Traditionally, advertising has been defined as marketing communication that employs an openly sponsored, non-personal message to promote or sell a product, service or idea (Stanton, W.J.,1984). Appearing across almost all online platforms, from social media to games to web browsers, online advertisers use many different tactics to encourage clicks – including interactive games and puzzles, clickbait headings or tricky-to-spot sponsored content from social media celebrities and influencers. They all have the same purpose though – to encourage users to spend money (Childnet International, 2018).
It is important to understand the purpose of advertising, because it is, frankly, not as direct as it might seem. It is not all about selling the products. Sales should be treated as a far end goal of advertising strategy, which actually starts its game much earlier.
If you buy a product you saw online, the ads for this product won’t stop showing. This is because they are built to gain trust and make the brand stay on top of our minds for as long as it is possible, so that when we finally think about purchasing something, those brands instantly come up in our memory and strongly influence our decision-making (Vaughn, 1980). This is, in essence, a psychological fight: our decision-making power depends on rational and emotional factors that all have a say when it comes to making a choice. According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, 95% of purchasing decisions are subconscious (inc.com, 2018). This is why, even if we don’t notice it, we are surrounded by advertising everywhere all the time (except when we sleep).
Advertising is a money-making engine for media outlets. If company X wants to promote their deal on, for example, a news agency website, which has a high number of visitors every day, company X will need to buy designated ad space on the website for a certain amount of time. The more popular the website is, the more leverage the news agency has in price negotiations.
Another less traditional option is to make an agreement to produce sponsored content. It is published by the agency and look as though it is native content to the website, yet it will direct the reader’s mind to company X’s brand and will include direct links to its website. Read on to find more about sponsored and content marketing.
The first notions about advertising date back to ancient China, where ware displays, shop banners and shop signboards began to appear during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Wine shop owners especially favoured using banners to attract the attention of customers. Oral advertising was popular, too, as candy sellers, for instance, whistled through bamboo flutes along the streets to sell confectionery (Cheng, 1999). Funnily enough, this practice has survived to this day: think of the beloved melody of an ice-cream truck a mile away.
It is interesting to note how much our consumption of ads has grown over the years. Back in the 1970s, the average American was exposed to about 500 ads per day. Almost 40 years later, the estimate has grown 10 times (!) to roughly 5,000 ads per day. Today, those numbers range from anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000, depending on where you live, your career and how much time you spend online (The New York Times, 2007).
Everything from branding and colour choices to the tags on your clothes can be considered advertising. As a result, when Ron Marshall didn’t think he saw that many ads in one day, he counted 487 before he’d finished his breakfast and decided to stop the experiment. Businesses and marketers have strategically placed ads almost everywhere, turning most empty spaces into revenue-generating opportunities. As technology and content follow us everywhere we go, and as we use so many more platforms to find news, connect with friends and search for information, ads have more space to fill than ever before.
Apart from general ads we see on websites and in blogs, here are some places where we’re likely to encounter more ads than others:
TV it is still one of the most dense platforms when it comes to showing ads. Its close substitute of Subscription Video On Demand services (SVODs/VODs), such as Netflix, are not so different and show plenty of ads, too. For example, after you’ve finished watching something, they show previews of their shows – which is an ad.
Whether you use their app, website or watch them on TV, news sites bombard you with ads to increase their revenue. Some of these ads include commercials, ads on the website and video ads before online videos play.
An external ad may sometimes look like one of the website’s own articles, but it is usually marked as “sponsored” and written in a lighter font next to the title or image. There is also plenty of internal advertising that lures you to connect with the company on various social media channels, subscribe to their email list or read more content. After all, the more content you read, the longer you’ll be on the site, the more ads you’ll see and the more the site can charge for advertisements.
Many smaller websites and blogs don’t have nearly as many ads as larger sites such as Google, YouTube, Facebook and news sites because they don’t have as many visitors.
However, you may not always be aware of the ads you’re seeing. Most websites, regardless of size, have newsletter subscription button, 4 most common social “share” buttons as well as “connect”/“follow” buttons on the same four platforms. That’s a total of 9 ads already, without including any external ads. In addition, these sites usually have sponsored content, which are articles paid for by other businesses or products, product mentions in the blog, as well as traditional ad banners & pop-up windows.
Since social media became popular in the mid-2000s, their main tool for monetisation has been advertising. Now, the average Facebook user sees 36 ads per day and clicks on about 10 of them a month.
On Twitter, every seventh post is an ad, as well as sponsored hashtags and sponsored ‘Who to Follow’ options that appear on the right and left margins on the desktop.
Think of how much time you or your relatives spend driving every day? If you listen to the radio or to a podcast or to any streaming music service, you’re likely to hear about 10 commercials per hour in addition to all of the “this was brought to you by XYZ” mentions made by the radio/podcast host. In addition to that, do not forget to count in the good old billboards that you see on the road while driving – they are often quite expensive to acquire.
The popularity of online video content has skyrocketed since wireless networks and smartphones were enabled to handle the bandwidth and size required to watch them. YouTube and Facebook stay on top of the list in the volume of video content streamed and number of ads shown along with that content. In late 2018, YouTube doubled the number of “pre-roll” ads (shown before each video starts playing), which they claimed to be better than interrupting the video to show ads. In practice, it resembles the traditional TV advertisements ran back to back before the show started. Why? Because our habits of watching YouTube are changing: we are slowly migrating from mobile devices and desktop to watching YouTube on TV screens (van Dijck, 2013). YouTube is also investing in longer-form videos, including Hollywood movies, which it now shows free with ads.
Facebook, on the other hand, is also remarkable at getting high viewership of its video content, especially if the content is native to Facebook – meaning it has been directly uploaded to Facebook as a video, and not just posted as a link from YouTube. Kurzgesagt, a German non-profit video agency that produces a lot of animated educational content, has made a good video about the way Facebook “steals” content from YouTube, thus breaching the copyrights of the original content creators and taking away the opportunity from the creators to make revenue on their own content.
Of course, with time, ads become annoying to people, and that has created a demand for new solutions, such as ad blockers and paid subscriptions.
Ad blockers are plugins or browser extensions that remove or alter the advertising content on a webpage. In other words, as the webpage is loading, the ad blocker analyses the script to see if any of the sites and scripts match ones it was designed to block. If there are any, it blocks them.
While the specific types of ads that are blocked vary from company to company, most of them whitelist Google Ads by default because they’re seen to be useful. However, some do block tracking codes that provide marketers with information about a visitor’s activity on the site. Others eliminate all advertising on a webpage and replace it with blank spaces and broken links, whereas others replace the ads with something else. In addition, most ad blockers target more annoying types of ads, such as pop-ups and banner ads.
Many services, especially video and music streaming services, offer some type of subscription plan that either eliminates or reduces the number of ads you see or hear. Depending on the service, the monthly fee will vary. In addition, some have tiers or packages based on the number of videos or songs you watch per month. Of course, these subscriptions won’t help you against all of the ads you’re exposed to every day, but they will at least provide you with uninterrupted entertainment.