Making a Good First Impression

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message,” in the 1960s. In the early ’90s, Todd Rundgren countered with, “It’s the content, stupid!” describing CD-ROM development. Now, in the ’00s, it appears online advertising may be straddling medium and content.

Advertising has never been entirely content-centric. Ads are designed to inspire ideals and emotions. “Buy this and you will feel better about yourself!” is the underlying message of much of what is advertised. By using cool special effects, musical backgrounds, and multiple camera angles, products can appear more exciting or valuable (a point my son raises when he realizes children playing with toys on TV spots are having more fun than he ever did).

The point of advertising is not to be fair. The point of advertising is to promote a single perspective (the advertiser’s) in hope that the consumer will accept it.

The message doesn’t always connect. Some advertising, in attempting to nestle into the cracks of our psyches, instead triggers a negative reaction. The result can be an antiadvertiser backlash, in which the consumer decides she would rather be dragged through the streets by an angry mob than buy a product from the advertiser who runs such a stupid, offensive, insipid (insert proper adjective here) ad.

The landscape of the online world has changed from the barren landscape it once was. The average Web user is more sophisticated and has a higher comfort level with the medium than before. Experience has initiated a willingness to be critical. Many online advertisers still use in-your-face guerrilla tactics. I suspect this method is having adverse effects.

We are the great unwashed masses advertisers are trying to reach. There may be a few dolts in our group, but most of us look in the mirror and see a sharp, savvy consumer who isn’t willing to be suckered. Our guard is up. Anything that appears sleazy, inappropriate, or condescending is immediately rejected.

For Web advertisers, this means a need to rethink their approach. “If this ad is flashing, it means you’re a winner!” insults my intelligence. The ad flashes for everybody. A child of six knows that. Does this ad only target complete idiots?

What about ads that trick users into clicking on them? This format has all the appeal of a leg-hold trap. A user who clicks on one of these land mines doesn’t chuckle and say, “Golly, you sure fooled me! Oh well, while I’m here, I’ll take a look at what you’re selling.” He clicks on the browser’s “Back” button so fast, it can’t be measured with current technology. The advertiser’s result may be an impression. That and $3.00 buys you a small coffee at Starbucks. The real result may be antibranding. A wiser consumer may remember the brand to avoid it in the future. I have no use for advertisers who can’t show respect.

I caution against overexposure. I don’t personally have any need or desire for a miniature video camera that allows me to spy on the babysitter, the neighbors, the dog, or the neighbor’s dog, but some people may. I also suspect there isn’t a Web user in North America who hasn’t closed too many unwanted windows for too many unwanted cameras. At what point does advertising stop becoming informative and start becoming annoying? Faster than many advertisers realize.

Bottom line for advertisers: The consumer is only interested in one thing when viewing an ad: “What can this do — or what does this mean — for me?” If the answer is unclear, the transaction is over. If the offer is sleazy or condescending, it’s over. If the offer appears too often or is too irritating, that transaction and maybe future transactions are over, too.

It boils down to a simple formula. Advertisers need exposure. The Web can offer an avenue to get that exposure. Consumers want information that can make a difference to them. They may not immediately jump on an offer, but long-term branding can work. Odds are overwhelming that they won’t click on an ad unless it really calls to them. Being tricked into clicking on an ad doesn’t count. Being taken advantage of doesn’t count. Being talked down to doesn’t count, and being slammed repeatedly with the same ad doesn’t count.

The medium is no longer the message as far as the Web is concerned. Content is. More important for advertisers, it’s about what the great unwashed masses think about you and your products and services after they’ve been subjected to your messages.

A good first impression may crack open the door. A bad one will lock you out.

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