When I think about online commercials and embedded spots and advertising in general, I imagine Malcolm McDowell strapped into a chair, his eyes pried open.
I think about volume jacking — TV ads that suddenly blare from my entertainment center speakers at startling decibel levels, prompting me to lunge for my remote to jab the mute button.
I think about blurbs for weight loss pills or wrinkle-smoothing skin cream in sidebars with messages like “Doctors hate her for exposing their secret!” with links to effervescent advertorials — the online equivalent of sponsored magazine stories designed to resemble in-house features. I think about websites with auto-play videos, often tucked away in sideline stacks of imagery, making if difficult to discern one from another as the video babbles away.
I think about my own profession, deeply beholden to the advertising industry, and all the screen-glazing pop-overs that drag viewers away from the online stories they’re after, forcing us to hunt for shrewdly obscured “X” or “close” options. I imagine advertising apologists who seem to view the question of advertising as a referendum on market economics, an ideological “necessary evil,” as if suffering from some mass form of Stockholm syndrome.
And now Microsoft’s taking the concept a step further with “NUads,” its buzzword-y way of referring to revamped Xbox Kinect ads that sound like something out of a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel.
Except that maybe, just maybe, Microsoft’s on to something here: Instead of hijacking your attention — okay, in addition to doing that — NUads are designed to let you interact with the ads in ways that, at first blush, don’t sound entirely irritating.
The idea seems inoffensive enough: When you see an ad square in the Xbox 360’s dashboard and launch it, a 30-second ad will play, over which Microsoft lays an interactive area with selectable options. In the video below, Microsoft demonstrates how a Toyota ad might ask the question “What would you like to see reinvented?” while showing eye-catching (if stomach-turning) images of a guy chowing on curtains made of pepperoni pizza and offering tongue-in-cheek responses like “Office chairs,” “My belly” or “Traffic” — you can wave your hand to select a checkbox, or simply speak your choice.
And getting weirder — because weird draws eyeballs — there’s Axe/Lynx, the company that makes grooming products for men, turning a ridiculous cops-and-robbers ad spot for Axe Attract, in which a female police officer tears off pieces of clothing while chasing a male thief doing the same, into a referendum on whether the product should be given to girls (voting options: “Yes, of course” or “No way”).
Here’s Ross Honey, general manager of Xbox LIVE Entertainment and Advertising, with the press release pitch: “NUads marks the beginning of a new era for TV advertising. It delivers the one thing traditional TV advertising is missing — engagement. We developed NUads to breathe new life into the standard 30-second spot. With NUads, brands can get real-time feedback from audiences, making TV advertising actionable for the first time.”
The principle sounds solid enough: Allow consumers to participate in ad-spots instead of being expected to osmotically absorb them, where the chances of something bouncing — especially with cynical viewers like me — are high.
But there’s still something lacking in the examples above. There’s no option to thumbs-up or pan the commercials outright, for instance — a way to weigh in on the appeal or even artistry of the 30-second video. Take the Old Spice commercials: “The Man You Could Smell Like” has over 41 million views on YouTube. That’s a commercial people seek out to watch. Put that one to a vote and I’d be surprised if it didn’t come up overwhelmingly positive (on YouTube, it has nearly 148,000 “Likes” vs. just 2,815 dislikes).
Even I find commercials like that amusing (though it’s been since high school and something called “Old Spice Whitewater” that I’ve owned cologne or aftershave from the company). Being able to vote up or down for a commercial, maybe in a secondary capacity (after you’ve clicked through the first poll), would offer at least rudimentary data to marketing executives funding spots like these, and wouldn’t ads in general be less vexing if we could swing them in the direction of ones that end “I’m on a horse”?
The stakes for NUads and future approaches like it are stratospheric in terms of revenue growth: According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers, U.S. Internet advertising pulled in $8.4 billion during 2012’s first quarter — down from Q4 2011’s record-setting $9 billion, but still up 15% year-on-year. That’s just a fraction of the $68 billion generated by TV ads in 2011, of course, and TV ad revenue is actually up, despite whispers of cord-cutting trends.
Skepticism is still the watchword here, and at the day’s close, marketing types have one goal in mind: to convince you to open your wallet and part ways with your money. (Funnier, edgier — maybe, but “let’s be friends because we really care about you” — not really.) But I’m less put off by these new Kinect ads than I thought I’d be, and less certain I’d never click on or respond to one. You’ll have a chance to weigh in yourself when NUads debut this fall on the Xbox 360 via partner channels such as ESPN, MSNBC and Last.fm.