Make way for advertising

Washington Post advertising in front of Olympics photo gallery

Enough already!

Ads are everywhere. It's a fact of life as we know it. But surely there must be limits! There must be a point at which the advertising becomes so intrusive that it has the effect of driving people away instead of making sales.

What brought all this one again (I've written before about this phenomenon, for example ads on airline tray tables) is the escalation of advertising at the Washington Post website, taking advantage of interest in the Olympics.

One of the things I truly like and appreciate about the Washington Post is the emphasis they give to photo journalism.

Washington Post web banner

women racing
Women's 100 meters. (Click picture to enlarge.) A sampler of photos is here.

Right up there in the banner of the web page is Photos & Video. Other newspapers have picture galleries, too, but you have to go looking for them. At the Washington Post, you can hardly miss them. They have general galleries for photos of the day and week, as well as specialized galleries that essentially parallel the sections of the paper: politics, the nation, etc.

Since the start of the Olympics, the Post has had a gallery of photos from each day. And they are spectacular photos— perfectly composed and snapped at just the right instant. Each may not be worth 10,000 words, but most come pretty damned close.

skip this ad
The price of admission to the gallery of Olympics pictures at the Washington Post. (Click if you really want to see it full size.)

Anyway, you used to be able to go to the photo galleries page, pick a gallery, and go straight to it. But with the Olympics — knowing that lots of people would be interested in those pictures — those crafty advertising salesmen at the Post sold not only the ads that usually appear across the bottom of the gallery window, but sold a special ad that shows before the first picture of the gallery.

Now I ask you— Who doesn't just click "Skip this ad"? I suppose that enough people must click the ad to make it worth the while of the Travel Zoo to place the ad, but for criminy sakes, isn't it enough to just have their ads across the bottom of every one of the pictures in the gallery? Is the benefit in increased sales great enough to warrant the cost of the ad and the alienation of a large number of visitors to the Washington Post web site? I guess the answer must be Yes.

In the beginning of online advertising, there was the ubiquitous banner ad that appeared across the top of the page. Eventually people realized that those weren't paying off; people just ignorred them.

Then came the popup ad. It's trivial to have a web page automatically pop up a smaller window with something in it, and because they could, advertisers jumped all over the opportunity. Then they discovered that it really pissed people off, so they became more subtle— they started using pop-under ads that people would discover once they closed their main browser window.

Then software developers began offering pop-up stoppers to prevent little windows from popping up and popping under. Just as water always seeks a way downhill, advertisers then discovered that web programmers could make an ad appear temporarily inside the page itself, thereby foiling the popup stoppers. And once again this provoked cries of outrage from irritated web surfers, leading to the option to "skip this ad."

Now, I'm not so naive as to not understand that advertising pays the bills so people can afford to publish web sites and provide information for free that would otherwise cost money. The newspaper sites are a terrific example. All the major papers have websites that are free, most as long as you "register" — New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Jose Mercury News, Christian Science Monitor, The Desert Sun (OK, OK, I know it's not a "major" paper) are just a few, and the same is true of many of the great international newspapers as well.

But I'm waiting for some advertising manager to say, "Yes, I know we could but we shouldn't. Just because a flat surface exists (and it doesn't even have to be flat any more) doesn't mean it should be covered with an ad. Just because a technology makes something possible doesn't mean it ought to be used. Let's reduce ad pollution."

I just wish there were a way to declare advertising-free zones, just like we have smoke-free environments, etc.