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The 5 most memorable banner ads

Martin Betoni
The 5 most memorable banner ads Martin Betoni

I've read, written, and spoken about the lack of good online advertising creative at length. Usually, my argument is focused on the intrinsic downfall of working with small rectangles and squares and the lack of innovation industry-wide to break free of those shackles. I suppose I might have started to sound a bit like a curmudgeon because recently a colleague threw me a curve ball and declared, "OK, I get that you aren't enamored with what goes on. But you've been doing this for a while. Haven't you seen anything you liked?"

I have to admit that it was a head scratcher. I've been talking for so long about what I'd like to see in the future and what we need to do better that I had nearly forgotten what we've accomplished over the past decade or so. I started to think about it -- what were the ads that stuck in my mind? Why did they stick? What did I really like? I began to compile a short list of examples that moved the needle in creativity and execution. In other words, I made a list of "game changers."

But there were conditions to be made. I specifically limited my selections to standard and rich media banners. After all, there have been quite a few microsites and their siblings that were amazingly creative. Plus, you could be terrifically ingenious when file size and restricted dimensions went out the window. For example, I recall wasting quite a bit of time on that Corona microsite a few years back -- a beach with a sunset, one example I won't forget soon. However, it was (and is) much more difficult to be inventive and memorable in a 728x90 ad that needs to stop moving or doing anything in 15 seconds or less.

So, without further ado, here are the five most memorable, beautiful, or otherwise creative online ads I have seen over the past decade and a half.

You cannot write a "best of" list when it comes to online advertising and not mention this execution. Simply put, it's the one that started them all.

In a time when banner ads were a relatively new idea and the ones we were seeing were mostly static GIFs (with minimal colors) or maybe a more realistic JPG here and there, this bomb dropped and blew the doors off of everyone. Somehow, a then-small shop called RedSky had figured out how to recreate the classic video game Pong in a 728x90 banner ad, and it did it at an extremely small file size.

If you could have seen my face when I first saw this ad, it probably resembled something akin to Roger Rabbit's eye-popping, tongue-wagging surprise face. Followed by the question, "How the hell did they do that?" I promptly set about learning just that.

Once we all caught up to that darn Pong ad and learned how to get complex animations into banners at a relative low file size cost, creativity in banners plateaued for few years. The industry was concentrating on better messaging, better use of the space, and -- in some more infamous cases -- punching monkeys around.

During the latter part of this time, a new type of ad emerged: rich media. This was a banner on steroids -- one that could get bigger, or float, or have extra pieces called panels. In the early days, those expandables were basically the same banners we'd previously been making with some HTML components that would appear if a user interacted with the banner. Hey -- this was groundbreaking stuff!

Honestly, though, none of it looked very good or was particularly useful. That is, until the U.S. Department of the Treasury decided to release a new, highly advanced $20 bill and purchased a swooping advertising campaign to explain what the bill looked like and contained. A portion of this campaign was a series of expandable banners, but instead of the panels being boring HTML, these were highly interactive, animated, and fully featured. They allowed the user to manipulate a magnifying glass and roll over the different aspects of the bill, with fly-outs that explained the varying security features. For the first time, ads fully realized the potential of this new technology and were a sweeping success. The ads went on to win Yahoo's inaugural Big Idea Chair Award and forever changed the thinking around creating rich media.

Until this point, we had been moving forward. First, create a simple picture and call it an ad. Then, devise an animation and call that an ad. More recently, create two animations (or more), piece them together to interact with each other, and call that an ad. More often than not, the result was something that looked, well, like it was in pieces. The pieces were well designed and worked together, but in the end, not necessarily a fully formed "whole."

Then Jamie Foxx donned a pair of Wayfarers and wowed the world with his interpretation of Ray Charles. Once the Oscar buzz started, it came time for Universal Pictures to release the movie on DVD, and it chose a series of expandables to promote DVD sales online.

When created, these ads worked backward, asking the question, "What if you only see the whole picture when the ad is fully expanded?" The result was the first true microsite as an expandable. The banner itself, while appealing, was a teaser for the full ad. When expanded, the panels and banner worked together, seamlessly, to form a miniature site that let the user learn about the features of the DVD, see stills from the film, listen to music from the soundtrack, and watch trailers and clips for the movie. This single campaign set the standard for how expandables should be and still are created.

Synced ads -- or the idea that two ads on the same page (a 728x90 and 300x250, for example) above the fold would communicate with each other -- had been around for a while. In fact, the technology is something that we pioneered during my days at PointRoll. At the time, we were using Flash local objects to get one banner to cause a change in the other banner, and it was pretty cool stuff. Though some of the examples were notable, they were nothing compared to what Apple wowed us with a few years later.

In this campaign, the two ads used video to take the Mac vs. PC television campaign to a new peak of interactivity and ingenuity. The PC would crawl out of one banner and into another, the Mac would look up at him as he carried out his antics, and we would be inspired to think of the page in front of us as a larger canvas that was able to carry a message beyond the borders of traditional banners. Even after compiling this list, I still long for more examples that use the medium to such a lofty effect as this campaign.

While I'm not thrilled awarding the two slots on this list to the same advertiser, it's hard to brush off the innovation and creativity in these units. Ignoring the traditional limitations of a banner, these incorporated the top third of the page and turned the entire thing into a part of the ad, which was revealed through a little visual trickery.

When loaded, these iPod Touch ads appeared to be the new larger ad units recently introduced by some publishers like YouTube and Wired, and they replicated the product demonstration method most were familiar with from iPod and iPhone commercials. However, as the hands began interacting with the iPod, the action quickly moved beyond the borders of the banner, making the top of the entire site tilt, twist, flip, and react to the action going on below. The result was so seamless, smooth, and non-intrusive that it quickly achieved a result typically reserved for memorable video -- it went viral. And, as we all know, word of mouth is the best advertising of all.

Going forward
Each one of these executions defined the era in which they ran. Almost all of them set the bar for what could be achieved at the time, and most inspired others to create examples that emulated their evolution.

The question now becomes, "What's next?" My belief is that, with the proliferation of new types of consumption in the form of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, we're on the precipice of an entirely new level of interactivity and stickiness. I, for one, can't wait to see where we go.

Martin Betoni is creative director at Centro.

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