Bullying tactics

It is not too bold a statement to claim that advertising is designed to interrupt our vision and assert itself into our conscious and subconscious minds. If it didn’t, corporations would not devote huge budgets to it. But recently I have observed a growth online of adverts that actually disrupt host content, in what can only be described as visual bullying. This is no more obvious than on newspaper websites that remain free from subscription.

Above the mast—a narrow advert banner

Looking at the instances of this dominating behaviour there is a clear hierarchy of worst offenders, with banner adverts being the most benign but none-the-less annoying for the reader. Many people will be familiar with websites jumping up and down while a browser decides what advert is going to be placed in the header. This appears worse on tablets as responsive websites rearrange themselves to suit a specific device. Add to this a slow internet connection, and such visual gymnastics can make a reader abandon before everything has settled down.

Below the mast—a wide advert banner

Where the advert sits within the page layout can change dramatically between sites, with some allowing the top banner advert to be placed below the newspaper’s mast head. This inclusion of such a visually dominant design feature could imply an endorsement of the product as it has been bought within the boundaries of editorial content. Side bars, on the other hand, can dominate dramatically by creating a visual mess. The more sophisticated of these have content that moves up and down the vertical panels as the viewer scrolls, constantly diverting eyes away from what is trying to be read. If accompanied by a top banner advert, and with the inclusion of advert windows directly in articles, then the adopted visuals can usurp the website’s own brand.

Visual overload—whose website is this exactly?

Other examples of adverts inserted into articles alter the flow of the reader’s eye by forcing awkward text wraps. These are not just ugly, but they make reading difficult.

Awkward text wrap as video content and advert interject and fight for attention

But all of these examples are nowhere near as insidious as when an advert forces itself directly into an article by parting text as you read it, to be followed by the playing of a short video across the entire column width, before disappearing again for the text to rejoin as if nothing had happened. By comparison, an overlaid advert that obliterates all writing seems less intrusive because it isn’t pretending to be anything but an advert. Where as the former, for a few seconds until the reader works out what is going on, is parading as journalistic content.

Left: a video advert appears and separates text. Right: video gone with text rejoined
An advert overlays itself obliterating all journalistic content

As publishing physical newspapers becomes more costly it can not be long before most, if not all, printed newspapers cease to exist. Those that wish to keep their online content free, whether through an ethical commitment to open journalism or because they know they would not get enough subscribers to continue even in the virtual world, will have to accept that advertising keeps them alive. But as online advertising becomes deliberately less sophisticated in order to grab our attention because we have become used to quickly hitting an X to make it disappear, or because we have simply learned to tune out from it, we can expect ever more examples of these bullying tactics.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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