to this, Google pays Mozilla $45 million quarterly for the privilege of being the first search engine displayed in Firefox’s search field. That ain’t chicken feed.

It makes sense, though. Every one of Firefox’s millions of users probably uses Google dozens of times a day simply because its easy to use. Other browser extensions (like Skype’s Firefox extension and Picasa’s iPhoto plug-in) drive traffic to their services, far more than they would if they were just ads.

This value-add phenomenon needn’t be limited to the Web, either. Look at a list of the most-replayed ads on TiVo. They all have one thing in common: they’re usually pretty entertaining. Entertainment adds value to consumers’ lives.

Here’s a final example that illustrates the difference between negative-value and value-add advertising. Companies like Massive have gotten a lot of press recently for their systems that insert ads into video games. Unfortunately, some recent research has indicated that while cool, these ads may not be effective when it comes to consumer engagement.

But I don’t believe it. Maybe billboards sprinkled throughout a game don’t engage viewers (they’re too busy trying not to get killed!). But a recent in-game ad from Axe has gotten a lot of notice in the gaming world because it doesn’t just try to insert itself between the gamer and the experience. Instead, it hides out and reveals its value (a funny blooper clip) when a user interacts with it.

There are more examples, but you know what they are. And there will be lots more in the future. As consumers gain more control over media through mouse, remote, and PVR programming guide, negative-value ads will have more difficulty getting the message across. They’ll eventually fade away in all but the most irritating and aggressive circumstances; spam will never die.

Count on seeing more Value-add ads. They always add value.

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