A Digital Manifesto

As many of you probably read, this past May President Obama warned graduating college students that their favorite devices — iPods, iPads, PlayStations — could not only be distracting, but disempowering and harmful to democracy. The same can be said of online display advertising.
To many, the initial reaction to Obama’s statement was that he was pandering to populism and mimicking the folksy, anti-technology ways of prior presidents. But to me it’s clear that he’s not blaming technology — he’s simply challenging our use of it.
In the second half of his speech, Obama explained, “With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs and on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult at times to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not.” In other words, devices that encourage passive consumption of large amounts of content don’t encourage critical thinking. We become disengaged, rather than active participants.
Obama isn’t criticizing the iOS family of devices and their friends. He’s criticizing the uses of these devices that make it easy to absorb large amounts of information passively. He’s encouraging us to question and examine. 
This is hardly a new idea. Alexis de Tocqueville, for one, in Democracy in America, discussed how the American idea of democratic self-government works because instead of relying on generalization, Americans minutely examine details and take part in their government. That’s the idea, anyway.
As consumers of advertising we have the same opportunity to participate fully in the content we receive and make more informed decisions about how we engage with ads online. But often, this promise is not realized.
Consider those banner ads that don’t allow interaction — the ones that exist along the top and down the sides of the Web sites we use to connect with new ideas and communicate with our friends and families. They’re no different from the undifferentiated noise on blogs and talk radio. They blast one-way messages at us with the hopes that we will passively absorb whatever they’re trying to sell. They don’t allow us to speak back, to interact with them in any meaningful way. Sure, we can click on them, but very few do so (the average click rate on banner ads is 0.10-0.13 percent).
With the influx of marketing messages we see every day, this barrage of ads isn’t empowering. Instead, it chips away at our agency as consumers. We need to educate ourselves so that we know how to prioritize content — not just in terms of telling the difference between fluff and legitimate news, but in terms of the advertising we interact with. We need to be able to distinguish between the ads that give us something of value and ads that simply exist to distract. 
Instead of resigning to the clatter of banner ads, we should focus on the ads that actually take advantage of the interactive technology behind them. For example, search ads allow you to research and then click on the ads you care about. You see what you want to. You’re not randomly subjected to scrolling text ads on every page you visit. As the consumer, you make a decision to visit a search engine and you run a query for the kinds of results you’d like to see.
The ASPCA is currently running an online campaign to fight animal cruelty, but it uses display banners that are different from those you might be used to seeing. The ASPCA’s ads allow people to sign up directly inside the ads if they want real-time next steps on how to join the cause. The key here is interaction. These kinds of ads enable brands to interact with their consumers in relevant, tangible ways, while ultimately empowering the consumer to communicate how they want to receive information.
These are the types that allow the consumer to say to a marketer, “Here’s my contact information — send me more information.” The consumer is playing a role in the kind of content they receive, on their terms, and they receive something tangible in exchange for sharing their personal user data. The consumer makes an active decision about what kind of information they hear about and decides who can contact them, and who can’t.
Rich media units that include games, polling and instant e-mail capture also encourage people to pay attention. They give consumers the option to play a video, mess around with a game, share their opinion, or enter their e-mail address to get more information. They don’t assume that people are drones, and they don’t measure success on the assumption that every time a page loads consumers are that much closer to buying what they’re selling.
The next time you’re designing your creative, think about what you want as a consumer. Are you creating something that adds to the problem of unfiltered noise and distraction? Or are you enabling people to participate and
interact? There will come a time when the teeming discontent over Internet ads comes to a head and people will say, in the words of Neil Young: “You be good to me and I’ll be good to you.”
Zephrin Lasker is co-founder and CEO of Pontiflex. He can be reached at zlasker@pontiflex.com.