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Online advertisers are monkeying around less

October 27, 2009|DAN NEIL

Do you miss the monkey?

Once the Internet vines were full of monkeys in banner ads that, if you "punched" them with your cursor, would bring you a free Xbox or iPod or maybe $25,000 in cash -- which would be excellent simian-pummeling wages, to be sure.

But the monkey -- indeed, a whole class of flashy, shaky, maddening advertising collectively known as "punch the monkey" ads -- is going away, or at least slinking off to some forgotten cavern of the Internet where few will ever see it. Like MySpace.

The subject at hand is delicate because it's hard to really quantify the slow maturation of online advertising. For one thing, the Web ecology is still radioactive with ads for tooth whiteners, belly fat pills, penis-enlargement products and dozens of come-ons to lower my bills from, conveniently enough, lowermy bills.com.

Neither is there a shortage of ads that challenge you to find out if your IQ is higher than Britney's; that show a man sleeping with a pony and making $73 per hour; or promise to hook you up with hot local singles tonight.

And pop-ups and pop-unders for cures for spyware, malware, adware? You bet. Click here to find out more!

But believe it or not, online advertising is getting better.

"Premium publishers are becoming a lot more discriminating about the quality of ads allowed on their sites," says Nicole Jordan, spokeswoman for the Rubicon Project, which handles about 45 billion ads per month as part of its ad optimization service. ("Premium" publishers are name-equity operations such as the New York Times, Slate.com, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, etc.)

Punch-the-monkey ads, also known as cost-per-action ads, for which publishers get paid only if viewers actually buy something, tend to be vastly less sophisticated and far more obnoxious in their presentation. Witness the belly-fat ad in which pendulous under-chin wattles and over-the-belt beer bellies rise and fall in cycling flash animation.

Yech.

"Those kinds of ads can really alienate users, drive traffic away and erode the brand," Jordan says. In a recent conversation Rubicon had with one large publisher -- a three-letter TV network that will remain nameless -- ad quality was the company's single largest concern.

The Web giants themselves are also feeling sullied by it all.

Yahoo Chief Executive Carol Bartz has promised that Yahoo properties will be scrubbed of louche, low-rent ads to improve user experience in order to compete with Google.

What's changed?

For one thing, there's a declining tolerance for these ads' often less-than-admirable tactics. Last month, the Consumer Protection Division of Utah's Department of Commerce cited Farend Services -- a tooth-whitening operation doing business on the U.S. Web as Dazzle Smile -- for fraudulent practices, essentially trapping Web-clickers in a thicket of auto-enrollment panels for what was supposed to be a free sample.

In October, the Better Business Bureau took up the cause.

"The use of negative marketing options [that offer] a free trial and then you get billed every month over and over again, is being used to sell so many products online right now, and it's just a scourge of the Internet," the BBB's spokeswoman Alison Southwick told Wired.com.

Another factor: the growing recognition that "creative" -- shorthand for the imaginative and entertaining part of advertising -- actually counts for something.

A recent study by online ad researchers Dynamic Logic suggests that despite all the frantic metricizing of ad performance -- the eyeballs, the click-throughs, the behavioral marketing that drives ads for, say, coffin nails to the coffin makers -- the most effective ads are entertaining, memorable, engaging and well-crafted.

Which certainly doesn't describe the ad that invites you to pop an animated zit for a free trial of acne medication.

Other factors: The exodus of artists and producers from the declining movie and TV business has enlarged the talent pool in online advertising.

"Those people are bringing that polish, the movie-making and storytelling style online," Jordan says. As the average quality of online advertising rises, there's less reputable space for monkeys and jiggling bellies.

Yet dancing-baby mortgage ads and belly fat banners will live on, in what you might call the rural areas of the Internet, away from the educated and readerly demographic.

Why? They work.

"Those ads usually have a pretty good return," Jordan says. Meanwhile, their very crassness can serve to cut through the ad blindness that online users famously exhibit. "There's shock value in a lot of these ads," says Matt Meyer, Rubicon's director of yield management. "Some of those teeth-whitening ads have some of the most horrific mouths I've ever seen."

Being a classy guy, with classy websites on my favorites list, I will probably not see many truly awful online ads anymore. But I'll kind of miss them.

Nothing is as revealing of a culture as its trash, and plowing through these ads one comes up with a strangely accurate composite of latter-day America: fat and beauty obsessed, acquisitive and mortgaged body and soul, loud and intrusive and always looking for a quick fix. Yes, that's where I live.

--

dan.neil@latimes.com

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