Google’s Campaign Against Bad Commercials

Reporter’s Notebook: “I probably shouldn’t admit this,” the bespectacled woman across the table said. “But I don’t have a television because I can’t stand the ads.” It’s a confession you might expect from a corduroy-sporting high school history teacher, but not from one of the world’s most powerful advertising executives.

The woman across the table is a giant in her industry. She’s Kim Malone, and her title, director of AdSense, Online Sales and Operations at Google, is pretty telling. Remember, Microsoft says Google owns 80 percent of the online advertising market.

But more telling than Malone’s title is her confession. It’s telling of where Google wants the advertising industry to go and what it’s fighting to get there. Malone told that Google’s message to online video advertisers is: “Invite, Don’t Intrude.”

And given the incentives Google has in play, it might just mean the end of that obnoxious 20th-century creation: the TV commercial so like a spinning drill bit at the back of your skull.

The plan spawns out of Google’s past, Malone said. For as long as Google has made money, it’s mostly done it peddling what Malone called “demand-fulfillment” advertising.

Often called “transactional” advertisements, demand-fulfillment ads from Google are the text ads you’ll find on blogs, next to your e-mails in Gmail, and to the right of your Google search results. What’s so special about these ads is that they’re actually kind of useful. That’s because they’re designed to show up on your screen only when it’s likely you’re in the mood to buy the product being offered. They are there to fulfill your demand for a product.

The technology behind how Google serves the right ad to the right customer is complicated, but it basically comes down to matching keywords. If the blog you’re reading is about antique furniture, Google’s going to serve up a furniture ad. The same goes if you do a Google search for “couch.”

But the real beauty of these demand-fulfillment ads is that even when you don’t actually harbor a deep desire for the product that is pushing your way, the ads themselves are easy to ignore. They’re just small bits of text on the margins of your screen. They are there if you want them (and Google’s ridiculous profits indicate people often do) but it’s not a pain to ignore them if you don’t.

But if you have ever ridden a bus, picked up a magazine, driven the billboard-lined highways, or watched any live broadcast TV for even 10 minutes, you know that’s not how advertising typically works.

Advertising in those mediums, in almost any medium other than the Internet and the newspaper classifieds, has typically been designed for what Malone politely called “demand generation.” Others call it brand advertising.

In less charitable moods, it’s called advertising that’s supposed to tell you what you want so you’ll buy it even though you didn’t know you needed it. It may be an irksome concept, but there’s a lot of money in it. Without advertising to generate demand, some companies might not have any demand at all.

Take Coca-Cola. Why has anyone ever demanded a Coca-Cola over Pepsi or even water? Is it really because Coca-Cola tastes better? That’s possible. But it’s also possible that the only reason anybody ever wants to “buy the world a Coke” is because Coca-Cola pays dearly to have its brand associated with positive emotions. Remember, Coca-Cola practically invented Santa Claus.

It put the big man on billboards, print and TV, the traditional domains of demand-generation brand advertising.

But Coca-Cola and other brand advertisers are moving online. And even though it’s always been Google’s business to sell demand-fulfillment advertising, Malone and company aren’t going to just sit there and not take advantage of the new money.

Next page: Bring on the video ads

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Google’s boldest move in that direction has been the introduction of video advertising last summer.

The news might have caused some to shudder. That’s because when it comes to demand-generation advertising, Coca-Cola’s red-nosed fat man is about as tolerable as it gets. More often you get a local used car lot telling you about their limited time offers and how you need to seize this chance to BUY! BUY! BUY!

Catch the evening news and every couple of minutes it’s a string of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical commercials urging you to ask your doctor if this drug will help you relieve your arthritis. Whether you have arthritis or not, of course.

The worst part about it, though, is that unless you own a DVR, all you can do to avoid obnoxious commercials is get up and go to the kitchen for five minutes.

So how does it square with Kim Malone that Google is trying to get into the demand-generation side of the business? The answer is that Malone has faith Google can help make demand-generation advertising less “annoying” on the Web.

She argued that the key will be getting advertisers to understand that they need to “invite” potential costumers, not “intrude” upon them with marketing messages. And on the Internet, with its variety of available metrics, it’s getting easier to make advertisers understand.

“If you’re watching television and you get up to go to the bathroom [during the commercials], the advertisers didn’t know that,” Malone said. “Now they do. It’s useful information.”

Because Google’s video advertisements will not play until the user clicks on them, the most important metric for an advertiser to see is how many times their ads play compared to how many times they could have played. Advertisers can also tell how far into their ad users watch. If it’s a 30-second ad and nobody watches after five seconds, it’s a pretty good hint that maybe something needs changing.

Malone said she’s already seeing advertisers starting to get it. Her best evidence comes from one of the biggest demand-generation brand advertisers there is, Proctor & Gamble, which came out with an advertising campaign called “Men with cramps.”

Malone is optimistic others will follow Proctor & Gamble’s lead as they transition from TV — where they could get away with obnoxious ads — to the Internet — where customers won’t click if they don’t want to.

“Brand advertisers are more and more beginning to understand that this is good for them, that they don’t want to annoy people,” Malone said. “They want to invite; they do not want to intrude.”

It’s hard to say if they want to or not. The good news is that they might not have a choice.

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