Intrusion and clutter as advertising strategy: the design chaos in Indian media

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Remember those cricket live telecasts on Doordarshan where an ad would be inserted barely after the last ball of an over is bowled? It was as if a sarkari official was itching to press the play button of an ad on every possible ‘break’ – real or imagined. And it only drove us viewers up the wall, forgetting to pay attention to the ad (which was quite often stopped mid way to get back to the live telecast). I thought it was a waste of advertiser’s money and a poor experience for the viewer. Paradoxically, advertisers pay a ransom to get their ads in such cricket telecasts, hoping to get maximum bang for the buck. My perception about media owners in such cases is one of desperation, greed and short-sightedness.

I am reminded of this very often when I visit popular news sites or watch some television channels. Typically, any or all of the following happen when you visit a popular news site:
– an ad page before you get to the home page
– once you get to the home page, an ad that takes over the page in some form: a full page ad that simply hides the news or partially takes over the page
– vertical banner ads across the columns on the side. @eastbengal called it a ‘puja pandal’ on Twitter

– banners galore across the home page and article pages – sponsored stories – video ads which auto play in a loop when you open a page I jokingly offered a ‘template’ for online news sites:

On TV too, we see this desperate attempt to ‘maximise real estate’ – blurbs, ads, scrolls and promotional messages galore. If ‘breaking news’ blurbs don’t get you, shrinking the main screen to thrust promotional messages will. The main screen of a popular series like House of Cards (which has a hashtag displayed permanently) is shrunk to accommodate promotional messages.

The guiding principles of digital media and screens in general, seem to be: exact opposite of minimalism and placing advertiser interest above viewer experience. In another context, I have come across the ‘us Indians are like this only’ argument when it comes to prevalence of clutter, chaos and lack of ‘orderliness’. Some would cite Big Bazaar’s success and it’s design principle.



Globally the trend is towards minimalism and mobile-first (hence keeping things simple) seems to be the design mantra. You can see that in New York Times, Time magazine and The Guardian’s beta site. We may argue that the advertising industry is on a growth mode here in India and its natural that media owners are capitalising on it. We may also say that the western audience is at a different stage compared to yet-nascent digital audience in India.

I guess this over-eager attitude to sell any and all space as ad space and constantly coming up with ways of thrusting an ad (often intrusively) is with a well-intentioned motive of maximising the buck for the client. In my view, it is bound to backfire sooner or later. Consumers can’t be taken for granted forever. Especially the premium consumers who are exposed to global trends and can be expected to shun poor brand experiences. Trouble is, most popular online sites (and TV channels) put all consumers in one basket: an ad for a budget-phone jostles for space with an ad for Samsung S5 or an iPhone 5S. Ads for budget holidays and luxury spas can be found in the same property, often the same page. Do both these audiences react to similar stimuli? Are the design & aesthetic sensibilities of these audience sets the same? I doubt it. But our media owners tend to treat them the same. And advertisers are opting for, even insisting maybe of such carpet bombing, intrusive approaches. I realise that commercial viability is the key to survival – it is a business after all. But at the cost of putting the customer first?

One of the lessons we learnt in advertising is that the likeability of an ad is subliminally transferred to the brand. That is the principle behind all ads, especially the ones where there is hardly any product difference between two brands. In the cola industry, for example, advertising is the differentiator. In this context, I strongly believe that the irritation most consumers experience when an online video ad plays automatically in a loop (on a browser window or tab which you cannot quickly find) will soon be passed on to the advertising brand. When ads intrude and irritate, you tend to kill the ad, look for the close or pause button. I doubt if the advertiser’s message drives home in such situations. In the long run, insisting on intrusion and clutter as advertising strategy will prove detrimental to the brand.

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