Advolution: An Interactive Media Archaeology of Website Advertisements
The last season of South Park revealed a shocking revelation (South Park, “Sponsored Content”). Advertisements have evolved to be sentient and are fighting a secret war against us! While we do not believe things have gone that far, advertisements have been around to influence human decision making since time immemorial, and have changed over time to keep up with our tolerance to them. The changing internet landscape has driven ads to evolve at a quicker pace than ever before. This aspect of rapid change possesses the risk of these “evolutions” to get lost among long-forgotten digital artifacts. Therefore, we developed a project which visualises and explains this dynamic evolution of online advertisements through their native environment and historic context. The reciprocal dynamic between user behaviour and the form of advertisements underlies this “advolution”. Our historical mapping of online advertisements will illustrate the relationship humans have with commercialization technology by posing the question: what significant changes have online advertisements gone through from the early 90s until now?
Ads must adapt to their environment. For instance, commercial breaks are an established component of radio and television. They are easily distinguished from the programs they interrupt, but are effective because they gain a share of the attention given to the program. But when DVR technology was introduced to skip the breaks, ads evolved to take advantage of the attention it takes to fast forward effectively (Du Plessis 2009). Ads online used to function similarly to those found in traditional media, simply hoping for a share of our attention by just being present. As technologies improved, so did the ads’ ploys to get our attention. For some people ad blocking programs provided some relief, until ads found ways around them, most directly by websites blocking content when the ads are blocked (Vallade 2008).
We conducted media-archaeological research to visualize the advolution. Parikka describes this method as “looking at the relations of past and present, and more specifically at ‘old’ and ‘new’ media” (349). In order to visualise advertising changes correctly, we used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to identify how advertisements used to look. It is important to note that these snapshots are not perfect representations. However, the Wayback Machine was able to give us a general idea of what advertisements used to look like. Additionally, a literature review was conducted to identify the most significant changes in online advertising, which are: directories, banner ads, pop-ups, search ads, online video advertising, social advertising, and programmatic buying (Oberoi 2013).
This section contains the most important developments in the evolution of online advertising. For more details please visit Advolution
Directories function as a guide for users who are looking for something specific, but do not yet have a preference for a provider. In that situation, it pays to be listed. Before search engines, directories were the average user’s way of navigating the Internet. Yahoo! was the dominant force of the early Internet in part because of its comprehensive directory. The homepage listed broad categories of pages, that could be clicked to find ever more specific sub-categories. An advantage of directories is that they allow users to “browse” the internet without having a particular destination in mind. The early listings were curated by humans. Advertisers could get their site listed, but could not control the description they were given (Sullivan 2007). However, humans were too slow to keep up with the growing number of websites and have mainly been replaced by algorithms (Steinberg 1996).
In October 1994 the first commercial web magazine, HotWired, started selling strategic ad places in large quantities so they could make money to pay their writers. AT&T placed the first banner ad ever on HotWired (Figure 1). This was the birth of “banner advertising”. Banner ads are clickable ads that can be placed strategically on any website, in order to lure users into clicking on them. As a result, users invented the first ad blocker ever: a piece of plastic placed on the bottom of the screen, so the ad was no longer visible. WebConnect developed a tracking system to check how successful banner ads were, in order to prevent “banner fatigue”: users are less likely to click on ads they have seen before (Oberoi 2013).
In 1996 online advertising platform DoubleClick brought one the biggest technological changes in banner advertising. For the first time in history banner ads could be tracked and analysed in an advanced manner. Banner ads, users’ behaviour, “return on investment” and click rates could be tracked by using the Dynamic Advertising Reporting and Targeting technology. Thanks to DoubleClick, advertisers could now also adjust their ad campaigns based on the ad’s performance. However, in the late 90s click rates on banner ads started to decline which meant that advertisers had to think of an alternative (Oberoi 2013).
One alternative are pop-up ads, which open in a new browser windows. Pop-up ads soon gained popularity because they managed to capture users’ attention easier than static banner ads. However, it turned out pop-ups can easily be blocked by using ad blockers so their effectiveness was quickly undermined (Oberoi 2013).
Search engines mostly replaced directories as a gateway to the web due to the speed of automatic web-crawlers and their still advancing sophistication (Sullivan 2014). This development made (and still makes) them an ideal place for advertising. Search advertisements are typically displayed at the top and along the side of normal search results. Those along the top mimic normal search results, though there usually is a divider or an indicator highlighting the ads. To be listed, advertisers place a bid for relevant keywords which can range from fractions of a penny to hundreds of dollars. The bid is then combined with a quality score for the ad itself to determine which ads will be displayed. The advantage search advertisements have over other forms of online advertising is their tailored relevance to users, and can therefore be perceived as less of an annoyance (Faber et al. 2004).
Online Video Advertising
YouTube created the first mainstream video sharing platform in 2005. More platforms followed after mobile phones started supporting video content, and the advertising business started paying attention (Figure 2). Here, we see similar strategies as seen in other modern forms of online advertising: targeted advertising based on data profiles from users. YouTube was purchased by Google in October 2006, which means Google can now show advertisements on YouTube based on data collected from Google users, and Google can collect even more data from their users by monitoring their video watching habits. Lately, YouTube videos have been (amongst others) subject to native advertisements, or sponsored content. These are forms of advertisements that blend in with the format and context the advertisement is shown in. This can make it difficult for users to distinguish between what is sponsored and what is not (Marketingfacts 2016). Examples are sponsored stories and advertorials, which are often found in blog-style websites. This form of advertising seems to be more effective than others; users view native advertisements 53% more often than display advertisements (Marketingfacts 2016). Brands can make deals with people with a large amount of followers, to pay them to show their product. Users often do not know that these products are shown because the bloggers have been paid to do so (Lazauskas 2016).
Social Media Advertising
In May 2006, Facebook introduced advertising to its platform, and in 2007 launched “pages for brands”. It is difficult to point towards a starting point, but these developments can be seen as some of the most important actions that kicked off social media advertising (Unified 2016). Other social media platforms such as Twitter and StumbleUpon followed soon after. Having a large and diverse audience makes it easier for brands to target the right users for their advertisements, which arguably makes Facebook the perfect platform for advertisers to reach the people that are most interested in their offers. In order to be as successful as possible in targeted advertising, Facebook collects data which is used to create “profiles” that can then be matched to certain advertisements. Figure 3 shows how brands can select a target audience for their advertisements on Facebook and how specific this can get. Even though the target audience is very specific in this case, Facebook estimates a potential reach of 330.000 users.
Programmatic buying can be seen as one of the most important developments that have had a crucial role in shaping the online advertising environment. Zwaan explains what programmatic buying is: “In essence, programmatic buying might be understood as a technique that creates advertising exchanges within an auction environment. That gives marketers the opportunity to add consumer data into media planning that allow marketers to make smarter decisions about which sites to buy and which audiences make the most sense to buy” (4). Algorithms analyze online consumer behavior using cookies and big data, and then use this information to decide which users fit in the right target audience for a specific advertisement (Aberson 2014). Programmatic buying is efficient because it is highly measureable. Advertisers can also monitor results and changes in real time, and edit campaigns and strategies if necessary. Zwaan describes how the emergence of programmatic buying has caused a shift in advertising which results in consumers being targeted as individuals instead of as groups of people who might share an interest.
When looking at the above described evolutions in advertising, it can be argued that online advertising has shifted from being aimed at target audiences to targeted individuals. The increased possibilities in data collection and consumer profiling have played a large role in enabling this shift. In Profiling Machines, Greg Elmer discusses how these practices have become embedded in our everyday lives. Online behavior is constantly tracked and users have a difficult time maintaining control over their personal information (Elmer 2003). Tracking and profiling mechanisms are part of websites and application default settings. When users do not accept cookies for example, they often do not get full access to the possibilities the medium offers.
“The economy of personal information on the web is subsequently governed by an implicitly affirmative technology that by default collects information, tracks the online behavior of users, and punishes those who attempt to maintain control over their personal information and browsing history” (ibid).
All technologies have an ideological layer and are developed with a certain aim to control what users can do (Fuller 3). Data collection and profiling can be used as tools of persuasion. In the 1990s, websites emerged that incorporated persuasive technology (Fogg 2). Persuasive technology is used in many different ways, from online advertising to recommendation systems and self-management applications that promise to help you reach your goals (Fogg 4). Persuasive technology is defined as “[…] any interactive computing system designed to change people’s attitudes or behaviors.” (Fogg 1). The interactive component of new media provides the ability to adjust input from users (Fogg 6). Interactivity allows persuasive technology in new media to be more effective compared to traditional media: computers are more persistent than human beings, they allow anonymity, store tons of data, use different modes of presentation and reach millions of people globally (Fogg 7). This effective persuasion is what can be seen as a crucial part in online advertising, and as such online advertising became an important form of marketing as it grew into a worldwide industry. This aspect of digital media can evoke resistance, such as the use of ad blockers. This is especially the case with the Internet, because users often still see it as a space free of commercial stakes (Cho and Cheon 2004). In reaction to the increased use of ad blockers, native advertising is on the rise. By making ads look like the content and context they are shown in, users are more likely to engage with them. This raises ethical concerns regarding the use of deception to make a sale.
Online advertisements have undergone numerous changes in the last decades. Our media-archaeological research into the history of online advertisements confirms that ads will continue to adapt to their environment. As users develop new methods to resist advertisements, advertisers develop ever more sophisticated schemes to grab our attention. Unfortunately there is a trend towards disguising advertisements as actual content, which raises ethical concerns. The scope of our project did not allow us to research these ethical concerns. Further research should be done on the ethics of native individualized advertising.
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