The Ethics of Web Advertising (and a 10-Year-Old Secret Revealed)

Jakob Nielsen, who’s been writing about usability roughly since our prehuman ancestors crawled out of the primordial muck, has a characteristically rigorous post about banner blindness in which he examines, among other things, the ethics of display advertising. It starts with a bang:

“I’ve been reluctant to discuss one of the findings from our eyetracking research because the conclusion is that unethical design pays off. In 1997, I chose to suppress a similar finding: users tend to click on banner ads that look like dialog boxes, complete with fake OK and Cancel buttons. Of course, instead of being an actual system message — such as ‘Your Internet Connection Is Not Optimized’ — the banner is just a picture of a dialog box, and clicking its close box doesn’t dismiss it, but rather takes users to the advertiser’s site. Deceptive, unethical, and #3 among the most-hated advertising techniques. Still, fake dialog boxes got many more clicks than regular banners, which users had already started to ignore in 1997. After much soul-searching, I’ve now decided to take a different approach and publish our new findings, despite their ethical implications…”

One of the reasons I’ve been a close reader of Nielsen’s work for more than a decade is that he’s been willing to go where the data takes him, even if the data forces him to change his mind. Indeed, here the man who preaches the benefits of simplicity is here admitting that treating the visitors to your site as poorly as possible can pay off. The results don’t make him happy, but those are the results. Anyone even remotely interested in how web banner ads work, for good and evil, should read the post.

And I must admit I’m fascinated by Nielsen’s decision to “suppress” this finding a decade ago, back in the dancing-baloney age of MARQUEE and BLINK tags. Put yourself in Nielsen’s place, not only a researcher but also a consultant. Imagine it’s 1997 and you know that fake dialog boxes are evil but effective. What would you recommend to your clients?