Why Are Banner Ads Still a Thing?

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” has a great segment called “Why is ____ Still a Thing?” He has tackled everything from Daylight Savings Time to Columbus Day to the popularity of Ayn Rand to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Leaving aside my internal conflict on that last topic, this week I’m going to apply the same question to banner ads.  Why are banner ads still a thing?  I remember hearing years ago that it’s more likely you’ll get struck by lightning than click on a banner ad.  You can find that statistic with a bit of Googling, along with similar sad statistics on banner ads, including my personal favorites:

“Danger Will Robinson–
I clicked on a banner ad!”

  • 8% of users account for 85% of banner ad clicks, and many of these clicks are probably not from human beings.  (I assume that means robots, not aliens or congressmen.)
  • You’re more likely to survive a plane crash than to click on a banner ad.  Just being in a plane crash doesn’t count. You have to survive it.
  • Up to 50% of mobile ad clicks are accidental.  (Included in that: 100% of mine.)
With a bit of Googling, you can also see how Hubspot repeats this same content, only to ignore it in the very next paragraph with some twisted logic about how banner ads are still valuable because you can target people and because they’re less annoying than cold calls and spam. Yuh-huh: nice try.
BTW, these stats are two years old.  Imagine how they’ve deteriorated in the past two years.
This situation reminds me of the time a few years ago when I was chatting with a friend who ran a digital agency.  We were talking about the shifting challenges of various digital channels, and he said, “Banner ads are really more about branding these days.”  I thought, of course YOU say that, because your career depends on selling that crap, and you can’t spin any decent story that sells it as performance marketing any more.  I’d say that ship has sailed, but I’m not entirely sure that ship ever left port.

You’re more likely to climb Everest
than click on a banner

The only type of banner advertising that I engage in is retargeting, where  your audience is tracked after visiting your web site and then sees your ads on other sites.  I jumped on the retargeting bandwagon early, in 2010, and I immediately saw the benefit of showing my employer’s ads on web sites where I couldn’t afford to pay on a CPM basis, and of making the company’s brand appear bigger than it was.  “I see your ads all over the place,” we’d hear from customers.  But now everyone is doing this, and I still believe the jury is out on retargeting as a performance marketing solution.  It’s like my agency friend said: it helps with your branding to appear larger than you are.  Booyah.  But is it achieving any measure of ROI?  I highly doubt it.  Why?  Because they’re banner ads, and more people will climb Mount Everest than will click on them.

Search is better.
Who wouldn’t click on this?

I think it comes down to active vs. passive advertising, which explains why search is still king.  When I’m searching for something, I’m actively looking for something, and (despite being a digital marketer) I might even click on an AdWords ad (because I like spending other people’s money), because at least it’s related to what I’m actively seeking.  Compare that experience to banner ads and email marketing, which are trying to capture my attention when I’m doing something else. They are intrusive, a priori, and they need to do a great job of standing out even to capture my attention.

Even then, as someone who has run every type of digital campaign, I’ve never seen a banner ad campaign that performed better than a weak email campaign.

I’m more likely to pay attention to a TV commercial than a banner ad, even with my DVR.  Maybe it’s one of those rare on-demand shows that doesn’t let me forward through commercials, or maybe it’s Super Bowl Sunday, or maybe something captures my eye when I’m zooming past, and I back up. But how many times do you say, “Wow, let me scroll back up to look at that banner ad?”  My guess is it’s somewhere around never.

We need a new paradigm for online marketing.  So feel free to answer my question and leave your comments.  Why are banner ads still a thing?