When the Product Becomes an Ad

When the iPhone first came out in 2007 and the gradual shift from feature phones to smart phones started, one of the common themes during this shift was that websites started to make mobile-friendly versions of their product. At the beginning, viewing web sites on a full-screen device (laptop or desktop) was much better than on your phone. On the phone, the text was tiny and it was hard to see any rich media. But as sites became more and more mobile friendly, it was delightfully surprising to see that some sites were better viewed on a phone than on a full-screen device.

One of the key reasons that sites were more delightful on the phone than on a laptop or desktop was that there were fewer (if any) ads on the mobile experience. One hypothesis as to why this came to be is because there is very limited real estate on a mobile screen as compared to a laptop or desktop screen. But as must be the case (revenue must be made), ads started to be integrated into the respective mobile web experiences.

Recently I noticed something on one of my favorite sites, espn.com, that caught my attention. When I visited the site on my iPhone, I saw that nearly the entire viewable area was covered by an ad:

Espn 1

Here, as the user, I had to touch the “X” in the top right corner in order to bypass this ad and actually view the site. This ad served as a gatekeeper standing between me and consuming the site’s content.

Espn 2

While it is understandable that ads must be integrated into a site’s design, especially a site that is content based and not selling anything, it’s another thing when each visit requires the user to get through an interstitial ad. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to compare this functionality to videos on YouTube that require the user to view an ad before being able to view the original video.

Jumping out of the digital space and into the space of physical products, I saw something that resembled this type of ad design. I noticed a Heinz ketchup bottle with an interesting label. Instead of just seeing the traditional Heinz name and product information, the ketchup bottle has a reference to the Trivial Pursuit game on the front label and a full explanation of the partnership on the back label.

Heinz 1

Heinz 2

One might argue that this partnership with Trivial Pursuit is fun and interesting and some users would get a kick out of this game being made accessible by the ketchup bottle. But the simpler explanation is that this is, simply put, an ad. And for me this was interesting because, similar to the ESPN example above, the majority of the product label is taken up by an ad.

So what to make of these ads in both the digital and physical space that seem to be getting larger, longer, and more pervasive? On the one hand, you can make the argument that they bring new sources of revenue to their respective companies. In fact, I’m fairly certain that in the ESPN case, they probably ran an A/B test that showed no decrease in usage when the full screen ad was introduced. And in the Heinz case, they probably did analysis that showed the same amount of ketchup would be consumed.

That being said, I still think there is a down side risk to this type of approach, and there is a potential to not be able to forecast or see that risk in the short term. The risk here, is a long term one, and is related to users’ perception of the quality of the product. In both cases, the huge prominence of ads may cheapen the product quality for the end user and open up the potential for users to leave the product for a competing product that has a more elegant and clean user experience. In the case of ESPN, an end user may get annoyed to constantly touch the “X” to close the ad and start to visit a competing site such as si.com. In the case of Heinz, users may be turned off by seeing logos for other products on the Heinz label and reach for a competing product.