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The Magestic Splendor of Online Advertising! or some damn thing like that.

Ad Lib: What's in a metaphor?
by Andrea Baker, Special to

The news that the Web is a vast superhighway might strike me as more exciting if I hadn't just heard it referred to in those terms three times in the last three days. I mean, couldn't you just as easily call it a library? Or an art gallery? Or a spaceship? For most of us, the metaphor depends on how we use the Internet, and that, of course, changes moment by moment.

But the metaphor we choose also says a lot about our attitude toward banner ads.

Head for the hills
Admittedly, the road, that most American of archetypes, does have its parallels in the figurative language of the Internet.

When Americans need relief from real-world stresses, for instance, we climb into our cars, crank up the tunes, and head for the hills. Our spirits are miraculously restored as we barrel along at 80 mph past those amber waves of grain and purple mountains' majesty.

Not that the Internet inspires Wordsworthian moments, exactly. But the romance of the open road does ring true. We're a nation of pioneers, and to many, the Internet is today's version of the old Chisholm Trail.

And those ubiquitous ad banners? According to proponents of the "road" metaphor, banners are the cyber-equivalents of the billboards that everywhere infest the landscape, obstructing the view and ruining the reverence. "Shameless commercialism" they cry, as they switch on their ad filtering software.

Stop and smell the violets
To others, it's not the road that defines the Internet experience as much as it is the side of the road--which, as we know, is not vacant. In this metaphor, a large number of the citizenry have been transmogrified into cyber-cows, grazing peacefully on the Web's information-rich grasses. Shielding themselves from the brutal sun, they herd together in a shady grove with fellow ruminants to compare notes or just pass the time of day.

To this group, ad banners are a neutral part of the day's experience. Aimlessly, pleasantly, these placid bovines graze through the vast green pastures of the Internet, occasionally sniffing at a banner if it happens to resemble a tasty wild violet. Not infrequently do they discover that the violet is really just skunk cabbage. We'll depart this gentle place to get to our next metaphor, so throw on a magenta, micro-fibre shirt and some elevator shoes: We're going to a place so flashy, so gutsy, so wired you can almost see fiber optics running through the scene.

The hustle is on
This place screams. It hustles. It bumps, and it grinds. And there's a come-on from every dark alleyway and every glittering marquee. We're in Times Square, honey, and if you can't join us here on Broadway, just log on anyplace on your computer. The big ball is always just about to drop.

This place has it all. Here are the news kiosks, where you can pick up the New York Times, France's Le Monde, or the Hong Kong Standard. Here are the theaters and movie houses, the art galleries, the shops with kitschy knick-knacks-all the promise of American culture and commercialism concentrated in a 10-square-block area. In fact, the commercialism is the culture.

Times Square. It's a pulsing, incongruous mass of humanity. And flooding the whole scene are the brilliant signs, the chaser lights, the blue neon.

These are really just banner ads, you know. They're what we see on millions of computer screens around the clock. And what would Times Square-or the Internet--be without them? They're the rhythm, the music, the color, the wit that make the Internet not life, but theater.

Check out the portals: "Buy it now!" a banner ad blinks in neon yellow and green. "Win a Palm VII!" calls another. "Come on in, we've got the lowest prices!" barks an online electronics store.

Pierce Brosnan stares out from a banner that says "Enter and win cool James Bond prizes!" Austin Powers winks out from another-yeah, baby! People magazine cries, "Read about the biggest stars! Get a free trial subscription!" And, like a syncopated Broadway chorus, "Click here!" they all urge.

It's a scene as old as history itself ... a modern version of an open-air market in Cairo, street vendors in Mexico, even a fur traders' outpost in the Yukon. We're all buyers and sellers not too far removed from our ancient rug-merchant forebears. Except that in the 21st century, we go to Broadway, not Bombay.

Back to my screen and some eye-catching animation: It's a cute stick-figure guy entering screen left and pushing a basket over the Starbucks logo to make the point that you can now buy this brand at the grocery store.

Times Square, Internet-style. Wouldn't you know there'd be a Starbucks right in the middle of it all?

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