A Banner Year for TV Ads

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

A Banner Year for TV Ads

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

A Banner Year for TV Ads
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Nov. 2 1999 10:37 AM

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

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I was never one for watching sports on TV--as you know, you never would have married me otherwise--but the older I get, the more I enjoy it. OK, I admit, my main purpose in watching baseball is I find it an extremely effective way of falling asleep--far better than, say, golf, which at least provides interesting scenery from time to time. But football, there's a spectator sport that I really enjoy (though this year, with the Jets flailing so miserably, it has been painful, tragic, and somewhat dull).

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However, in my most unflinchingly honest moments, I believe there is something else that draws me so inexorably to sports TV: The commercials. Especially, as I've said to you more times than you care to remember, the ads for online stuff. Is there anything funnier than that online brokerage ad that shows the kid with the purple hair teaching his boss to make his first trade? No, not even the Budweiser beer lizards. (Oh come on, you love them, too.) And what about those over-the-top ads for Outback.com, which showed wolverines being turned loose on a marching band? Or those great IBM e-business ads--I love those! The new one with the guy sitting on a bench terrifying pigeons because he's shrieking into his cell phone while peering through a Brazil-esque, crystalline eyeglass-mounted monitor ... I need one of those! I have to have one!

Now comes the story in this morning's Times about how online retailers are going nuts this holiday season, spending an unprecedented amount of dough buying TV ads. Millions and millions of dollars, a Saganesque amount of money. It's a great story. My favorite example: eToys, which brought in a meager $2 million in sales during its first year of business, sold more than $24 million worth of toys during last year's fourth quarter alone. Why? The Times says a TV ad showing parents clicking their way down their kids list to Santa made the difference. Indeed, there's been a growing sense among online e-tailers (and everyone else who advertises online) that banner ads simply don't drive traffic. When I used to run the Netly News and used to watch our ad traffic (and every other number) with daily horror, I had a theory: That the vast majority of people who hit ad buttons ... do so accidentally.

I'm not alone, apparently. Last year, more than 80 percent of the money online sites spent in advertising was spent online; this year that money is being spent on TV and traditional advertising, the Times says. Amazon is spending more than $100 million in old-style advertising this holiday season alone. This is a bad trend, needless to say, for content sites like Slate. If people won't pay for subscriptions and advertisers won't pay for banner ads, where does that leave us?

Joshua Quittner is Time's technology columnist and editor of Time Digital. Michelle Slatalla writes a weekly column about online shopping for the New York Times "Circuits" section. They are the authors of Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace (click here to buy it).