A salute to the website banner ad on its 20th birthday

Once-ubiquitous format is losing ground

 
A screenshot of Hotwired.com as it existed in 1994.

A screenshot of Hotwired.com as it existed in 1994.

Aging out of your teenage years is a tough transition for anyone, but today’s birthday celebrant has had it harder than most. Twenty years ago today, on October 27, 1994, the first-ever banner ad was served on HotWired.com. And rather than celebrating such a long run, banner ad aficionados find themselves lamenting the banner ad’s return to relative obscurity in the ranks of online advertising.

As the Internet History Podcast points out, the Internet’s business model is built on online advertising, and banner ads were once a key part of that revenue stream. But the realization that a huge chunk of web traffic consists of spam bots and viruses, coupled with the increasing importance of mobile browsing, has decimated this once-vital spot found on every major webpage.

As with so many innovations, this format was the product of a series of accidents. “I think, in hindsight, we talk about those days as if we had this grand plan and we were executing flawlessly,” Joe McCambley, a member of the creative team that came up with the AT&T banner ad, says in the podcast episode. “But a lot of it kind of happened accidentally.”

The original group of ad creatives picked the size of the banner ad (446 pixels by 56 pixels) based on the resolution of most computer monitors at the time, and the rudimentary HTML that could show it. Even the idea of “clicking” the banner ad was not obvious at the start—some of the early advertisers didn’t even have websites of their own to link their ads to, so clicking their banners took readers to custom pages on HotWired.com. In the end, this is what they ended up with, a banner for AT&T, supporting its “You Will” campaign:

First ever banner ad

(Internet History Podcast)

And it worked. During the first few weeks of this campaign, HotWired’s banner ads had a 70–80% clickthrough rate (today, it’s less than 0.01% for most banner ads).

But the medium’s ubiquity came to work against it over time, with “banner blindness” entering the lexicon as readers trained their eyes to avoid the format. And other factors came into play. Traditional banner and big box ads don’t fit well on smartphone screens, however big they may be growing. Brands are shifting their spending away from content-creating media companies that rely on these large spots in favour of social media platforms, which integrate marketing messages into users’ information streams. In turn publishers have shifted towards “native ads,” which look like content but are sponsored by advertisers.

Still, the banner is far from gone—there’s one on this page, and they can still be found atop most sites. Many banner ads now feature expanding-and-contracting videos, or are used in conjunction with other spots on a site to convey a marketing message in parts. As with any 20-year-old, there have been ups and downs, successes and disappointments. It will likely be around, in one form or another, for a long time to come.

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