Chasing the White Rabbit

Last week was memorable for me. I actually heeded a suggestion to take more than just a wraparound vacation. You know, the type of break we all take nowadays, fitting a Friday and Monday around a weekend or holiday and considering it a meaningful getaway. Nope, not this time. I was convinced to take a solid 10 days off. Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t fit in a little online research.

What to do with all that time? Planning began six weeks ago with a stop at to plan a “Drive Across Texas.” Being a proud Lone Star State resident (specifically the Dallas/Fort Worth area), I had to admit I was a little ignorant of destinations south of the Trinity River. After a few clicks, I had a great itinerary that included stops in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Galveston.

We had the chance to visit with friends and family. When someone opted to use the Internet, I spent time observing, “over the shoulder,” how regular users interact with online advertising. What I saw disturbed me. Specifically, it was the type of online advertising messages that caused concern — a lot of what I call “badvertising.” And folks, there’s a lot of it out there. I’m not one to draw a line on creativity, but a lot of marketers go beyond reason to create confusion. As with spam, if we don’t work together as an industry to stop it now, someone else will regulate it for us.

I’ll first take issue with ads disguised as system prompts. These come in various flavors, including “Boost your Internet connection speed,” “Delete unwanted files,” and “Warning! Upgrade your software before your virus protection expires.” This tactic is intentionally confusing and deceitful. The end user thinks she must act to protect her system.

The second type is circuitous pop-ups. I admit pop-ups totally annoy me. I rarely find them appropriate or effective for clients, but on occasion I come across a contextually relevant one. (I can live with one, but frequency- and session-cap them, please!) But when you close one pop-up and another five appear, the user ends up wasting time hunting down and closing all the extra windows to find the window he’s currently using. All this over dial-up! Can anyone produce a case study proving being the advertiser in the third, fourth, or fifth pop-up window generated a good return on investment (ROI)? Bet I could show a negative brand favorability rating every time.

The third outrage is a growing trend of classic bait-and-switch ads. An example is an ad that states, “Find that old friend you’ve been missing.” Click and you end up at a Russian mail-order bride site. I know most publishers have stated policies against accepting these types of ads, but dollars must be outweighing the rules.

At this point, you may be asking why this column is entitled “Chasing the White Rabbit.” Glad you asked. While in Galveston, we took the advice of a cousin and visited the Gulf Greyhound Park to watch the “dawgs” race. If you ever get the chance to go, it’s an amazing site, seeing these sleek animals speed around the track. To motivate the greyhounds, a mechanical white rabbit is pulled along a rail just far enough ahead of the pack to keep the dogs motivated to fly to the finish line.

As an online marketer, I’m starting to feel like one of those dogs. No matter how hard we train, prepare, and run a clean race, it seems we’ll never catch the guys who get away with painting illusions or using tricks to motivate customers to act.

Sure, spam and telemarketing are big consumer topics these days. Witness the 8 million folks who signed up for the national “do not call” list last week. It’s time the online advertising industry worked to weed out our issues as well.

What annoys you most as a marketer? How would you propose we control the tricksters? Let me know. We’ll post your views and recommendations.

Meet James at the Jupiter ClickZ Advertising Forum in New York City on July 30 and 31.

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