I have not met an Indian yet who doesn’t remember the Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai Pepsi ad, or for that matter couldn't sing the words — all of them — to the Hamara Bajaj ad. As a child you may have loved the ad, then as you grew older found it annoying, and finally today, view it with nostalgia. It’s become a part of the culture.
For my part, I still have a vivid memory of the Alka Selzer TV ads from my childhood. They had a boy figurine called Speedy singing “plop-plop-fizz-fizz... oh what a relief it is!” It was great. There were just a few snags. Firstly, I was watching Speedy from Mexico, where you could pick up signals from US stations but where Alka Selzer was scarce.
More importantly, I was seven years old: I wasn’t what you’d call the target audience for a hangover remedy.
Of course, Speedy’s creators could say the ad was catchy enough that it stuck with me well into the next century, to a time when I do indeed occasionally need relief. So where’s the online ad that reaches the iconic heights of Pepsi or the Marlboro Man?
Let me ask for a little more time, but only a little more, before I have my answer. Fifteen years in, online advertising is very close to realising its potential to awe and entertain people. It’s already achieved one big trick: ads so relevant to your needs that they barely count as ads.
When people search for mobile phones in India, what they’re really looking for are the best deals for mobile phones. An online ad that offers them a discount isn’t an ad; it’s what they were looking for in the first place. An online ad should feel like something you’d want even if it hadn’t been pushed in your direction.
And we’re now seeing that online ads don’t need search terms to achieve that immediacy over the Internet. For instance, the fact that smartphones can tell where you are and take photos can be equally powerful indicators of what a person is likely to be interested in at one point in time.
The scope of what’s possible as you combine the power of the Internet with these signals is incredible. In Tokyo, where I spend a lot of my time, there’s a whole building that’s designed to interact with smartphones. When you point your smartphone’s camera at it, virtual billboards appear on the screen, as do special offers related to stores inside. Even Tweets of people located in the building at the time float across your screen.
Using the same principles, it’ll soon be commonplace to have carefully selected coupons land on your phone the moment you walk into a shop. Coupons used to be the prize of the hyper-organised — the kind of people who could dedicate time to finding the right “shop-a-docket” coupon for them, keeping it around and then remembering it before they headed off to the shops. The new coupon will be for any person, tagged to any product, in almost any location, at any time and without the need to organise nor cut them out before you head out of the house.
A hyper-relevant text ad is nice, of course, but you won’t be humming it 10 years from now. But the same principle that makes the coupon welcome, will also produce great digital ads: they will have innate value as entertainment.
When they don’t have innate value, of course, they will flop. We’ve learned that it can take someone less than a few seconds on YouTube to decide a video isn’t worth watching. But when an ad does have innate value, the Internet spreads it remarkably quickly. This is true of any great ad.
Vodafone’s Zoozoo campaign was one of the most popular searches on the Internet in 2009; in fact the ads were so popular online that Vodafone started releasing them online before going live on TV. The popularity drove them to set up a dedicated channel on YouTube, and it is the most subscribed sponsored-brand channel in India. These ads were good enough for people to hunt for and share.
Adding this capacity to share TV ads isn’t just fun for web surfers; it’s good for advertisers too. If someone has actively chosen to see an ad — either because they’ve searched for it or picked it out from a range of options — then our advertising partners count the ad as being 10 to 20 times more valuable than an ad that ran alongside some interesting content.
Another ad that made it into the top 10 ad searches this year has an uncanny similarity to the Alka-Selzer campaign, in terms of international appeal. Old Spice came up with a simply wild ad campaign aimed at the US, but it crossed borders and became a hit in India, just as Speedy hopped the border to my TV in Mexico.
But this wasn’t done thanks to strong TV signals. First, they came up with a surreal and funny TV ad — a good-looking guy wearing only a towel implored women to make sure their men smelled like him even as the scenery changed from one fantasy scenario to another. But that turned out to be just the start. They invited people to ask the Old Spice guy questions over Twitter and on YouTube, which they did, on the promise that he’d answer them, which he did — still wearing only his towel — on more than 180 YouTube videos. They quickly garnered 75 million views.
The Old Spice guy may not be as orthodox an icon as the Marlboro Man, but his success sets high expectations era for online advertising, as well as some lessons. Although not a necessity, it helps to catch the eye and entertain — this is where ads migrate from the realm of advertising to content. Imagine, never hearing a jingle you can't stand ever again or not having to carry a wad of clipped coupons in your pocket. What a relief!
The writer is President, Asia Pacific and Japan, Google