The Seedy, Seedy World of Keto Gummies

OK, admit it. I play games on my phone.

Also, I’m cheap, so I play the free, ad-supported versions.

You might call this a brain-dead waste of time, but I prefer to think of it as diligent and brave investigative journalism.  The time I spend playing Bricks Ball Crusher or Toy Blast is, in actuality, my research into the dark recesses of advertising on behalf of you, the more cerebral and discerning readers of this blog. I bravely sacrifice my own self-esteem so that I might tread the paths of questionable commerce and save you the trip.

You see, it was because of my game playing that I was introduced to the seediest of seedy slums in the ad world, the underbelly known as the in-game ad. One ad, in particular, reached new levels of low.

If you haven’t heard of the Keto Gummies Scam, allow me to share my experience.

This ad hawked miracle gummies that “burn the fat off you” with no dieting or exercising. Several before and after photos show the results of these amazing little miracle drops of gelatin. They had an impressive supporting cast. The stars of the TV pitchfest “Shark Tank” had invested in them. Both Rebel Wilson and Adele had used them to shed pounds. And then — the coup de grace — Oprah (yes, the Oprah!) endorsed them.

The Gummy Guys went right the top of the celebrity endorsement hierarchy when they targeted the big O.

As an ex ad guy, I couldn’t ignore this ad. It was like watching a malvertising train wreck. There was so much here that screamed of scam, I couldn’t believe it. The celebrity pics used were painfully obvious in their use of photoshopping. The claims were about as solid as a toilet paper Taj Mahal. The entire premise reeked of snake oil.

I admit, I was morbidly fascinated.

First, of all the celebrities in all the world, why would you misappropriate Oprah’s brand? She is famously protective of it. If you’re messing with Oprah, you’ve either got to be incredibly stupid or have some serious stones. So which was it?

I started digging.

First of all, this isn’t new. The Keto Gummy Scam has been around for at least a year. In addition to Oprah, they have also targeted Kevin Costner, Rhianna, Trisha Yearwood, Tom Selleck, Kelly Clarkson, Melissa McCarthy — even Wayne Gretzky.

Last Fall, Oprah shared a video on Instagram warning people that she had nothing to do with the gummies and asking people not to fall for the scam. Other celebrities have fallen suit and issued their own warnings. has dug into the Keto Gummy Scam a couple of times.  One exposé focused on the false claims that the gummies were featured on “Shark Tank.” The first report focused just on the supposed Oprah Winfrey endorsement. That one was from a year ago. That means these fraudulent ads have been associated with Oprah for at least a year and legally, she has been unable to stop them.

To me, that rules out my first supposition. These people aren’t stupid.

This becomes apparent when you start trying to pick your way through the maze of misinformation they have built to support these ads. If you click on the ad you’re taken to a webpage that looks like it’s from a reliable news source. The one I found looked like it was Time’s website. There you’ll find a “one-on-one interview” with Oprah about how she launched a partnership with Weight Watchers to create the Max Science Keto gummies. According to the interview, she called the CEO of Weight Watchers and said ‘if you can’t create a product that helps people lose weight faster without diet and exercise, then I’m backing out of my investment and moving on.”

This is all complete bullshit. But it’s convincing bullshit.

It doesn’t stop there. Clickbait texts with outrageous claims, including the supposed death of Oprah, get clicks through to more bogus sites with more outrageous claims about gummies. While the sites mimic legitimate news organizations like Time, they reside on bogus domains such as and Or, if you go to them through an in-app link, the URLs are cloaked and remain invisible.

If you turn to a search engine to do some due diligence, the scammers will be waiting for you. If you search for “keto gummies scam” the results page is stuffed with both sponsored and organic spam that appear to support the outrageous claims made in the ads. Paid content outlets like Outlook India have articles placed that offer reviews of the “best keto gummies,” fake reviews, and articles assuring potential victims that the gummies are not a scam but are a proven way to lose weight.

As the Snopes investigators found, it’s almost impossible to track these gummies to any company. Even if you get gummies shipped to you, there’s no return address or phone number. Orders came from a shadowy “Fulfillment Center” in places like Smyrna, Tennessee. Once they get your credit card, the unauthorized charges start.

Even the name of the product seems to be hard to nail down. The scammers seem to keep cycling through a roster of names.

This is, by every definition, predatory advertising. It is the worst example of what we as marketers do. But, like all predators, it can only exist because an ecosystem allows it to exist. It’s something we have to think about.

I certainly will. More on that soon.

The Eternal Hatred of Interruptive Messages

Spamming and Phishing and Robocalls at Midnight
Pop ups and Autoplays and LinkedIn Requests from Salespeople

These are a few of my least favorite things

We all feel the excruciating pain of unsolicited demands on our attention. In a study of the 50 most annoying things in life of 2000 Brits by online security firm Kapersky, deleting spam email came in at number 4, behind scrubbing the bath, being trapped in voicemail hell and cleaning the oven.

Based on this study, cleanliness is actually next to spamminess.

Granted, Kapersky is a tech security firm so the results are probably biased to the digital side, but for me the results check out. As I ran down the list, I hated all the same things that were listed.

In the same study, Robocalls came in at number 10. Personally, that tops my list, especially phishing robocalls. I hate – hate – hate rushing to my phone only to hear that the IRS is going to prosecute me unless I immediately push 7 on my touchtone phone keyboard.

One, I’m Canadian. Two, go to Hell.

I spend more and more of my life trying to avoid marketers and scammers (the line between the two is often fuzzy) trying desperately to get my attention by any means possible. And it’s only going to get worse. A study just out showed that the ChatGPT AI chatbot could be a game changer for phishing, making scam emails harder to detect. And with Google’s Gmail filters already trapping 100 million phishing emails a day, that is not good news.

The marketers in my audience are probably outrunning Usain Bolt in their dash to distance themselves from spammers, but interruptive demands on our attention are on a spectrum that all share the same baseline. Any demand on our attention that we don’t ask for will annoy us. The only difference is the degree of annoyance.

Let’s look at the psychological mechanisms behind that annoyance.

There is a direct link between the parts of our brain that govern the focusing of attention and the parts that regulate our emotions. At its best, it’s called “flow” – a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly that describes a sense of full engagement and purpose. At its worst, it’s a feeling of anger and anxiety when we’re unwilling dragged away from the task at hand.

In a 2017 neurological study by Rejer and Jankowski, they found that when a participant’s cognitive processing of a task was interrupted by online ads, activity in the frontal and prefrontal cortex simply shut down while other parts of the brain significantly shifted activity, indicating a loss of focus and a downward slide in emotions.

Another study, by Edwards, Li and Lee, points the finger at something called Reactance Theory as a possible explanation. Very simply put, when something interrupts us, we perceive a loss of freedom to act as we wish and a loss of control of our environment. Again, we respond by getting angry.

It’s important to note that this negative emotional burden applies to any interruption that derails what we intend to do. It is not specific to advertising, but a lot of advertising falls into that category. It’s the nature of the interruption and our mental engagement with the task that determine the degree of negative emotion.

Take skimming through a news website, for instance. We are there to forage for information. We are not actively engaged in any specific task. And so being interrupted by an ad while in this frame of mind is minimally irritating.

But let’s imagine that a headline catches our attention, and we click to find out more. Suddenly, we’re interrupted by a pop-up or pre-roll video ad that hijacks our attention, forcing us to pause our intention and focus on irrelevant information. Our level of annoyance begins to rise quickly.

Robocalls fall into a different category of annoyance for many reasons. First, we have a conditioned response to phone calls where we hope to be rewarded by hearing from someone we know and care about. That’s what makes it so difficult to ignore a ringing phone.

Secondly, phone calls are extremely interruptive. We must literally drop whatever we’re doing to pick up a phone. When we go to all this effort only to realize we’ve been duped by an unsolicited and irrelevant call, the “red mist” starts to float over us.

You’ll note that – up to this point – I haven’t even dealt with the nature of the message. This has all been focused on the delivery of the message, which immediately puts us in a more negative mood. It doesn’t matter whether the message is about a service special for our vehicle, an opportunity to buy term life insurance or an attempt by a fictitious Nigerian prince to lighten the load of our bank account by several thousand dollars; whatever the message, we start in an irritated state simply due to the nature of the interruption.

Of course, the more nefarious the message that’s delivered, the more negative our emotional response will be. And this has a doubling down effect on any form of intrusive advertising. We learn to associate the delivery mechanism with attempts to defraud us. Any politician that depends on robocalls to raise awareness on the day before an election should ponder their ad-delivery mechanism.

Using Science for Selling: Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No

A recent study out of Ohio State University seems like one of those that the world really didn’t need. The researchers were exploring whether introducing science into the marketing would help sell chocolate chip cookies.

And to us who make a living in marketing, this is one of those things that might make us say “Duh, you needed research to tell us that? Of course you don’t use science to sell chocolate chip cookies!”

But bear with me, because if we keep asking why enough, we can come up with some answers that might surprise us.

So, what did the researchers learn? I quote,

“Specifically, since hedonic attributes are associated with warmth, the coldness associated with science is conceptually disfluent with the anticipated warmth of hedonic products and attributes, reducing product valuation.”

Ohio State Study

In other words – much simpler and fewer in number – science doesn’t help sell cookies. And it’s because our brains think differently about some things than other.

For example, a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Casado-Aranda, Sanchez-Fernandez and Garcia) found that when we’re exposed to “hedonic” ads – ads that appeal to pleasurable sensations – the parts of our brain that retrieve memories kicks in. This isn’t true when we see utilitarian ads. Predictably, we approach those ads as a problem to be solved and engage the parts of our brain that control working memory and the ability to focus our attention.

Essentially, these two advertising approaches take two different paths in our awareness, one takes the “thinking” path and one takes the “feeling” path. Or, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman would say, one takes the “thinking slow” path and one takes the “thinking fast” path.

Yet another study begins to show why this may be so. Let’s go back to chocolate chip cookies for a moment. When you smell a fresh baked cookie, it’s not just the sensory appeal “in the moment” that makes the cookie irresistible. It’s also the memories it brings back for you. We know that how things smell is a particularly effective way to trigger this connection with the past. Certain smells – like that of cookies just out of the oven – can be the shortest path between today and some childhood memory. These are called associative memories. And they’re a big part of “feeling” something rather than just “thinking” about it.

At the University of California – Irvine – Neuroscientists discovered a very specific type of neuron in our memory centers that oversee the creation of new associative memories. They’re called “fan cells” and it seems that these neurons are responsible for creating the link between new input and those emotion-inducing memories that we may have tucked away from our past. And – critically – it seems that dopamine is the key to linking the two. When our brains “smell” a potential reward, it kicks these fan cells into gear and our brain is bathed in the “warm fuzzies.” Lead research Kei Igarashi, said,

“We never expected that dopamine is involved in the memory circuit. However, when the evidence accumulated, it gradually became clear that dopamine is involved. These experiments were like a detective story for us, and we are excited about the results.”

Kei Igarashi – University of California – Irvine

Not surprisingly – as our first study found – introducing science into this whole process can be a bit of a buzz kill. It would be like inviting Bill Nye the Science Guy to teach you about quantum physics during your Saturday morning cuddle time.

All of this probably seems overwhelmingly academic to you. Selling something like chocolate chip cookies isn’t something that should take three different scientific studies and strapping several people inside a fMRI machine to explain. We should be able to rely on our guts, and our guts know that science has no place in a campaign built on an emotional appeal.

But there is a point to all this. Different marketing approaches are handled by different parts of the brain, and knowing that allows us to reinforce our marketing intuition with a better understanding of why we humans do the things we do.

Utilitarian appeals activate the parts of the brain that are front and center, the data crunching, evaluating and rational parts of our cognitive machinery.

Hedonic appeals probe the subterranean depths of our brains, unpacking memories and prodding emotions below the thresholds of us being conscious of the process. We respond viscerally – which literally means “from our guts”.

If we’re talking about selling chocolate chip cookies, we have moved about as far towards the hedonic end of the scale as we can. At the other end we would find something like motor oil – where scientific messaging such as “advanced formulation” or “proven engine protection” would be more persuasive. But almost all other products fall somewhere in between. They are a mix of hedonic and utilitarian factors. And we haven’t even factored in the most significant of all consumer considerations – risk and how to avoid it. Think how complex things would get in our brains if we were buying a new car!

Buying chocolate chip cookies might seem like a no brainer – because – well – it almost is. Beyond dosing our neural pathways with dopamine, our brains barely kick in when considering whether to grab a bag of Chips Ahoy on our next trip to the store. In fact, the last thing you want your brain to do when you’re craving chewy chocolate is to kick in. Then you would start considering things like caloric intake and how you should be cutting down on processed sugar. Chocolate chip cookies might be a no-brainer, but almost nothing else in the consumer world is that simple.

Marketing is relying more and more on data. But data is typically restricted to answering “who”, “what”, “when” and “where” questions. It’s studies like the ones I shared here that start to pick apart the “why” of marketing.

And when things get complex, asking “why” is exactly what we need to do.

What Media Insiders Were Thinking (And Writing) In 2021

Note: This is a year back look at the posts in the Media Insider Column on Mediapost, for which I write every Tuesday. All the writers for the column have been part of the Marketing and Media business for decades, so there’s a lot of wisdom there to draw on. This is the second time I’ve done this look back at what we’ve written about in the previous year.

As part of the group of Media Insiders, I’ve always considered myself in sterling company. I suspect if you added up all the years of experience in this stable of industry experts, we’d be well into the triple digits. Most of the Insiders are still active in the world of marketing. For myself, although I’m no longer active in the business, I’m still fascinated by how it impacts our lives and our culture.

For all those reasons, I think the opinions of this group are worth listening to — and, thankfully,  MediaPost gives you those opinions every day.

Three years ago, I thought it would be interesting to do a “meta-analysis” of those opinions over the span of the year, to see what has collectively been on the minds of the Media Insiders. I meant to do it again last year, but just never got around to it — as you know, global pandemics and uprisings against democracy were a bit of a distraction.

This year, I decided to give it another shot. And it was illuminating. Here’s a summary of what has been on our collective minds:

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that your Insiders have been unusually existential in their thoughts in the past 12 months. Now, granted, this is one column on MediaPost that leads to existential musings. That’s why I ended up here. I love the fact that I can write about pretty much anything and it generally fits under the “Media Insider” masthead. I suspect the same is true for the other Insiders.

But even with that in mind, this year was different. I think we’ve all spent a lot of the last year thinking about what the moral and ethical boundaries for marketers are — for everyone, really — in the world of 2021. Those ponderings broke down into a few recurring themes.

Trying to Navigate a Substantially Different World

Most of this was naturally tied to the ongoing COVID pandemic.  

Surprisingly, given that three years ago it was one of the most popular topics, Insiders said little about politics. Of course, we were then squarely in the middle of “Trump time.” There were definitely a few posts after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but most of it was just trying to figure out how the world might permanently change after 2021. Almost 20% of our columns touched on this topic.

A notable subset of this was how our workplaces might change. With many of us being forced to work from home, 4% of the year’s posts talked about how “going to work” may never look the same again.

Ad-Tech Advice

The next most popular topic from Insiders (especially those still in the biz, like Corey, Dave, Ted and Maarten) was ongoing insight on how to manage the nuts and bolts of your marketing. A lot of this focused on using ad tech effectively. That made up 15% of last year’s posts.

And Now, The Bad News

I will say your Media Insiders (myself included) are a somewhat pessimistic bunch. Even when we weren’t talking about wrenching change brought about by a global pandemic, we were worrying about the tech world going to hell in a handbasket. About 13.5% of our posts talked about social media, and it was almost all negative, with most of it aimed squarely at Facebook — sorry, Meta.

Another 12% of our posts talked about other troubling aspects of technology. Privacy concerns over data usage and targeting took the lead here. But we were also worried about other issues, like the breakdown of person-to-person relationships, disappearing attention spans, and tears in our social fabric. When we talked about the future of tech, we tended to do it through a dystopian lens.

Added to this was a sincere concern about the future of journalism. This accounted for another 5% of all our posts. This makes almost a full third of all posts with a decidedly gloomy outlook when it comes to tech and digital media’s impact on society.

The Runners-Up

If there was one branch of media that seemed the most popular among the Insiders (especially Dave Morgan), it was TV and streaming video. I also squeezed a few posts about online gaming into this category. Together, this topic made up 10.5% of all posts.

Next in line, social marketing and ethical branding. We all took our own spins on this, and together we devoted almost 9.5% of all posts in 2021 to it. I’ve talked before about the irony of a world that has little trust in advertising but growing trust in brands. Your Insiders have tried to thread the needle between the two sides of this seeming paradox.

Finally, we did cover a smattering of other topics, but one in particular rose about the others as something increasingly on our radar. We touched on the Metaverse and its implications in almost 3% of our posts.

Summing Up

To try to wrap up 2021 in one post is difficult, but if there was a single takeaway, I think it’s that both marketing and media are faced with some very existential questions. Ad-supported revenue models have now been pushed to the point where we must ask what the longer-term ethical implications might be.

If anything, I would say the past year has marked the beginning of our industry realizing that a lot of unintended consequences have now come home to roost.

The Tech Giant Trust Exercise

If we look at those that rule in the Valley of Silicon — the companies that determine our technological future — it seems, as I previously wrote,  that Apple alone is serious about protecting our privacy. 

MediaPost editor in chief Joe Mandese shared a post late last month about how Apple’s new privacy features are increasingly taking aim at the various ways in which advertising can be targeted to specific consumers. The latest victim in those sights is geotargeting.

Then Steve Rosenbaum mentioned last week that as Apple and Facebook gird their loins and prepare to do battle over the next virtual dominion — the metaverse — they are taking two very different approaches. Facebook sees this next dimension as an extension of its hacker mentality, a “raw, nasty networker of spammers.” Apple is, as always, determined to exert a top-down restriction on who plays in its sandbox, only welcoming those who are willing to play by its rules. In that approach, the company is also signaling that it will take privacy in the metaverse seriously. Apple CEO Tim Cook said he believes “users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used.”

Apple can take this stand because its revenue model doesn’t depend on advertising. To find a corporation’s moral fiber, you always, always, always have to follow the money. Facebook depends on advertising for revenue. And it has repeatedly shown it doesn’t really give a damn about protecting the privacy of users. Apple, on the other hand, takes every opportunity to unfurl the privacy banner as its battle standard because its revenue stream isn’t really impacted by privacy.

If you’re looking for the rot at the roots of technology, a good place to start is at anything that relies on advertising. In my 40 years in marketing, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it is impossible for business models that rely on advertising as their primary source of revenue to stay on the right side of privacy concerns. There is an inherent conflict that cannot be resolved. In a recent earnings call,  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it in about the clearest way it could be said, “As expected, we did experience revenue headwinds this quarter, including from Apple’s [privacy rule] changes that are not only negatively affecting our business, but millions of small businesses in what is already a difficult time for them in the economy.”

Facebook has proven time and time again that when the need for advertising revenue runs up against a question of ethical treatment of users, it will always be the ethics that give way.

It’s also interesting that Europe is light years ahead of North America in introducing legislation that protects privacy. According to one Internet Privacy Ranking study, four of the five top countries for protecting privacy are in Northern Europe. Australia is the fifth. My country, Canada, shares these characteristics. We rank seventh. The US ranks 18th.

There is an interesting corollary here I’ve touched on before. All these top-ranked countries are social democracies. All have strong public broadcasting systems. All have a very different relationship with advertising than the U.S. We that live in these countries are not immune from the dangers of advertising (this is certainly true for Canada), but our media structure is not wholly dependent on it. The U.S., right from the earliest days of electronic media, took a different path — one that relied almost exclusively on advertising to pay the bills.

As we start thinking about things like the metaverse or other forms of reality that are increasingly intertwined with technology, this reliance on advertising-funded platforms is something we must consider long and hard. It won’t be the companies that initiate the change. An advertising-based business model follows the path of least resistance, making it the shortest route to that mythical unicorn success story. The only way this will change will be if we — as users — demand that it changes.

And we should  — we must — demand it. Ad-based tech giants that have no regard for our personal privacy are one of the greatest threats we face. The more we rely on them, they more they will ask from us.

Live, From Inside the Gale of Creative Destruction

Talk about cognitive dissonance…

First, Mediapost’s Jack Loechner writes about a Forrester Report, The End of Advertising as We Know It, which was published earlier this year. Seeing as last week I starting ringing the death knell for advertising agencies, I though I should check the report out.

Problem One: The report was only available on Forrester if I was willing to plunk down $499. American. Which is – I don’t know – about 14 zillion Canadian. Much as I love and respect you, my readers, there’s no friggin’ way that’s going to happen. So, I go to Google to see if I can find a free source to get the highlights.

Problem Two: Everyone and Sergio Zyman’s dog has apparently decided to write a book or white paper entitled “The End of Advertising as We Know It.” Where to begin researching the end? Well, here’s one deliciously ironic option – one of those white papers was published by none other than WPP. You know I have to check that out! As it turns out – no surprise here – it’s a sales pitch for the leading edge cool stuff that one of WPP’s agencies, AKQA, can do for you. I tried to sift through the dense text but gave up after continually bumping into buzz-laden phrases like “365 ideas”, “Business Invention” and “People Stories.” I return to the search results page and follow a Forbes link that looks more promising.

Problem Three: Yep! This is it. It’s Forbes summation of the Forrester Report. I start reading and learning that the biggest problem with advertising is that we hate to be interrupted by advertising. Well, I could have told you that. Oh – wait – I did (for free, I might add). But here’s the cognitively dissonant part. As I’m trying to read the article, an autoplay video ad keeps playing on the Forbes page, interrupting me. And you know what? I hated it! The report was right. At least, I think it was, as I stopped reading the article.

I’m guessing you’re going through something similar right now. As you’re trying to glean my pearls of wisdom, you’re tiptoeing around advertising on the page. That’s not Mediapost’s fault. They have a business to run and right now, there’s no viable business model other than interruptive advertising to keep the lights on. So you have the uniquely dissonant experience of reading about the end of advertising while being subjected to advertising.

My experience – which is hardly unique – is a painful reminder about the inconvenient truth of innovative disruption: it’s messy in the middle of it. When Joseph Schumpeter called it a “gale of creative destruction” it made it sound revolutionary and noble in the way that the Ride of the Valkyries or the Starks retaking Winterfell is noble. But this stuff gets messy, especially if you’re trying to hang on to the things being destroyed when the gale hits in full force.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell. The tension goes back to a comment made back in 1984 from Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

In publishing, we not only have the value of the information itself, but we have the cost of wrapping insight around that information. Forrester’s business is industry analysis. Someone has to do the analyzing and there are costs associated with that. So they charge $499 for a report on the end of advertising.

Which brings us to the second part of the tension. Because so much information is now free and Google gives me, the information consumer, the expectation that I can find it for free – or, at least, highlights of it for free – I expect all information to be free. I believe I have an alternative to paying Forrester. In today’s age, information tends to seep through the cracks in pay walls, as it did when Forbes and Mediapost published articles on the report. Forrester is okay with that, because it hopes it will make more people willing to pay $499 aware of the report.

For their part Forbes – or Mediapost – relies on advertising to keep the information available to you for free, matching our expectations. But they have their own expenses. Whether we like it or not, interruptive advertising is the only option currently available to them.

So there we have it, a very shaky house of cards built on a rapidly crumbling foundation. Welcome to the Edge of Chaos. A new model will be created from this destruction. That is inevitable. But in the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of pain and WTF moments. Just like the one I had this week.

How Our Brains Engage with Online Ads

On Monday, I talked about how our brain found Waldo – how we pick a recognized figure out of a busy background.

Yesterday, I took the same principles and applied them to how our brain scans a webpage.

Today, I want to dive into how the mechanics of our brain’s ability to focus attention impacts our engagement with online ads.

The Role of Engagement

One factor above all others dictates the level of engagement we have with online advertising: are we looking for it? Intent is the spoiler in ad effectiveness. When we have intent that aligns with advertising that’s presented to us, the rules of engagement significantly shift in favor of the ad. I dealt with this at some length in a previous post, so I won’t rehash the topic here. However, in all that follows, it’s important to keep that in mind.

As I laid out yesterday, our intent will determine our information foraging strategy on a web page. We will have an idea of what we’re looking for, perhaps even to the extent of creating a mental picture in our visual cortex, and the attention focusing apparatus in our brain working together with our ability to quickly scan a page in it’s entirety through peripheral vision will help us “thin slice” (to use a term from Gladwell’s Blink) the contents of a page, mentally dividing it up into areas of greater and lesser promise. Clusters of information scent are important here to help guide our attention in the most promising directions, as determined by our intent.

Now, obviously the more detail there is on a page, and the more diverse it is, the harder this attention focusing mechanism has to work. Busy pages make us work harder than clean pages. That’s why we tend to get frustrated with them. I’m not sure this tendency is universal, however. Past eye tracking work seems to suggest that at least some of our visual preferences might be cultural. In China, for example, very busy websites seems to be the norm.

So, we have our peripheral vision scanning a page for relevancy, ready to swing the spotlight of foveal attention in the right directions. What happens now?

Conditioning in a Scan Pattern

When we start scanning a website, our foraging strategy isn’t a blank slate. Because there tends to be some commonalities in how websites are built, we have built up some universal strategies we use to find the most promising content on the page. The examples below from The BuyerSphere Project show how these strategies guide us through the first few seconds of interaction with a web page:


These conditioned patterns allow us to mentally divide up a page for easier digestion. This has significant implications for advertising placed on the page. Ads tend to occupy real estate that is outside this conditioned navigation path. They are usually placed at the top (the much maligned banner ad) or on the right side of the page. Because placement is fairly constant, we have become conditioned to expect advertising in these spots. This makes it a sort of “no man’s land” on most websites. Ads are seldom aligned with intent. They tend to interrupt our intent. So we try to filter them out. Ads start with one strike against them. We might scan them peripherally just to see if there are any relevancy “hits” with our activated “target” neurones, but if there’s no hit, we spend little time with them. The eye tracking heat map below shows the difference in ad engagement when an ad is placed in the top banner position versus a position in the middle of content.


Ad Relevancy

But, what if an ad is relevant? Thanks to Google and other content targeting ad networks, relevancy has been introduced into our ad targeting strategies. This has a significant impact. Enquiro worked with Google to try to quantify the impact of relevancy in a study we conducted in 2008. We gave respondents scenarios that simulated purchase intent and then showed them various websites. Some were relevant to the purchase, some weren’t. Also, some had ads that were contextually targeted and others had general ads which weren’t contextually relevant. The results, shown in the graphs below (again, from The BuyerSphere Project) were somewhat startling and counter intuitive.


While non-relevant ads scored higher on ad awareness (recognizing that there was an ad on the page) they scored much lower on almost every other metric. 3 times more respondents remembered the ad messages in a relevant ad and  5 times more respondents indicated that the advertised ad would make their short list of candidates. In “intent to purchase” the non-relevant ads actually performed worse than the control group (who saw no ad) and significantly worse than the relevant ad group.

How Hard Do Ads Have to Work?

In my post on the alignment of intent, I said that ads that don’t benefit from aligned intent have to work much harder to get our attention. Ads that are aligned with intent (search ads are probably the best example) can be much more subtle. This was shown in another study Enquiro conducted in 2007. We found that while more intrusive ads (i.e. video ads) did a better job at attracting our eyeballs, they didn’t do so well in convincing us to consider the advertised product. Which ad format performed the best? The lowly text ad, if it was relevant and aligned with consumer intent.


Let’s go back to our mental attention focusing apparatus and explore some of the possible reasons for this advertising dilemma: why do the ads that are best at grabbing our attention seem to be the worst at putting us in a positive frame of mind about a potential purchase (note: I have reservations about the research methodology here, which I’ll talk about at the end of this post)? Remember, we go to a webpage with a specific intent. Intrusive, interruptive ads have to pull out a bag of tricks to hijack our attention. The most effective of these play directly into the properties of peripheral vision, which acts as a type of early warning system for us. Peripheral vision evolved to keep us alive and warn us of potential danger. What signal is the most reliable predictor of potential danger? You guessed it – movement. Something moving in the corner of our eye is sure to get our attention. But it comes at an emotional cost.

The brain has a rather effective mechanism that allows us to put our tasks on hold if it believes we’re in danger. In effect, the prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of our brain – is bypassed by our danger circuits, routed directly into the amygdala and sub-cortex – the “animal” part of our brain. Movement in our field of vision gets us ready to flee or fight.

Now, you say, that’s ridiculous. Even the most annoying online ads don’t cause you to suddenly run away from your laptop. No, but there’s an element of proportionate response here. The brain also has a slightly delayed dampening circuit that assesses potential danger and shuts down the alarm if it proves to be false. In extreme cases (the oft-cited example of a garden hose mistaken for a snake in your shed) your heart stops racing, adrenaline stops pumping and your hands stop shaking. In mild cases (i.e. intrusive ads) it’s a much more subtle sense of anxiety and annoyance. The mechanism is the same, it’s the degree that differs.

Think about how annoying you find a particularly intrusive ad on a website where you’re there for a purpose other than to look at the ad in question. One of the key sins in usability is using movement in a page element which is not of primary importance in the page. The eye is continually dragged away from what it is trying to do. Yet, this is exactly what most sites do when they include rich media or video ads. Yes, the ads get our attention but in doing so, they almost always piss us off. The reason is that we resent being tricked into paying attention when our intention is to do something else.

Now, I said I did have quibbles with typical ad effectiveness metrics that we and almost everyone else uses in most effectiveness studies. The opinion we get from a respondent immediately after exposure to an ad is typically not very indicative of the longer term effectiveness of an ad. For one thing, it doesn’t capture the subliminal influence of an ad. Barring any compelling empirical evidence, it’s difficult to say what the long term effectiveness of an intrusive but annoying ad might be.

Tomorrow, I’ll pick up this topic again as we look at how our attention focusing plays out on a page of search results.

Wrenching Changes in Ad Revenue Models

This week, I’ve talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding online behaviors and our interactions with content, the fact that we don’t really think our way through online interactions, but rather navigate through instinct and habit, and yesterday, how different intents lead to different levels of engagement with ads. All of this has been to show how Rupert Murdoch and other publishers are seriously off base in trying to put walls around their content to protect their obsolete business models.

The Planting of Intent

But, as comScore Chair Gian Fulgoni commented on yesterday’s post, does all this mean that display ads have no value? Yes, we agree, ads aligned with intent, such as search and relevant text ads, are the ideal, but something needs to plant that intent in the first place. Something needs to create awareness, which sparks need and kicks the brain into gear to go seek information. In Gian’s words:

there’s another issue that needs to be addressed: not all consumers search for information via an online search query. They’re just not all that rational. As a result, using display ads can get an advertiser a far higher reach against the target audience. And that higher reach can cause the total sales lift from a display campaign to rival that from search – even if the sales lift among those exposed is higher in the case of search.

There’s also another even more important point that we need to consider: brand building. That needs to occur even when the consumer isn’t foraging for information in support of an impending buying decision. Otherwise the value of an individual brand name isn’t going to be as meaningful to the consumer when he / she is in the shopping / buying mode. CPG manufacturers know this well. Every week, their special prices (“temporary price reductions”) are shown in the local newspaper feature ads. Placed by the retailer but funded by the manufacturer. The consumer can pick and choose the products they intend to buy and where they will buy them (and, incidentally, store loyalty is not the norm). This information – delivered by old media still, but, I would argue, aligned with consumers intent to shop and buy – determines, to a great extent, the store at which a consumer shops and the brands they buy in a particular week. But the important point is that the CPG manufacturers don’t just leave it with running these types of feature ads. They understand that they need to be supplemented with “branding” advertising that they run themselves because they need to make sure that their brand value has been firmly established in the mind of consumers before they compare prices across brands at the shopping / buying stage. This type of branding advertising is delivered via TV, print and radio – and increasingly today, via the Internet. It’s a critical part of brand marketing, and I think it should remain that way even in today’s Internet world, because — as one of our clients recently said to me — “God forbid that price becomes the only determinant of consumers’ brand choice!”

I voiced similar opinions in a previous post, No Search is an Island. Search itself has a naturally limited inventory. If no one is searching for a term, there is no inventory to buy. This lack of scale and reach has been the single biggest limiting factor in search marketing. If you suddenly cut out all awareness advertising, you’ll eventually find your available search inventory dwindling in lock step. Gian’s points are well taken, and indeed, one of the biggest questions for me is how much residual branding value is derived from an ad that is noticed but not clicked. As I said yesterday, I think it depends on how pressing the user’s intent is. If they’re browsing content, my suspicion is that the residual value would be higher than if they’re on a focused information finding mission.

Differing Shades of Gray

As is most transitions, the truth is there there is no absolute answer here. One is neither right or wrong, black or white. What is happening is a shift from one type of behavior to another. The answer is gray, and each day, that shade of gray is gradually shifting more from black to white. Murdoch won’t suddenly find his revenue model shutting off one day. But what will happen (and there are dozens of newspaper bankruptcies to support my case) is that the revenue model will gradually erode. In fact, it has been happening for some time. As we switch our behaviors from a destination information economy to a just-in-time information economy we’ll spend less time casually browsing content and more time taking brief forays through search to find specific pieces of information. And when we do so, all the challenges in ad engagement I addressed yesterday will have to be dealt with. Murdoch’s revenue model won’t shut off tomorrow, but it will gradually melt away to the point where it’s unable to support the business. That is why there’s more than a hint of desperation in his rantings. He knows the ship is sinking and he’s lashing out at what he thinks the cause is: Google. Unfortunately, he’s lashing out at the wrong cause. The real cause is his reader’s changing behaviour.

Brand Building = Fence Painting?

The other point I would make about brand building is this: Gian is right, we need some way to build brands in public consciousness. But even the options for building brand are rapidly shifting. It used to be that mass media was the most efficient choice. It offered reach and frequency. It was scalable and could be measured in GRPs. The market was treated like a fence to be painted. What was the most efficient way to apply as much paint to as much area as possible? The answer, the biggest possible spray gun. It was a pretty simple equation: Area of fence X density of paint = complete saturation. The spray gun didn’t even need to be that efficient at painting, we just had to keep pouring in more paint. Which was fine, as long as the fence was all in one place. But now, the fence is scattered over an impossibly large area. There are fragments spread everywhere. Suddenly, the spray gun isn’t working so well anymore. We need a new approach to brand building, and we’re beginning to explore new techniques, such as tapping into social networks and word-of-mouth. It seems in today’s world, Tom Sawyer had it right..the best way to paint a fence is to enlist an army of recruits to do it for you.

You Can’t Put a Wall Around News

The challenge advertisers face now is trying to find a way to reach an increasingly fragmented market who is spending less time with traditional media and are increasingly seeking information in bite-sized pieces, rather than sitting down to a full meal. And that’s a challenge that traditional media, represented by Rupert Murdoch, seem unable and unwilling to face. Their answer seems to be to rant, rave and hope the whole mess will go away. If people are increasingly seeking information through Google and not looking at my ads, fine, I’ll just lock out Google and lock in my audience by forcing them to pay. Murdoch is skiing down the wrong side of the adoption curve. And, as Danny Sullivan pointed out in his Search Engine Land post, you can no longer put a fence around information and keep it proprietary, especially in the news industry. Breaking stories will break in hundreds of ways online – through Twitter, networks, blogs and news aggregators. Even if the Wall Street Journal breaks a new story, they can’t control it. People don’t care about the source anymore, all they care about is the information. Even if Google is locked out of Murdoch’s content, it will find it somewhere else and will index it. And people will go where ever Google lets them go. For this reason, I disagree with Danny about the viability of a mutually exclusive relationship. Google doesn’t need the Wall Street Journal, but I do believe that the Wall Street Journal needs Google.

So what about the deal with Bing? Is that the answer to Murdoch’s woes? After all, you still get search visitors and you control your content. Again, for all the reasons I’ve stated over the past week, I don’t think this is any answer at all. It may look good on paper to two companies that are entrenched in command and control thinking, but it doesn’t reflect the real world at all. And if Murdoch would take a few minutes to glance at the latest search market share numbers, even he might see why it doesn’t make sense to kick the elephant out of bed to make way for the mouse (okay..perhaps a small dog).

In the final analysis, we have people changing their information consumption habits, which is giving advertising a wrenching kick right in its revenue model. The dramatic success of search was indicative of the power and speed of this behavioral change. The successful model of the future will understand and embrace the reality of information foraging and will leverage the changing habits of people. The search part, aligning with consumers when intent is present, is the easy part to work out. The challenging bit will be to swim upstream and figure out the pieces that have to be in place to spark intent and put the mental train in motion. My suspicion is that mass solutions will no longer work. We’ll have to figure out how to brand build one prospect at a time, one relationship at a time. None of this is good news for traditional publishers, but hey, if everyone won in evolution, the world would be a much more crowded place.

Aligned Intent: A Different Ad Engagement Metric

On Tuesday, I talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding our online behaviors. Yesterday, I talked about how we navigate online based on habit and instinct, keeping our thinking to a minimum. Both of those behaviors are threatening  traditional ad revenue models. The very nature of engagement with advertising is undergoing a dramatic shift. Today, I want to talk more about that shift, because at Enquiro, we’ve seen dramatic evidence of it in our research over the past few years.

The Traditional Model

Let’s begin by exploring how advertising has worked up to now – the model that Rupert Murdoch is still pinning all his hopes on.

In the past, we used a “destination” based information gathering strategy. We depended on someone to gather the information and get it to us at a destination that would become a mental landmark for us. This was the model that gave rise to our traditional news industry. We trusted our favored sources to cover the world for us. It was their job to stay on top of what was happening, interpret it and present it back to us. Publishers developed editorial voices and we grew to trust those voices. We didn’t have time to cover every possible news channel, so we short listed it down to the information sources that best matched our interests and personality. We picked our favourites and trusted these few sources to keep us informed. These favorites formed the most visited locations in our mental information “landscape”.

Once we had our list of a handful of information sources, we would set some time aside every day to stay informed. It was a different paradigm of information gathering. We treated our sources as destinations and made the trip worthwhile by investing some time in it. We’re read the paper in the morning. We’d watch the news at night. We’d listen to news radio. In each of these cases, we’d take a discrete and substantial chunk of our available time and devote it to “staying informed”. There was no specific piece of information we were looking for. We trusted our information sources to serve us something interesting. Our intent wasn’t tied to any particular topic, although there might be sections that we favored (sports or business). Our intent was simply to spend some time with our favorite information source. Just like a trip to a physical destination, we understood that this journey would take some time.

This relationship, that of a favored source, then offered the published a willing set of eyeballs without any set agenda. The audience was there to browse through the content offered. That was the objective. And that objective allowed publishers, and through them, advertisers, to make some safe assumptions: the audience would be there for awhile, the audience had no other urgent priorities, and the audience could be safely categorized by the characteristics of the ideal audience of the channel. One could assume that the reason they favoured the channel was that they matched the target profile. All of this formed the foundation of traditional advertising as we know it.

The publishers job was to amass the audience. By doing so, they could then go to advertisers and deliver the audience. And it was the advertiser’s job to catch the audience’s attention. Again, remember, the audience had already set a significant chunk of time aside to spend with the publisher and the audience had no specific intent other than visiting their information “destination.” This mindset is critical to understand, because it forms the “before” state of the shift I’ll be exploring. The audience had to be distracted by the advertising, but the distraction was a minor derailing of our attention. Let’s dive a little deeper here.

Yesterday, I talked about the switching on and off our our neural autopilots as we do any mental task. Our attention and the full power of our brains only get focused when we need to. The rest of the time, we’re subconsciously scanning to see if there’s anything that merits our attention. The arousal of intent, the mental embedding of a clear objective, kicks the brain into high gear and causes us to focus our attention, including the full power of the frontal lobes – what we can consider the turbocharger of the brain. With those mental mechanics understood, let’s look at how we might browse a newspaper.

Newspapers, or any traditional information source, look the way they do because over years of trial and error, publishers and advertisers have discovered what it takes to catch a few fleeting seconds of a brain’s attention while it’s idling on autopilot. As we pick up the paper, there is no intent which has aroused the full power of the brain. It’s doing what it should be doing, idling as the eyes scan the headlines, graphics and other information cues, looking for something of interest that merits the brain kicking into a higher degree of engagement. What catches our eye depends totally on what we’re interested in. With no set mental agenda, when we look at a newspaper, a story on major crime, a business report on a company we know, a box score for a team we’re a fan of or an ad for a car we’ve been considering all stand a good chance of dragging our eye balls to them and jolting our brain from it’s semi-slumber. The typical display ad (at least, the effective ones) have been honed by years of experimentation to be very good at this. Their entire purpose is to stop the eyeball just long enough for a fragment of the message to sink into the brain.

The Just In Time Information Economy

Now, let’s look at what’s shifted. Through the ubiquity of information online and the reasonable effectiveness of web search in making that information instantly available, we’ve changed the way we gather information. We’ve moved from a “destination” to a “just in time” information economy. Let me return to our food foraging analogy for just a second to illustrate this.

When you shop for groceries, you probably have a favoured store. You trust this store because they have a good selection, the produce is fresh, the deli counter has your favourite cheese, the prices are reasonable, the location is convenient and the staff is courteous. This store becomes your primary food destination, just as a newspaper could become your primary information destination. For certain items, prices may be a little cheaper elsewhere, the produce might be a little better at an organic whole food store and the deli counter may be amazing at a little store you know across town, but it’s just too much trouble to go to all these destinations. You compromise and stick with your store, giving it your loyalty.

But let’s imagine that you could build a pick up window right into your kitchen. Through this pick up window, you could order any food item and it would instantly be delivered to you from any store in the world, right when you need it. No travel was necessary. The idea of a destination suddenly becomes obsolete. Food comes to you, just in time. What would this do to your foraging strategies? How often would you visit your favourite store? Perhaps there would be occasions when an item from your store was offered by your magic “food window”, and you might order it. You might even feel twinges of old loyalties. But the nature of the relationship has forever changed. You’ve become store “agnostic”. Now all you care about are the food items you order. And your intent has also changed. Previously, you went on a “shopping trip” for an hour to a store to pick up a list full of items. Your intent was focused on the store, not an individual item. But with your magic window, if you’re making a recipe and suddenly find you’re out of shallots, your intent is focused on the item you need, not the store you get it from. All you care about is getting the best shallots at the best price. It’s an important mental shift.

That’s what search has done for information. We care much less about the source of the information and more about the nature of the information itself. Also, we have shifted our intent away from the source of the information and to the quality and relevancy of the information itself. This has a profound effect on the nature of engagement with advertising that may sit alongside that information.

The Alignment of Intent

The Just in Time Information Economy has implanted intent in the minds of online users now, dramatically raising the attention threshold that must be bridged by advertising. Think of our mental process as a train. If the train is idling through a rail yard with no particular destination, it’s not that difficult for a hitchhiker (which is what most advertising is, messages interrupting you just long enough to hop on your brain for the ride) to jump on board. But if the train is going full speed towards a destination, the hitchhiker had better be a very fast runner. The Just In Time information economy has meant that many more visitors to online information sites are speeding express trains with a firm destination in mind, rather than than idling in a rail yard. We visit sites because we’ve come through a search engine looking for specific information. The site that hosts that information is secondary to our intent.

In the past few years we’ve done a number of studies of engagement with advertising that have yielded some surprising findings:

  • When it comes to ad awareness (participants remembering seeing an ad on a site) display and video perform best, search and text ads perform worst.
  • When it comes to brand recall (participants remembering the brand featured in the ad) display and video still perform better than search and text, although the gap is dramatically less.
  • When it comes to click throughs, search performs best, followed by text, display and video
  • When it comes to purchase intent, search and text are substantially better than display and video.

Ads that are relevant to the information they sit beside (as in Google’s AdSense network) also have this strange inverse relationship:

  • For ad awareness, non contextually relevant ads performed better than contextually relevant ones
  • For brand recall, it was close to even, with contextually relevant ads having a slight edge
  • For click throughs, contextually relevant ads blew the doors off non contextually relevant ones
  • For purchase intent, again, contextually relevant ads were the clear winner.

Why Ad Awareness Does Not Equal Ad Effectiveness

This is counter intuitive. If an ad is noticed and recognized as an ad, it should have done it’s job, right? According to the old rules, that’s all we ever asked an ad to do. But somehow it seems the rules have changed. Suddenly, ads that often don’t even seem like ads (after all, they’re just a few lines of text) are drastically outperforming more traditional ads where it counts, motivating a prospect to take action. We’ve tested a number of traditional best practices, including more effective creative, increased exposure both through frequency and more channels and this inverse relationship held: search and text outperformed flashing graphics, blaring video and looping audio. What gives?

The answer is the introduction of intent. By having intent planted in the minds of the prospect, by focusing their attention on an objective, the rules of interaction with ads has suddenly changed. When we have intent, we plant a mental objective which narrows our attention and focuses it only on relevant items that get us closer to the objective. Anything not aligned with that intent suffers from “inattentional blindness”. In eye tracking, we see this often has people scan a page, looking directly at an ad for several seconds yet afterwards swear they didn’t see the ad. The most famous example is the video “Gorillas in our Midst.” The unsuspecting are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed in the video. Once attention is focused, most viewers don’t even notice the man in the gorilla suit walking right through the middle of the teams. If you haven’t seen this, I just spoiled it for you, but you can still try the experiment with your friends.

If a visitor lands on a page with a specific intent, their interactions look much different than those with no intent. They’re laser focused on relevant content. They spend almost no time looking at content that’s not aligned with their intent, including ads. Often, a single glance to identify it as advertising (thus the high ad awareness recall) is the limit of interaction. And the more an ad looks like an ad, the quicker it’s eliminated for consideration. The visitor becomes blind to it.

But if an ad is aligned with intent, it ceases to be an ad. It becomes a relevant information cue, a navigation option, a link laced with information scent. It becomes valuable because it matches our objectives. The user evaluates it along with all the other relevant navigation options on the page. This is exactly what happens with search ads, and the more relevant a text ad on the page, the more likely this is to happen.

Why This Does Not Bode Well for Rupert Murdoch

Murdoch, and for that matter, everyone else who still depends on a revenue from a “Destination” based ad model, will lose in this transition. The ones that will win are those that effectively leverage the alignment of intent and the “Just in Time” Information economy. Tomorrow, I’ll walk through the specifics of why the “Destination” ad model is doomed.

Murdoch and Bing: The Sound of Two Dinosaurs Dancing

This morning in Ad Age:

Why Murdoch Can Afford to Leave Google for Bing

The author, Nat Ives, reasons that Google traffic doesn’t translate into revenue for Murdoch anyway. This is true, but the logical conclusion that you can afford to kiss this traffic goodbye is seriously flawed. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Yesterday in Search Engine Land, Danny offered his thoughts on “The OPEC of News“. He approached it from the flow of information and indexing cycle perspective, and I think he did a good job of hitting the salient points. From the mechanics of the search space, Danny’s right, but what’s more interesting to me is the human behavior that sits behind all this.

The biggest reason why this is a stupid deal is that it’s out of touch with where the market is going. I touched on this in a previous post, but I’ll expand on it this week in a few posts that will tie together Enquiro’s past research and other seminal research :

Today – The Primacy of the Patch – Why Information Foraging is the Key to Behavior

Wednesday – The Mindlessness of Web Search – How We Don’t Think Our Way through Online Interactions

Thursday – Engagement with Online Ads – The Importance of Aligned Intent

Friday – Tying it Together – Why Murdoch and Bing’s Logic is Fatally Flawed