Big Freakin’ Flash ads considered harmful

Psst. I’d like to show you something interesting. But first, you have to do something for me. Go read this story on Don’t worry about me. I’ll be right here till you finish. Go on, read it and come back to this page. (To make sure you don’t lose track, the link will open in a new window.)

Did you read the story? No, you didn’t read it all. Go back there and do as I said. Please?

OK, now make sure that the other window is closed. 


Now let me ask you a question: what was the advertisement on the page about? You know, the big in-your-face Flash monstrosity? Didn’t you click on it?

Whaddya mean, you can’t remember? Didn’t it practically punch you in the face with its presence? It didn’t? Funny. That was one of the reasons they made it so big and made the adjacent text so hard to read. They sacrificed readability for supposedly higher click-through rates. And yet, I find anecdotal evidence that people are just going back to what they did with 468*60 banner ads – ignoring them. 

The real problem is that the advertising is so intrusive that our minds try their hardest to find a pattern to them and block them out of our “scanning” routine. In fact, all advertising is intrusive. That’s why people switch channels when the ads come on. And when people see banner ads, they block them out of their minds.

But the ads on TV are different. They appear at intervals during programmes, not in the middle of them. Imagine if you were watching Friends and a little window opened up in the bottom right corner and started hawking Ginsu knives. I bet there would be many enraged viewers calling NBC and telling them to stop the nonsense. That’s because you would be interfering with the viewer’s experience. You’d be getting in the way of what he or she was trying to do – enjoy the programme. Not only would you annoy the viewer, you’d probably also make her  very hostile towards the product that was being displayed.

And yet, this is exactly what web sites are doing – trying to butt in loudly into whatever the user is trying to do. There she is, trying to read a review of a new inkjet printer and you’re doing your best to stop her from reading and click your ad instead. Your efforts at creating useful content and your need for people to click on ads are at odds with each other – not a good situation at all. Unfortunately, it’s not usually a matter of balance. Instead of half the users clicking on ads and the other half reading the article, you get 0.5% clicking on the ads, and 99.5% pissed off that you shoved that thing in their faces. Then again, if they don’t even notice it, they may not be pissed. In either case, your ad suffers, and it all makes for a poor user experience on the site.

The problems with these ads are:

  1. People really don’t want to click on your ads. They want to just read news, check sports scores, find out information about an MBA degree, or read reviews of Windows XP. Your ad is getting in the way of that user goal. If a user clicks on an ad while reading about Osama Bin Laden, he has to interrupt what he’s doing and go elsewhere. If he’s reading the article seriously, he doesn’t want to be interrupted.

  2. We like to think we’re “multi-tasking”, but we’re usually not. While the human mind can handle momentary lapses in concentration (say, looking up from reading the newspaper to see if it’s raining outside), we aren’t very good at doing two thing simultaneous things that use the same sensory organs for an extended period. While I can listen to music while typing this (and I actually am), I can’t also read an article on a web site in a tiled browser window. (I actually tried this – reading a couple of other articles and returning to writing this piece. It took me about fifteen minutes to get back in the flow and remember my train of thought at the time.) So, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for me to pay attention to an ad’s content while also reading the article in which the ad is buried. And since my primary goal is to read the article, I tend to do that. 
    Disclaimer: While I love to read about cognitive science, I have no formal qualification in it. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong about this. This is from observation and experience only.

So sites found that no one was clicking on ads. I’ve already explained the reasons for this. And they decided to make them bigger and bolder. What’s more, to make sure you didn’t scroll right past them on top, they stuck them in the middle of the content in the hope that people would see them at least then. Guess what? It was novel for a while and more people might have played with them, leading advertisers to believe that they were getting good value for their money. Pretty soon, the novelty wore off and people went back to ignoring them just like they did with the good old 468*60 banner ads. 

What’s that? You say newspapers display ads in between content too? I agree. But ask yourself how many of them put them smack in the middle of the article that you’re reading (say, the op-ed page). At least here in India, they haven’t got around to that yet (could the American readers please clue me in on the situation there?). And even with newspapers, people start filtering out ads mentally unless they’re really big. 

Let’s stop and think here for a while. You can’t put ads on top, because users will just scroll past them. You can’t put ads in the middle, because it annoys the living heck out of users (not that this seems to particularly bother the web site owners) and they won’t click on it anyway because they want to do what they came for. What is a web site to do?

The solution is to think of the problem from a user’s perspective. Let’s say Jack wants to buy a new inkjet printer. Let’s try and step through the process.

  1. He goes to your friendly neighbourhood IT portal and visits the “Printers” section. Aha, here’s a perfect place to serve up an ad for an HP Deskjet (special price of $200 at, you think. He’s in the “Printers” section, so he must be interested in printers – targeted advertising at its best. Well, not yet. Jack doesn’t yet know if the Deskjet 820cxi is the best printer for his needs, so he checks out the reviews.

  2. He can’t find it in recent reviews, so he searches for them using the site search. OK, now must be the perfect time to show him the Deskjet ad. After all, he’s actually searched for the item, and that’s a sure sign of interest. Er, no, you’ve got to wait.

  3. Hey, Jack found a review of the Deskjet 820cxi in the archives. Cool! So he clicks on the review. Bang, we’ve got him. Let’s put the ad  right on top so he can’t miss it. Nope, that won’t work. He’ll scroll right past it. He’s more interested in the review at this point. How about if we have a pop-up telling him about the great inkjet deals at No point, he’s closed the pop-up before he even saw your ad. Well, if he’s reading the review, let’s stick the big Flash version of the ad in the middle of the article. He’ll like the interactivity. Nooooo! You’ll just annoy him and prevent him from the review, and his buying decision depends on the review. 

Are you with me so far in the various stages of advertising failure? Good. 

Finally, Jack finishes reading the review and thinks, “That seems to be the right printer for me. I wonder where I can get a good deal on it”. Bang! That’s the point at which he’s ready and receptive to your ad. He is much more likely to click an ad now that he’s finished doing what he came here to do. And since the ad fits into his goal of buying a printer based on reviews on the IT portal, he might even welcome the ad. 

The best place for your ad is therefore the bottom of the page. In my example, Jack will probably want to see an ad for inkjet printers after he’s finished reading. And since there’s nothing below the ad (of much value anyway), to scroll to, you’ll improve the chance that he’ll take notice. Work with him to help him achieve his goals, not against him. If your advertisement adds value to the site content, you’ll get the extra business. You also have to think carefully about when to show Jack an ad. As I’ve shown, displaying it on the home page will just get him to ignore it.

Of course, I have simplified the scenario a bit. Jack might also want to compare the Deskjet 820cxi with the Canon BJ4000 and see how it stacks up before he makes a final buying decision. But I wanted to keep this short, not write a long paper. I also have no idea if the 820cxi is a good printer. I just needed a model for an example.

Don’t expect much to change soon. It’ll probably be another year or so before there’s another article in some major publication about how users are now ignoring BFF (Big Freaking Flash) ads. (Substitute more colourful adjective for “freaking” if you wish.) “BFF blindness” will become a new buzzword. And then site owners will try and find another shape and size to get the user’s attention. And a year after that, users will start ignoring those too. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’ll continue. 

If you’ve read this far, you have my thanks. This article is more than 1600 words, and you read it all. Web writing is not that different from print. I’m thinking of writing an article about that too. If you want me to do it, please drop me a note. There’s nothing like reader mail to motivate me. Oh, and get yourself a copy of On writing well: the classic guide to writing non-fiction by William Zinsser. There aren’t many books on writing that can compare to it. It’s inexpensive (about $11)  too. 

What has your experience with BFF ads been? Do you actively click on them or ignore them just like the old banner ads? Write in and let me know!


Don Norman: Banner blindness, human cognition, and banner blindness

Jan Panero Benway and David M. Lane: Banner Blindness: Web Searchers Often Miss “Obvious” Links

SatireWire on Net advertising (funny) now has a description of banner blindness along with links to articles on the topic


Here are five random books from my book collection. I recommend them all. The hyperlinks lead to pages on Yes, I am an Amazon associate, so I make a bit of money from sales. I’m not trying to make my first million this way, and most of these books are affordable. It doesn’t even come close to paying grocery bills, folks. I’ve only made $15 so far 🙂

Selling the wheel: Written as the story of a man called Max in ancient Egypt who invents the wheel but can’t find buyers for it, this book gently explains the different stages of the sales process in a humorous, engaging style. You won’t find any jargon here. The book explains the different types of salespeople, and when to use each one. I’m always lending my copy out to friends.

Influence : The Psychology of Persuasion: It describes itself as the book all marketing people must read. I agree. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has done a good job of explaining how people manipulate others into saying yes, and he also explains how to prevent that from happening to you. Read the chapter on “Authority” and I guarantee that you’ll be shocked and amazed at the first example he gives.

The Design of Everyday Things: What can I say about this book? It opened my eyes to things I was never aware of. It changed my life. It got me into the field of user experience. And yet, it’s not full of jargon. It’s so easy to understand that laypeople can read it too. You’ll never tolerate bad design again. Whenever I see a poor designed product now, I immediately start doing a detailed analysis of what’s wrong and what I’d do to fix it.

Peopleware : Productive Projects and Teams: If you run a software company or manage a group of technical or creative people, please read this book. If you’re wondering why your people aren’t as productive as they should be, you’ll find the answers in here. It’s a pity that most software companies ignore the advice in this book and wreck their companies in the process. They still believe that open space offices make people more productive. Anybody who’s tried to do programming in these conditions (like I have) will tell you just how distracting an open plan office is.

The Ten-Day MBA: Steven Silbiger, an MBA himself, gently pokes fun at the propensity of MBAs to use words that ordinary mortals can’t comprehend, and then proceeds to explain the fundamentals of business as taught in most business schools. If you’re a non-MBA techie or designer who has to speak the language of “management” or “the marketing department”, you should arm yourself with the knowledge in this book.