The Truth About Display Advertising (And Why Consumers Hate It)

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Call it banner advertising or call it display advertising, if you look at the data: consumers are just not that into it.

In the past, I’ve waxed poetic about how display advertising as a marketing engine is failing online consumers while padding the wallets of publishers (more on that here: The Web Has Failed Advertising and here: Banner Advertising Is But One Small Component Of Digital Marketing). There is no one specific reason why it’s such a mess that underperforms. It has to do with everything from the technology and delivery of the creative to the actual creative itself. While publishers will extol the magnificent response rates that full-page take-over ads get or the ones with video in them, the majority of consumers find them distracting and annoying (I often wonder how much of the advertising results culled from these campaigns are real consumers engaging vs. real consumers trying to figure out how to make it go away/stop).

But, there is something more going on here.

At a recent conference, one of the keynote speakers (I wish I could remember which conference and which speaker, but I can’t!) said that display advertising is struggling because if you have four ads (or more) running on a TV show, the likelihood that someone will sit through all four in consecutive order is very unlikely (and we’re discounting those who skip television commercials in their entirety because they have a PVR), and a Web page is a similar experience. At first strike, this made sense to me: how many messages is one consumer going to sit through? But then I realized that display advertising is in a way worse position because the advertising doesn’t happen in consecutive order… it happens all at once.

Test this out:

Go to the website for your local newspaper. How many display ads, banners, buttons, text links, etc… do you see that are ads? Mine has over 15. That’s not in consecutive order… that’s all at once. It’s hard enough to get consumers to sit through four TV ads in a row, so what did you expect to have happen when you blast them with 15 ads on one page, all at once? Foregoing the aesthetics and the basic Marketing lesson that an ad will experience diminishing returns based on how cluttered the environment that it’s placed in is, does anyone really believe that this is the best way to advertise to consumer’s in the digital spaces?

Think about screens. Think about experiences.

Obviously, not all display advertising fails. There are many creative examples of brands that have broken passed the dismal results that display advertising has delivered over its short lifespan. This Blog post is in no way calling for the death to the banner ad (that would just be more clutter on top of a topic covered all too often). The digital experience now transcends a website on a basic computer screen. Digital is now mobile. Digital is now touch. Online experiences have to work across these different platforms, and the advertising is going to have to own up to this. Cramming a box and call to action into every available digital white space is not going to cut it, and neither is having a handful of messages blinking consumer’s attention away from the reason why they’re on the site in the first place (the content). It’s complex and it’s messy, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Clean it up!

We don’t expect consumers to sit through 15 advertisements running at the same time on their televisions, so how is this acceptable in these new media channels?


  1. Display advertising is, very simply, a nuisance for a consumer. The way it’s done, anyway.
    I think that, more than anything, the advertisements need to be more targeted and (as you said) cleaner. That undoubtedly makes things more difficult—how many things relate to your product?—but, it would bring more success.
    There needs to be more creativity in this arena.

  2. Thanks Mitch for another concise, & interesting post.
    I’m a long time reader who’s just never reached out to comment, but this reminded me of Seth Godin’s April 1st (fools) post this year… ‘Introducing White Space Links’ and it made me smile. It’s the ultimate ‘Clean Up’!
    Display advertising is in such a creative drought unfortunately. I’d love to see more display work function as cross platform, storytelling bits- instead of continuing to live only in the traditional, broadcast media mindset.

  3. Wow! Mitch, I had this exact same conversation with someone at the IAB today about the difference in advertising on mobile compared to online. Mobile advertising seems to provide a higher CTR and engagement but my exact argument was the screen size and how it affects users when they have to deal with multiple ads compared to just one or two on mobile. Didn’t even think about TV!

  4. If tablets are the mobile medium of the future, with touch equivalent to the act of turning to 20 magazine or tabloid newspaper pages, 4 to 7 display ads (highly creative or with lifestyle meaning) will fit on a page and be effective. But I agree with Mitch that soon no one at least in Western languages will want to pay attention to 15 calls for action on a single tablet page. That rule may not apply however for pages in northeast Asian characters where the line between text-based and image ads is blurred. Our experience shows Japanese, Chinese and Koreans do not mind and come to expect 20 to 25 banner ads even on a home or landing page.

  5. What is effective? I think 4-7 display ads on 1 tablet device screen is still far from effective.. It might be a little improvement, but it wont be much. People expect to easily find what they are looking for and other relevant content/interaction. That’s why the search ads on Google perform on reasonable level. It’s all about bringing individual relevancy (also in timing and placement) and creativity (something cool people want to share) together.

  6. Certainly in my case, on an iPad, the 5-10 clicks a week are accidental virtually all the time. The ads are often down the right side where I naturally scroll the page and when my finger slightly wanders from the edge a very short lived experience with a brand ensues. As more consumers switch to a mobile web experience click through rates may rise because of these mistakes but surely so will bounce rates.

  7. Excellent points Mitch,
    What I’m most surprised about is how organizations are still funneling their advertising dollars into these methods.
    There really needs to be more thought and creativity put into the quality of the experience.
    The hole space seems to be out dated, and needs more results drivin strategies.

  8. Agree with Adam in regard to relevancy. Ideally, text-based and display ads should all be contextual: School ads on pages related to education, tourism destination ads on geo-specific content, etc. The old analogy would be of newspaper or magazine ads being most effective when placed on or next to a relevant content page. Web 2.0 on a tablet now adds to the relevancy of the experience, including the ad content. Text or display ads usually get more relevant as surfers narrow down their interest.

  9. Using a broadcast TV metaphor to describe a web page is like dancing about architecture. It’s apples and oranges – the most obvious issue here is that TV is time-based i.e you watch it sequentially. This is totally unlike a web page and it’s just plain wrong to say that banner ads are just like TVCs. And that’s just the start of the problems with the article.
    Also, re: the comment about online advertising needing to be more creative – check out this years Cannes digital work and think to yourselves “does this really need to be more creative?” The answer is, of course, not at all.

  10. We did some research along with 24/7 that showed the same results. The #1 reason people don’t click on banner ads is because they are a distraction. The user doesn’t want to be taken away from what they’re doing at the time.
    In addition to better creative, which we all read about every day, there is an idea we’ve hatched around giving the consumer the choice of saving the ad for later.
    If it’s something you’re interested in and you just don’t have the time to stop and look at the ad right now, our technology makes it possible to keep the ad for later.
    I personally feel the future is about giving consumers more choice over what they view and where and when they view it, as well as a certain amount of control over their data. It’s not about better targeting… I honestly believe it’s about getting better at asking for and implementing user preferences to deliver ads that are more relevant in a respectful manner.

  11. For the 20% of surfers that act rationally with their mouse or fingers (in the soon to be tablet-driven multi-tasking cloud world), yes Saving the great ad for latter is feasible and no doubt desirable. But for all the others in the meantime (including most of the blogging community, immediate compulsive behavior is better satisfied by contextual ads placed next to relevant content. With narrow casting, Web 2.0 is allowing anyone (and one means Anyone) to shout, push, boost and even show whatever he/she is doing (even a pee-pee namely on Facebook).
    That is what us Brands are facing. Just look at the most post-modern surfers (Japanese).
    Internet and cloud are basically free because of push advertisinig including the most successful Google model. If Baidu in Chinese (the most important surfer model for the next decade) applies the same model, real control Victoria is asking will be a priceless aspiration. But it will end up costing a lot (or it will bring societies in an economic funk not unlike Japan). That may also be what us Brands are facing. Even those of us who have a critical approach to what defined marketing in the last century.

  12. While I think it is important for sites to consider the ads they post wisely, I don’t thiKn ad are a thing of the past just yet. They keep the web “FREE” to Consumers. While web users complain about ads, I’m sure we could all agree there would be even more complaining if we had to pay every time we used a site are online service.

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