Can Digital Ads Make You Cry?

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reidtatoris"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Reid Tatoris, co-founder of Are You A Human.

In the first season of “Mad Men,” there’s a great episode where the Sterling Cooper team comes across Volkswagen’s famous “Lemon” ad, from ’60s powerhouse agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. The ad – widely considered one of the 2oth century’s best – called the Beetle a lemon. It went on to describe the various ways in which that particular car had rolled off the assembly line full of flaws.

reidimage1The message? The people at Volkswagen were perfectionists, unafraid to call one of their own cars a lemon – and pull it off the assembly line so that it never reached consumers’ hands.

“Mad Men” characters were split on the ad, with some thinking it’s brilliant and others viewing it as a gimmick. Ultimately, Don Draper closes the conversation with this: “Say what you want, love it or hate it, the fact remains: We’ve been talking about this for the last 15 minutes.”

Think about the last time you saw an ad that stuck with you the way the Lemon ad stuck with the Sterling Cooper team. I’d be willing to bet it was a print ad or television spot – and definitely not a digital ad.

Over the past decade, we in the digital ad industry have been seduced by the promise of metrics. With digital, the story goes, we can measure impressions, views and clicks, and precisely calculate how much we’re paying for each one. We can adjust our campaigns in real time based on this data. With programmatic buying, we can even remove humans from the equation and let computers do the purchasing, measuring and optimizing for us.

But layer on too much optimization and you can start to lose track of what you’re optimizing for in the first place. At its core, advertising is about making a simple connection between a brand and a person. And at the core of connections – whether between people and people or people and brands – is emotion.

That FedEx “Cast Away” commercial from the 2000 Super Bowl still makes me laugh out loud. I’ve watched this anti-meth ad by Darren Aronofsky at least 20 times, and it still gives me chills. With digital, we’re miles away from approaching anything even close to that kind of emotion. Can a banner ad make you feel warm and fuzzy inside? Can an AdWords heading make you cry? The very idea sounds ridiculous.

Sure, every now and then a digital ad comes along that manages to tug at our emotions. This resizable banner from IKEA, for example, makes me smile every time I see it.

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IKEA banner (before)

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IKEA banner (after)

We’ve seen some good examples with native advertising as well. Early initiatives like this beautiful piece from Pepsi put time and effort into making something unique, and they worked. When I finished that ad, I felt great because I enjoy looking at pictures of amazing places. I didn’t mind the presence of the brand because it brought me a positive experience.

People responded to these early efforts because people always respond to good content. As it scales, some are starting to question the effectiveness of native advertising. I don’t think native advertising as a category is becoming less effective. I think that as more people jump into the ring with lower-quality work, you end up with lower-quality results.

When the Atlantic ran a now-infamous Scientology campaign, people responded with collective outrage because they felt tricked. The way to get real engagement has always been to create great content, not to trick someone into clicking a link. As we scale any new tool and focus less on the execution of content, results will always suffer.

Luckily, industry leaders like the IAB are starting to recognize the importance of advertising’s emotional component. They called for performance metrics that measure what a user feels, not just what they do, in a recent white paper, “Defining and Measuring Digital Ad Engagement In a Cross-Platform World.”

There are still lots of creative minds out there that want to do interesting work. I’m glad to see some of those who make ads start to remember that at its core, advertising is about touching people’s hearts. With digital, we have tools and abilities that are light years ahead of what was available in the ’60s.

If Volkswagen could do it with ink and paper, we can do it today.

Follow Reid Tatoris (@reidtatoris), Are You A Human (@areyouahuman) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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One Response to “Can Digital Ads Make You Cry?”


  1. The title of the article should be "Can banners make you cry?", since it is implied that banners and "digital ads" are somehow exclusively synonymous.

    Much of the Dove work can certainly bring a tear to your eye if you are a father or a husband or simply a compassionate human.

    Work that Expedia has done (Find Your Understanding https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThzdsnXeE28) probably generated stronger emotional response for me personally than anything I have seen on TV ad in a long, long time.

    The Expedia film, a short 3:20 video spot made to be viewed online, is a digital ad. Sorry to disappoint that it is not a banner. These ads are "digital" in the sense that they were conceived and designed for the web and not for commercially supported television programming.

    I have seen plenty of digital work that can make me laugh. I think even the lowly banner might be able to muster a guffaw once in while if only because some of the font choices demand it.

    So, yes. Digital ads can carry the weight of emotion, happy, sad, excited (Red Bull anyone?) but probably not in a 468x60 animated GIF banner.

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