Display Ads: the New Subliminal Advertising

April 26, 2015

In the days of Ye Olde Marketing there was a belief in “subliminal advertising” — the idea that TV commercials would be spliced with fleeting images, usually sexual, to overpower your psyche and make you buy something you didn’t need.


Although the science behind subliminal stimuli is interesting, it’s never really been used in advertising and we have no examples of it ever working.  Most of the urban legend is based on a 1957 movie theater experiment that never actually happened.


Comedian Steven Wright sent this up with one of his 1980s one-liners:  “I saw a Subliminal Advertising executive….but only for a second.


Online Display is the New Subliminal Advertising


This all came to mind when reading the Internet Advertising Bureau’s latest viewability standards:  “Desktop display ads to be considered viewable if 50% of their pixels are in view for a minimum of one second.”


This is Subliminal Advertising
if you see less than 50% of it
for less than a second.


50% of the ad for just one second.  We used to call that subliminal advertising.


In a not very subliminal display of honesty, the IAB press release on this topic is headlined “100% Viewability Measurement Is Not Yet Possible”.


Advertisers know this, as Kraft says it rejects 75-85% of online ad impressions and Google says 56% of online impressions actually aren’t seen.


It’s Like We Never Noticed This Before


How did we get to this point?


The Internet didn’t used to allow advertising at all, banning it until 1991.  The first form of advertising was actually email — yes, direct mail — which as we all know spawned spam.  The first clickable display ad came in 1993, and in 1994 Wired started selling banner ads to clients like AT&T, with a click-through rate of 44% (no, that’s not a typo, and we should point out that the click bait was an online tour of seven of the world’s most acclaimed art museums).


These initial approaches revealed a direct-response mindset, and unrealistic expectations as to how perfectly measurable advertising would be on the Internet.  Not quite!  As click-through rates have dropped to infinitesimal numbers, online display has gone from marketing’s Holy Grail to just billboards posted on the Information Superhighway.  Today’s tools don’t consistently measure page takeovers, road blocks and other customized placements.  As IAB president Randall Rothenberg said, “Different ad units, browsers, ad placements, vendors and measurement methodologies yield wildly different viewability numbers.”  If you were expecting an accounting exercise that neatly reconciled everything, we don’t have one.


The goal is “100% viewability” and at some point we’ll get there.  In the meantime there will be some tough discussions among advertisers, agencies, media and researchers.


Meanwhile, the irony is that an urban legend from 1957 is reality in 2015.

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