Billboards, Banners, and the Evolving Nature of Online Advertising

Two authors explore the comparison of Web banners to highway billboards.

Editor’s Note: I am combining (with permission) two postings from the Internet Advertising Discussion List. The complete I-Advertising Archives are at

Dan: All media have gone through an initial stage where the commercial message was composed by the medium itself rather than creative experts. Newspapers and magazines developed ads for their clients, radio stations have commercial copy writers, and many TV stations still will shoot a “cheap” commercial.

This phase was always the least effective use of the medium as a commercial vehicle.

It took time for standards to evolve and for the respective areas of expertise (media and creative) to diverge. Often in the early days, the ads appearing on/in a new medium were enhancements, or modifications, of the highest level of the art in the prior medium (e.g. early radio was newspaper copy read live and TV started basically as radio with pictures). On the web, some ads have mimicked TV ads.

The evolution to a unique and higher plane is what is currently happening with the web.

At present, banners ARE effectively billboards, or perhaps abbreviated magazine ads. Although they have the power of interactivity, if the message is unclear (or has no relevance to the user at that point in time) it will register solely as an impression. Is this bad?

No, the impression is usually better than people clicking and finding they’ve been misled.

Likewise, the present use of the physical space has been limited creatively (by the the browser), graphically (by the size of the banner), and by bandwidth (although there is an ever-increasing move to high speed access from all three sources–telephone dial-up, cable, and satellite). All this will improve over time.

Bottom line, there are three main issues to consider:

1) The web IS a commercial medium and will continue to evolve to its rightful place in the media mix of the next millennium;

2) Banners are the earliest graphic form of commercial messages on the web and will remain the primary format for the near future;

3) Banners will evolve–and other commercial formats for the web will emerge–as the the three limitations identified above are overcome. And, some of these new formats could ultimately displace banners as the most effective use of the medium.

We have to encourage the development of interactive media campaigns that–while maximizing the impact of the banner–will move toward more effective use of the medium and push the boundaries, both conceptually and graphically, beyond the current limitations.

Marshall McLuhan will be proven right again when it comes to the web. The problem is the medium only becomes the message once we have capitalized on the impact of its uniqueness. That takes time and vision.

Dan Wasserman is the president and CEO of Thorne, West. He is a past media director, popular speakr, and entrepreneur who founded both a world renowned competitive intelligence firm and a digital fingerprinting company. Currently he is growing Thorne, West into a specialized marketing consultancy concentrating on “integrating innovative web-based strategies with traditional media know-how”.

Anne: I want to comment on the comparison of online advertising to billboards. First of all, billboards DO generate immediate returns! Case in point: A family is driving from point A to point B, and getting ready to stop for food. They spy a billboard on the left: “Dairy Queen, 2 miles ahead, exit A. Delicious Sundaes and Burgers!” The billboard also has those luscious treats displayed tantalizingly. The family gets off the interstate and stops at Dairy Queen.

Now, first of all, the billboard was strategically placed, second of all it not only gave concise information but it also tempted. It did not bait and switch, it did not mislead. It did however, provide immediate results. Interestingly enough, though, the Dairy Queen can’t prove that these customers were a result of the billboard. How many people see many ads (banner and otherwise) before trying the product/going to the web site, etc.? It took me six months before I went to see CDNow, but I placed over $80 of orders with them for Christmas and will be a repeat customer.

Understandably, that example is quite different from the “Your pad or mine?” bullfrog Budweiser billboards a while back, but those too were effective, enough so that T-shirts and such were a high school craze. This ad does more to raise public awareness and the “in-ness” of the product. Thus…

1) If you want immediate response, you must tailor your ad that way. Baiting and switching will usually turn customers off.

2) Strategically placing your ads, rather than playing hit and miss, is most of the battle.

In closing, here is a little “take-home assignment” for everyone, adapted from a billboard near my home. The original version reads: “Who reads billboards?? You just did!! Dial 123-4567 for more info”

The project:

While surfing the web think about whether you actively look at an ad or ignore it or briefly look before tuning it out, etc. I have found my personal habit is to glance at the ad. If it interests me, I look closer and possibly click. If it doesn’t interest me it gets ignored. My two biggest turnoffs? Faux form fields and scantily clad women saying something provocative

Anne McKay is in charge of ad sales at Multi-Player Games Network, Inc. (, which also oversees AT & T’s Gamehub, (