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Advertising: What Dot.coms Don't Know About Marketing

They can be seen everywhere, filling the pages of newspapers and magazines. Some are striking. But most - overloaded with oh- so-clever copy, or replete with meaningless references - are somewhat less than compelling. They are print ads for Internet businesses and, for the most part, they are not very good.

Or so concludes a quarterly report titled "What's Wrong With Dot-Com Ads?" to be released tomorrow by Roper Starch Worldwide, a marketing research and consulting firm based in Harrison, N.Y. Since 1923, when Dr. Daniel Starch first began analyzing print advertisements ("starching" them, in the lingo of the trade), the company has promulgated rules and offered advice to those in the advertising world about what works - and what does not. And it is the kind of advice that is sought by many traditional ad makers, like Michael McKenna, president and chief executive of Marsteller Advertising, New York, part of the Burson-Marsteller Worldwide unit of Young & Rubicam. He calls Roper Starch's methodology "understandable" and "incredibly useful."

Of the dot-com ads, Phil Sawyer, a Roper Starch senior vice president, said: "It's an example of what's going on" in the Internet "as a whole." He was referring to what he described as the "entrepreneurial spirit" of Internet venturers who think that they have reinvented the wheel with their businesses - and with their ad campaigns. "A lot of advertisers on the Internet are just not paying attention to the basics," he said.

"I've asked people: `Don't you do research?' " he said. " `No,' they say, `we're just cranking it out.' "

Starch gauges ad effectiveness by interviewing readers of various publications and assessing to what degree various ads catch and hold their attention. Three "degrees of readership" are measured and reported: "noted," meaning that the person interviewed remembers seeing the ad; "associated," meaning that he or she saw and remembered the name of the advertiser; and "read most," referring to those who actually read at least half of the copy in the ad. In all of these categories, Mr. Sawyer said, where 100 is the average score, dot-com ads frequently earned below average marks.

They did so by violating some of Starch's most basic rules. For example, the report notes that effective ads are generally those that are simple, with one sharp picture, a distinct focal point and an explicit message in a headline containing no more than nine words. Yet an ad for Elcom.com, an automated procurement system for businesses, has a 29-word headline, a dense copy block over a variably shaded background and no distinct image, giving it scores in Starch's three categories of 71 to 79.

Similarly, an ad for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette that promotes DLJ Direct, its online brokerage site, garnered scores of only 50 to 89 with its use of a black and white photograph of a man in a passing train (not memorable) on a mustard yellow background (not a compelling color). And, though understandable, an ad for the GTE Superpages business listing a Web site, which features a drawing of a magnet searching for that proverbial needle in a haystack, breaks another cardinal rule: it relies on a metaphor that requires "more time and effort than most readers are ready to spend" (The ad got scores of 72 to 83).

The worst ad cited? With scores from only 38 to 69, was Della & James, an online gift registry. Its ad features a photograph of a bunch of gentlemen all done up formally for a very British-looking wedding. The headline: "So simple, even the groomsmen can figure it out."

Groomsmen? "The typical American," the report notes, unfamiliar with "accouterments of a British wedding" is "unlikely to be either emotionally or intellectually engaged with the scene." Or with the microscopic size of the explanatory copy.

Not all dot-com ads are bad, of course. An ad for the toy seller eToys.com scored over 100 in all three Starch categories because its simple headline - "Find the perfect book for your child every time" - complied with another of Starch's golden rules: answer the reader's question "What's in it for me?" right away. And another ad for Buyitnow.com did even better, scoring as high as 138 in the "read most" category, by virtue of its announcement of "Hassle Free Shopping" with "something for everyone."

And then there are the ads that are successful, even though they break all of the Starch rules. Like one for Youdecide.com, a Web site that "provides the facts you need to make smarter decisions."

The ad presents an elongated, distorted picture of a face (generally a no-no), places copy over the image and is hugely "cluttered," according to Mr. Sawyer. But its message is clear: "Save a ton of money, get all the stuff you want." And so, despite what he calls its flaws, it got high ratings: 111 to 120 on the Roper Starch scale.

"It just proves that if you do one thing right - really hype the benefits of what you're offering - then you can overcome all sorts of problems," Mr. Sawyer said.


Bernard Stamler, The New York Times. October 31, 2000

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.