Keep Bad TV Ad Practices off the Web

I wasn’t even born when the U.S. television industry standardized ad placements to :15 increments. And for most of my life, I never even questioned the endless stream of mostly :30 and :60 spots that filled my brain and the airwaves between programming.

Growing up, I was as neutral as one could be on the subject of interruptive TV advertising; for the most part, I considered a commercial break a good time to read a magazine, get a snack, or — like others — flip around to see what else was on. It was all a part of the TV watching experience.

But then, TiVo happened.

The funny thing about TiVo: I don’t even have to own a box to have it affect my TV watching experience. Just knowing it exists now is enough to make me squirm during commercial breaks.

What does this have to do with the Internet and online video advertising? Everything.

In the end, it comes down to people either watching or not watching your content, and history’s our best indicator.

New media can definitely learn some lessons from old media. Let’s look at two obvious ones.


Television makes it easy for people to ignore commercials. Advertising placements are like clockwork. They practically point me to my magazine or refrigerator and say: “This is the time you can choose to ignore.”

The moment we standardize online video ad placements is the moment we tell people how and when they can ignore our content.

For example, let’s look at the pre-roll Internet video ad. Even at its shortest length of :15, the pre-roll ad unit has become the most disruptive format of all time.

At its worst, the TV commercial break designates about 30 percent of airtime programming. But with pre-roll on the Web, this proportion has gone as high as 66 percent. That’s a :30 commercial for 15 seconds of Web programming!

If that :30 spot wasn’t working for television, a digitized, smaller-sized, lower resolution, more disruptive version won’t work on the Web — whether it falls before, during, after, or on top of Internet content.


It was only a matter of time before TiVo came along. When the television industry finds a way to combat the fast-forwarding effect, another broadcast technological advancement will emerge to make a counter-attack.

Remember: in the open-source spirit of the online world, technology is king. Case in point: TubeStop and YouTube.

In October, Google formally announced its standardized video unit overlay offering.

Two months before that, Chris Finke, a software developer, blogged about an extension, dubbed TubeStop, for the Firefox browser to stop YouTube videos from auto-playing. TubeStop, he wrote, “has the serendipitous side-effect of removing ads from YouTube videos.”

I never got the chance to experience the disruptive YouTube overlay. Thankfully, I already have the option never to lay my eyes on one.

Then, there’s AdBlock Plus, an open source plug-in for Firefox’s Web browser and the TiVo of the Web.

Wladimir Palant, a German programmer and a longtime contributor to Firefox, created that little piece of code, and got quite a beating from the media industry. What was his response to the uproar?

In a blog post, Palant wrote, “There is only one reliable way to make sure your ads aren’t blocked — make sure the users don’t want to block them. Don’t forget about the users. Use ads in a way that doesn’t degrade their experience.”

As a creator and producer of online video ad content myself, I agree with Palant. Truth is, the arguments experts pose around the need for standardized ad units are understandable.

There must be a way to monetize content, but at what price? At the expense of the same users we want to appeal to?

The online world has inherited some pretty bad habits from television. While new media is looking for ways to standardize video ad units online, old media tries to abolish the standards they created 50 years ago.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait 50 years to learn from our mistakes.

What’s the Solution?

There must be an open and continuous dialogue happening between agencies, content developers, distributors, and brands. To redefine the monetization model, we first need to redefine what advertising is in the new media landscape. Not just use old media ideologies.

Next time, I’ll explore one solution that the TV industry repeatedly turns to — one that could solve the standardization and technological dilemmas of online advertising. It’s called brand content.

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