"Annoying" is mostly in the eye of the beholder. Our opinions are guided by our individual sense of humor and personal interests. Thus, different folks have different ideas of what a marketing faux pas looks like. However, there are a few universally irritating online marketing missteps that almost everyone can agree on. In the worst cases, these ill-conceived online ads can prove financially devastating for brands, as irritating ads can be costly while simultaneously ruining brand reputation.
Yet, annoying marketing campaigns continue to proliferate on the web -- junking up the websites we browse, interfering with our internet viewing capabilities, slowing down our searches, boring us to death with excessive repetition, offending us in unimaginable ways, surprising us when we don't want to be surprised and, ultimately, wasting our precious time.
For this article, we asked a panel of industry experts to discuss their picks for the most annoying marketing campaigns -- from creepy retargeting methods to ill-placed banner ads that are bound to irritate even the most forgiving internet user. Read on to find out what brands shouldn't do to get attention on the internet, and gain insight into how companies can avoid advertising mishaps that might ultimately result in considerable reputation damage.
In the end, perhaps Mom said it best: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
What's annoying: Overly repetitive ads
Culprit: Sprint (at the fault of Hulu)
In a post-modern advertising world where the medium is the message, I am seldom offended or annoyed by any advertising campaign. Well, allow me to rephrase that -- I am seldom annoyed by the message of a given campaign. Sure, there are commercials with annoying talking animals and horrible euphemisms that make you shake your head in horror, but the saving grace of these ads is that they will be over shortly.
With all that in mind, I will tell you what really makes me mad and raises my annoyance levels to the highest height: For the sake of this rant, let's call it "medium abuse." Medium abuse is largely seen online in video-rich environments. Not every advertiser has video assets, so instead of running various house ads, or no ads at all when there is remnant inventory, many sites run the same ad over and over and over again.
Hulu is my culprit du jour. More than two years ago, I wrote a blog post condemning Hulu for its relentless placement of advertising over user experience. Today, not much has changed. A few weeks ago, I was home sick and watched a lot of Hulu content, but my consumption was cut short due to my impatience instigated by this spot. There is nothing wrong with the spot itself; in fact, the first time I saw it I thought it was quite effective. It was the fifth time this ad ran during a two-hour viewing block that I found myself not as impressed. Through no fault of its own, Sprint had driven me mad.
In conclusion, I have this advice to advertisers: Know where your ads are running and at what frequency, and know that "added value" is not always added value. Even the best campaigns get annoying when they are seen repetitively -- and in this day and age, that is just not acceptable.
What's annoying: Banner ads that interfere with site navigation capabilities
These Apple iPod ads that showed up on the ESPN and Pitchfork.com homepages last year were annoying to no end. Apple has had some great ads in the past. (Consider this interactive banner campaign for the New York Times homepage, which was successful because it used a boring medium -- banners -- in a really creative and fresh way.) However, the concept behind these iPod ads was to immediately push down the regular homepage content and run a rich-media ad unit that displayed the product. It was particularly annoying because, as you can see below, the ads spilled over on top of the page navigation, making it impossible to click on a tab to take me someplace else.
(Image source: 9to5 Mac)
What's annoying: Using sex to sell unrelated services
The culprit: Go Daddy
In no way am I politically correct. You'll often find me on the wrong end of a joke, or commenting on a television news model. I recognize that physical and sexual attractions are quite the motivating factor -- I just have a difficult time selling products and services that have no association with them.
Take, for example, selling domains, hosting, and SSL certificates. I have no idea what those have to do with hiring "girls," parading them around in revealing attire, promoting online videos that are uncensored, and featuring content that eludes to red-hot, internet-only versions.
Go Daddy obviously doesn't have a problem with this at all.
Go Daddy could distinguish its services by its low-cost structure, cheap SSL certificates, 24/7 support, and massive scalability. So why is it that I can't quite figure out whether I just entered a technology company's brochure site or a soft-core site? Admittedly, this exploitation of breasts and legs -- including racing star Danica Patrick and new girl Jillian Michaels -- isn't hurting the company a bit. Go Daddy is in the top 100 of all sites visited on the web according to Alexa, and it continues to grow in popularity.
(In case you're wondering -- you can find some male celebs out there, too! Just not in the Super Bowl ads.)
As a marketer, I'm not surprised that sex sells. In a male-dominated technology industry, Danica Patrick is even nicer on the eyes than my cinema display. I just lose all respect for the marketers involved. It seems like I should just throw in the towel on building our clients multi-tiered, integrated marketing strategies and just grab a video camera and hire some busty bimbos.
I'm not the only one who feels this way; Adland.tv ran a post about Go Daddy's "bad taste in idiotic boobage ads."
I agree with the user comment on the aforementioned page that sites Old Spice and Axe as better examples of "sex sells." At least Old Spice and Axe are selling a product that's somewhat related. Unless your olfactory glands are dead, we all appreciate someone who smells good. However, Go Daddy doesn't have anything to do with smelling good. In fact, I think Go Daddy's marketing downright stinks -- and not just because of the "bad tasting" ads.
I wonder if Go Daddy uses breasts to divert attention from its terms of service:
"Go Daddy expressly reserves the right to deny, cancel, terminate, suspend, lock, or modify access to (or control of) any Account or Services (including the right to cancel or transfer any domain name registration) for any reason (as determined by Go Daddy in its sole and absolute discretion)."
If you think that's just some legal mumbo-jumbo, think again. Visit NoDaddy.com for the horror stories of companies that had their domains inexplicably transferred with no explanation. Imagine the effort that you've put into your company, brand, and domain only to have it all removed without any recourse.
Not all domain registrars are created equal. Check the terms of service on other companies such as Dotster, and you'll find that some will not remove or transfer ownership of a domain unless directed to by a judge. If you're a company hosting your domain with Go Daddy, you might want to seek the advice of legal counsel to ensure your business is protected.
Don't be blinded by the babes.
What's annoying: Crammed and ill-placed banner ads
Culprits: World of Warcraft and Toyota
Being the worst campaign online is more about the media than the creative. Because, let's face it, bad creative is pretty darn common online.
But bad media -- I've seen World of Warcraft ads on BabyCenter, for chrissakes. The contrary among you will say that "lots of moms, blah, blah, blah..." However, BabyCenter cannot possibly the best place for Warcraft to be. Of course, it was part of a network tonnage buy. But, maybe, the tiniest skosh of targeting would make that tonnage a bit more effective.
From a creative standpoint, I think the worst stuff fails to recognize that we, as consumers, are not ardently studying marketer messages. We are far more likely to see a banner for a split second than to stop what we are doing to study a banner.
So banners with
that go by
in several panels
of Flash animation
assume I am going
to stop and read
all that text.
Save 20%!!! Click here.
The other kind of big creative fail is when a brand crams so many messages into a banner that the ad itself becomes invisible. I love Toyota's technology campaign, but I think few would put this particular unit in the "win" column:
Wow, that's a lot to read -- as if anyone bothers. And there's nothing quite like a recessive call to action to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
What's annoying: Targeting to obnoxious demographic stereotypes
Culprits: EA and McDonald's
iMedia approached me to identify "annoying" marketing campaigns. The biggest challenge I immediately locked myself up with was, "What is annoying?" What to one man is annoying is to another man a brilliant and disruptive marketing campaign that correctly identifies its target audience and appeals to it in a way that causes the desired marketing (or sales) effect.
I decided to enlist the other staffers at my agency to see how their nominations compared to the list I was building; I provoked discussion by keeping the "reply all" active as folks threw ideas my way. To say the least, I didn't need to encourage discussion on a couple of the campaigns that were suggested, as they immediately became decisive, and I knew those were my winners.
Campaign: Dead Space 2 -- Your mom hates this
It's not a normal tactic to lead off a campaign with a focus group that immediately identifies your product as an "atrocity" or "the most horrible thing I've ever seen," but this is exactly what EA did in its campaign for the upcoming survival horror game. The website highlights a candid focus group video of a panel of "moms" as they watch game play of the upcoming release of "Dead Space 2." The tagline for the campaign is, "It's revolting, it's violent, it's everything you'll love in a game."
Why it's annoying:
I'm not stupid (mostly); I get why this is quickly becoming viral, popular, and the talk of the gaming industry. (Only a week or so into the campaign, it was already topping 500,000 views on YouTube alone.) It appeals to the target demographic that loves violence and, even more, likes to piss off its parents. It's a "if mom hates it, give me more" type of mentality. Unlike some other samples I looked at (such as Sony's PSP launch disaster of a few years ago -- Sony was caught using unethical marketing practices such as placing false UGC videos, blogger comments, and conversations), I truly believe that these are the genuine reactions of the focus group participants.
I find this campaign annoying because it's predictable. EA's marketers appear to have chosen extremely sheltered women whose children are, most likely, at the top range of their target demographic (if not out of it). The campaign's sole focus is to show kids that doing anything their parents hate is a good thing. The "nag factor" will be huge for this title, as most of the game's consumers don't have their own money with which to purchase the game. It's the parents that have the money, and those parents are likely to never see this video, or any trailer for this game. They'll be told that it's like "Halo" or "Call of Duty," and the ignorant (as in uninformed -- not meant as derogatory) parents, who've given up on trying to control the content of the video games their kids play (because they'll just play it at their friends house) will open their pocket books and blissfully move on to the next item on their to-do lists for the day.
I'm annoyed because this is an M-rated game, and the kids who consume this information on YouTube don't qualify by Entertainment Software Rating Board standards to play an M-rated game. Yet, that is exactly who this game is targeted to -- the young kids who still think it's cool to annoy their parents. These are kids who don't have any money of their own and have to coerce their parents into purchasing the game for them -- which they will.
Campaign: I'd Hit It
OK, this one is a bit older (late 2007), but it still seemed to be a favored annoying campaign around my ad shop. McDonald's released an online campaign called "I'd hit it." The campaign was supposed to take the current "I'm lovin' it" campaign to a younger audience, making McDonald's more relevant by speaking to the demographic in its language. The banner ads didn't run long, but they did run on what are considered family-safe sites such as ESPN. The backlash from family-friendly groups was immediate, and to make matters worse, the company's smart target market realized that McDonald's didn't know what it was doing. Consumers created numerous parodies of the ad, with modified creative and tag lines of "I'd hop on that like it was prom night!"
Why it's annoying:
I'm a 40-something male with both young and teenage kids, so I can imagine the brainstorming session of a group of advertising execs of about my age. I'm sure they were thinking about how to capitalize on their "I'm lovin' it" success by putting a young, hip spin on the latest online campaign to get more of the 18-24 demographic into the brand. I'm sure they mused on how to make the brand more relevant and hip.
What usually happens in these brainstorming sessions is that someone starts throwing out slightly altered versions of the current tag line to see what might work. "I'd hit that" must have come from someone who'd heard it in a movie, or from his or her kids, or from some other out-of-context environment -- the brainstorming session thought it was amazing and even sounded a lot like the current slogan (I see the same conversation unfolding when thinking about how Chevrolet's marketing department named its new car "nova" -- failing to check with international regions to ensure there weren't any translation issues, like naming a car "doesn't go").
This mistake has become incredibly common -- it's amazing that we, as brand marketers and advertising professionals, still do this without checking with or including folks from the demographic in these conversations. I'm sure every ad shop has more than enough diversity of age and origin to double-check ideas -- that is what is annoying.
What's annoying: Abuse of retargeting
The most annoying campaigns I'm seeing nowadays come from retargeting. In itself, retargeting is an incredibly powerful and effective marketing method that I strongly recommend to all my clients. The problem is that most companies are retargeting without understanding the nuances of how to employ the tactic properly.
How many times have you been to a website and then stared to see its banner ads everywhere on every site you visit? And it's the same banner ad every time! Zappos has been following me around ever since I went to its site and bought a pair of shoes. I saw the shoes I had already purchased everywhere for the next two weeks -- why not show me something else? I felt like I was being pressured after the sale was already done.
So, with that said, here are my recommendations for retargeting properly: First, be sure to employ frequency capping -- seeing an ad two or three times a day is enough. Second, don't spread retargeting across too many networks, lest the frequency caps get missed. Third, never blatantly call out to the user that you've seen him or her before -- that just creeps people out. Finally, recognize that the user is someone who's been to your site and provide a relevant offer, not just the same generic message that everyone else sees. These are valuable prospects -- they're worth the extra effort.
I have to give Zappos credit for using technology to customize my messaging, but it fell short by not seeing it through to the end.
Jennifer Marlo is an intern at iMedia Connection.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.