I send my partner a note: "Check out my new Acura ads!"
Acura is having a 24 hour promotion to coincide with the release of its new car, hence the ads you see today on my site. The ads mean money, of course, but I sent the note with some pride.
The ads signify a form of success, that my blog is Acura-worthy for advertising. Never mind if that's true-- that word "signify" indicates something else going on: I'm judging the quality of the site by the ads on it.
I've never judged a person by their actual car, because I'm hyperconscious of product branding and message, I am always alert to the deception. But here I am using the ad itself as a signifier.
Subtle flash animations, good photography or design, and of course the product in the ad-- all these things are signals to me about the site that has them. Of course, the ads mean different things to different people-- Acura ads may symbolize a sell out, or out of touch-- but the point is that the ads themselves, not the car, symbolize something. And what it symbolizes is: this company endorses you.
Many sites like mine have google ads, which only "pay" if you click on them; hence, they pay very poorly. But they're easy to install, so most sites have them. Consequently, it's as much the ubiquity of Google ads that signifies "amateur" as the absence of the more branded display ads (e.g. Acura.)
People often comment about what Google ads I have on my site, but I have no control over them, whether it's advertising a camera or ginseng extract is up to them, not me. Frankly, I think Google uses it to punish bloggers. I wrote an only minimally critical piece about Google in 2007, and ever since then they've been serving Dianetics ads and destroying my email with the Android.
But not that I am aware how I (previously unconsciously) made a judgment about websites based on the kind of ads it serves, the scientific question becomes: does the ad change the traffic?
So I looked.
It's only a few hours into the Acura ad campaign, but I can tell you the trend: it hasn't increased the number of hits to the site, but it has changed the click through rate. About 10% more people by this time have clicked through to read posts (in other words, fewer people landed on the homepage and left without clicking on a post.) I am amazed at this result, but there it is. The presence of an ad for Acura enticed people to stay awhile.
Bigger websites out there should take note. If you run a stock advice site, make sure your ads are from the big brokerage houses and banks, simply because it looks like they endorsed you. And if you really want to look like a professional, dump the Etrade ads and get WSJ or Goldman Sachs to advertise with you.
But if it turns out to be true that the type of ad alters reader behavior, then the next question to ask is: what would happen if you placed a fake Acura ad on your site? Copied one from some other site and slapped it up there?
People already do this to themselves: luxury car logos as necklaces (old school, I know); college stickers on the rear windshield. This isn't the same as having the product around to brand you; nor is it the same as the product itself prominently displaying the logo (e.g. Juicy on the butt). This is a conscious decision on a person's part to take the brand (not the product) and use it to endorse themselves.
Could you command a higher subscription rate if your ads were better? Could you get better advertisers because they see an Acura ad is already there? Could you manipulate the market by using fake ads?
I'm not sure this has ever been studied, but the ramifications are huge: for one thing, it would mean the end of display advertising. Why would they pay you, when you maybe should be paying them?
For those with ad block-- do me a solid and turn it off when you visit this site. It's better than a subscription...