Cleaning up digital ad pollution

“That has to be the dumbest ad I’ve ever seen,” exclaimed my wife. Our regular viewing of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu was (once again) interrupted by an ad whose inanity was surpassed only by its ugliness. As a researcher with one foot still in the advertising world I signed us up for an ad-supported account, but I was beginning to question my judgement. Just as we had become immersed in the drama’s rich visuals and provocative themes, we were torn from our contemplation by ads that were garish and glib to the point of condescension. At the end of each commercial break we braced ourselves for a repetition of the cycle, cautiously slipping into Atwood’s captivating world, knowing we would soon be wrenched away.

The devolution of ads from captivating to consternating

In the early 20th century ads aspired to beauty; it’s no wonder that many now frame and hang them as decorative pieces. Copy was often limited, with a greater emphasis placed on the aesthetic qualities of each work. Brilliant colors met scenes both fantastical and domestic to invoke a sense of adventure or the hearth’s warmth. Ads like these arrest the viewers’ gaze, drawing them into a world of fulfillment that is just within reach (if only you would buy the right product). Their goal is to enrich and inspire, not hammer an impression into the audience.

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Today ads are inescapable, as digital media pervades even our most intimate spaces, but their ubiquity has seemingly failed to impress upon many advertisers and their agencies the need to create ads that enhance the viewer’s experience. Instead, digital ads are often incongruous at best, and at worst undermine the quality of the entertainment they accompany. Ad agencies have a clear duty to their clients, but one would think they’d be attentive to their audiences as well; ugly ads don’t win over consumers.

Clients and audiences can agree: beautiful ads are better

Superficially, agencies should avoid disrupting the audience’s enjoyment, be it on a beautiful beach or in the comfort of their home. It is best, though, to aim higher: to craft and display ads that contribute positively to the media landscape. While they are obligated to present their clients’ brands and products in a manner appealing to consumers, it is to the public’s benefit (and their own) to do so in a way that augments their audience’s digital media experience. 

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How then, do advertisers balance their duty to clients with the needs of their audience? Here we can learn much from behavioral science and, as always, the answer begins with stories. It seems worthwhile, though, to also approach this question in terms of beauty. As my old boss and ad legend Frank Lowe used to say, advertisers have a duty to add beauty to the world, not make it uglier. The good news is that beauty isn’t just good for audiences, it’s also good for ads.

There are two clear aspects to advertisers’ relationship with the public: content and delivery. The messages themselves and the form they take are fundamental, but an ad’s reception is always contingent on its placement. We’ve all seen ads that seemed a bit out of place (beach umbrellas emblazoned with corporate logos being the example par excellence). In the Internet Age, this is all the more important, as ads follow audiences wherever they may go. 

First impressions last a lifetime

We all know how important impressions are, but this common wisdom is now supported by behavioral science. Research shows that “users make lasting judgments about a website’s appeal within a split second of seeing it for the first time.” Beautifully crafted interfaces, or digital content, are not only enjoyable to experience; they also impart to the audience the creators’ attention to detail, inspiring trust. These initial impressions last, informing the audience’s opinion of the media and brand’s reliability and usefulness long after the first exposure.

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Steve Jobs was a pioneer in interface aesthetics, but he was by no means the first to recognize beauty’s potential for seduction, or the last. Even today, carefully crafted photos of food and airbrushed models show that advertisers recognize the importance of beauty—of one kind or another. Why, then, are so many ads still ugly? As with stories, beauty is driven by context: continuity through each plot point (or between an ad and its environment) is essential to maintaining audience engagement. Even a stunning ad can be ugly in the wrong setting.

In a previous article, I discussed the importance of digital context. Audiences are more receptive to properly contextualized ads and understand them more easily, while brand messaging can piggyback on the psychological state cultivated by the surrounding content. Returning to “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” the garish ads stood in shocking contrast to the show’s tasteful tones, disrupting our experience. Their forced enthusiasm was equally grating in its conflict with the program’s somber intensity; you can imagine how open we were to their message.

Beauty elevates the mind and opens the heart

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That beauty and advertising are inextricably intertwined is perhaps clear, but what exactly is beauty? According to Merriam-Webster, beauty is “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” This last point is critical: as with stories, the object of beauty is to elevate. Beautiful ads, through their form and placement, lend their message additional credibility and appeal by bringing the audience to a higher state of emotional and psychological being (and openness).

This need not be classical beauty, in the style of Parisian art nouveau or a slick YouTube spot. That which gives pleasure in one context may fall flat or discordant in another. It is essential that advertisers begin by considering their audience’s objective in consuming a piece of media or accessing a website. My wife and I enjoy the aesthetic and intellectual pleasures of “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” but an ad that reflected those values would be overbearing in a more casual or lighthearted context. In other words, it would drag us back to earth. 

Ads, like art, aim to transport the audience from the mundane to a world of possibility. Just as public art can brighten a drab urban landscape, ads ought to accentuate our everyday lives, opening a window for us to look beyond the quotidian. In doing so, ads prime their audience to indulge the fantasy that unfolds before them, be it enjoying a candy bar or the security of insurance. Many ads today seek to trade in escapism, but truly powerful creative emboldens its audience to imagine a better world instead of fleeing to a different one.

Great ads sell dreams, not just products

Advertising is here to stay, and good agencies will continue to strive for better digital creative and more impactful placement. Their responsibility to clients is vital, but so is their duty to their audience. As dealers of desire, advertisers must take note of how their work enriches their audience’s daily life, not simply whether an ad drives conversion. According to Keats, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” With almost ubiquitous access to consumers, ad agencies have an opportunity to make a lasting, and positive impression. Besides, it’s just good business.

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