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Digital advertising: where are we now?

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the launch of the Subservient Chicken advertising campaign for Burger King. An irreverent website featuring a man dressed up as a giant chicken, which audiences could order about with typed-in commands, the campaign marked a sea change in digital advertising when it was released in 2004. While not the first time an ad had gone viral online, it was the campaign that led both clients and agencies alike to truly recognise the importance of the web for the future of advertising. Suddenly every brand wanted its own chicken. 10 years is a long time in advertising – so how has digital changed in this time?

Well, for a start, people are increasingly questioning what defines digital advertising now, and whether the phrase should be used at all. There is a fashion of thinking of ads as being medium free these days, with the internet just another channel – for example, while a ‘TV’ ad may reach some audiences via the box, like in the olden days, many more people will see it online, where, if all goes well, it has been shared by friends on social media. As a result, these ads have got longer, often verging on the length of short films.

Equally, digital advertising no longer exists purely in the realm of the internet. Two of the best pieces of outdoor advertising in the past year utilised digital technology to bring posters to life. A British Airways poster, displayed on two sites in London, saw a child stand up and point when a BA plane flew overhead, and Apotek, a Swedish haircare brand recently displayed a digital poster in a Stockholm subway station that featured a model whose hair blew around whenever a train arrived at the platform. Both showed how a clever use of new technology could make an old-fashioned medium such as the poster stand seem more exciting than any of the new media channels that have popped up of late.

An industry restructured

As digital has been submerged into the wider world of advertising, so have digital agencies. Back in the days of Subservient Chicken, there were a multitude of new agencies popping up to service clients’ needs. These shops made the ‘traditional’ agencies look fuddy duddy and out of touch, and built their trade by emphasising this fact. Not long after the chicken man appeared though, the trad agencies got with the programme and began buying in the talent – or even an entire digital boutique – to show that they had the diversity to remain relevant.

Today there are definitely ad agencies that are known for their strengths in certain mediums over others, but the lines are far more blurred: a great piece of digital work can really come from anywhere, and those agencies who were known for their skills in the world of online are now trying to prove they can also make great TV.

Constant innovation

What is distinctive about the world of digital compared to that of traditional advertising, however, is the constant demand for innovation. While film and print may feature distinctive styles and fashions, the medium itself remains pretty consistent, but in digital there is a perpetual need to surprise through technology itself. It can almost feel like something is ‘done’ as soon as it has happened once.

As a result there have been a multitude of digital trends that have risen up (and quickly fallen away) over the last decade. Here’s a quick romp through some of the biggest: the Flash heavy website, which takes you into the ‘world’ of a brand, often incorporating a game; the interactive site that lets you play with a character (Subservient Chicken is an obvious example here, alongside the earlier Lynx Feather site, which allowed you to tickle a young lady with a feather and listen to her giggle); the webcam interactive site (the camera might simply be used to capture an image of your face, but in the recent Virgin Mobile Blinkwashing ad, you could even control a film by blinking via a webcam); the website that hauls in your Facebook photos and turns them into a story (the Intel Museum of Me is a great example of this, but there are countless other versions by brands); and the website where you upload your own pictures and then see them appear in films etc.

This latter example has perhaps been the most persistent and is still very much with us – see the recent Three Sing It Kitty campaign – but on the whole the industry, and the public, only gets excited for the first few iterations of a theme before rejecting it as ‘over’. There is consequently a stunt quality to a lot of digital work – once people get it, it is no longer as impressive, whereas the storytelling aspects of film will live on forever. 

The future

Alongside all these examples of technological fun, there is the other, darker side to advertising on the web. This comes in the form of boring banner ads, or the ads that pop up on YouTube films before you can get to the content you actually want to see. And then there are the creepy ads that track products you look at in online shops before attempting to flog them to you again on the next site you visit. This unfortunately is probably the digital advertising the public is most familiar with, and most irritated by. In the personal world of the web, ads such as these are invasive and unpleasant, and in creative advertising terms – where good content and likability are king and queen – they are archaic.

We may have come along way in the 10 years since Subservient Chicken, but at times it feels like advertising in the post-digital age is still only just beginning to find its feet. There are many who claim to know where it will all end up, but, interesting as it is to speculate on what will happen next, we are all mostly reacting to the changes as they come, and working out the possibilities as we go along. It’s still the Wild West out there, which, depending on your point of view, is either hugely exciting or completely terrifying.

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