Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Banners Might Be New, But Not the Blindness

As a child, I was an avid reader of the Peanuts comic strip. Years later I would come to realize that one particular strip had provided me with an early lesson in how many consumers respond to print ads (and, today, web ads). I hope I can do the strip justice in the retelling here.

Charlie Brown and Linus were on Christmas Vacation (that’s what it was called then) and their class had been given the assignment of reading The Brothers Karamozov during the two-week break. Of course, Linus tackled the task head-on while Charlie Brown procrastinated.

One day, as Linus was deep in his reading (and the end of vacation nearing), Charlie Brown asked him how he managed to deal with all of those unpronounceable names. Linus replied something like, “When I come to the names, I just ‘bleep’ over them.”

Recently, while reviewing a business website assessment that had been prepared by an independent search engine marketing company, I read something that I found remarkable, if for no other reason than it identified one of my own behaviors:

"Eye tracking studies have confirmed that users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement. This is referred to as 'banner blindness.'"

Wow, ya think? This revelation came as no surprise to me at all. Because I don't look at banner ads either. I have no difficulty at all in “reading around” banner ads, no matter what their shape or where they are placed on the screen.

Now, I might make a slight exception for those silhouettes of kinetic dancers or the faux home video of the young woman caught on camera. But I give those advertisers credit only for knowing that our species is hard-wired to detect sudden movement. After my first exposure to these "Ha! Made ya look!" ads, it was simply a case of once burned, twice shy.

But there’s nothing new about “banner blindness” except maybe the name. Lots of people don’t look at ads in any of the print media either. And haven’t for generations.

Again, I hold myself up as a shining example (though a statistically invalid sample). I have never found it particularly challenging to read only the editorial content and deftly navigate around the ads. And, though it’s true that I’ve spent many years in advertising, I’m a consumer, too. (But just one consumer. I’m not my own focus group.)

Over the years, I’ve heard and read print media reps explain how editorial content can “lead” readers into the ads...that three columns of text above a half-page magazine ad provide three opportunities to draw eyes down into the ad. Well, gosh, my eyes know exactly when they’ve arrived at the end of a column of text. They know where the border of the ad begins. And they dutifully stop at the border, turn around and go back.

New as the web might be, consumers simply extend the behaviors and abilities they’ve developed with read over, around and right past ads they are meant to see.

I don’t think it helps the cause at all to create a web page layout that ropes off the ads into one area (allowing your mental cop-on-patrol to scowl, “Move along! Move along! Nothing to see over here!”). And we all appreciate “Story continues below” as a public service.

Just this past weekend I participated in an online chat on the site. After every few replies from the hosts, up would come a little box right in the text flow that identified itself as an ad. Maybe I’ve been under a rock but I had never seen that before.

But now that I’ve seen these mid-chat ads in use, the next time — just like with those convulsing silhouettes — I’ll just “bleep” over them.

What does this point to? Indulge me a few more thoughts, coming soon.

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