young man in red shirt with Coca-Cola logo
The real thing: viral marketing 1980s style
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In the late 1980s I spent a large portion of my time being a walking billboard for Coca-Cola, quite unpaid. The Coca-Cola sweatshirt — a rugby-style top with the soft drink logo across the chest — was the height of fashion in my teenage peer group. It was the viral marketing campaign of its day. These shirts were worn with tight, acid-washed jeans and a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle that took about an hour — and half a bottle of hair gel — to create.

It is one of those fashion trends that is incredibly difficult to explain to anyone under the age of 30, but it was recently ranked as the fourth greatest 1980s fashion trend, coming in below Vans trainers and neon colours, but higher than the boombox, the mullet haircut and Hawaiian print shorts.

I don’t know whether the shirts made us drink any more Coke, but we didn’t mind the branding. I spent a not inconsiderable amount of my pocket money on one of these tops, thereby paying for the privilege of wearing advertising, surely a marketer’s dream.

Only Apple, recently, has been as clever in co-opting consumers into its own marketing aims by cleverly positioning itself somewhere between computer software and hardware, designer trend and lifestyle brand.

Internet advertising, on the other hand, inspires an almost visceral loathing. Read any online discussion about online ads and somewhere in the thread will be the plaintive cry: “Why, oh why, does the hated pre-roll ad always play flawlessly and then the actual video stutters, halts and buffers to the point where it is unwatchable?”

Online ads have an unsavoury reputation. Hackers have been known to hide their malicious, computer-hijacking code in online adverts as a way of getting them into your computer. Users are also concerned about ads that are borderline spyware, tracking the pages we visit online and the purchases we make.

At the very least, ads use up bandwidth and increase the time it takes to load a web page. If you are paying for your online data by the gigabyte on a 4G connection, downloading that unwanted advert adds to your costs.

Little wonder that adblockers, software tools that prevent ads appearing on the web pages you are viewing, have become so popular. These are generally free to download, and are easy for even the tech illiterate to install. According to one survey some 144m people a month (4.9 per cent of all internet users) were regularly using an adblocker at the end of 2014.

Online publishers are growing worried as adblocking takes an increasingly large chunk out of their advertising revenues.

Publishers had hoped that eventually internet audiences would resign themselves to online ads in the same way they did to ads on TV and in newsprint, as a trade-off, a bitter pill that must be swallowed before we get to the good stuff.

But a painless way of circumventing the “pill” has put paid to that patient approach. Millennials, those aged 18-34, are by far the heaviest adult users of adblockers, with 41 per cent of them using such software. The 13-17-year-old cohort coming up behind them are heavier users still. The adblock problem is only going to become worse for publishers.

None of the solutions to the publishers’ quandary are convincing. Publishers have tried, for example, to offer paid-for, ad-free versions of their sites, but there has generally been little take-up. For example, some 61 per cent of people surveyed by ad-block tracking company PageFair and software provider Adobe wanted an ad-free internet, but 80 per cent were unwilling to pay for it. Such a response leaves little room for manoeuvre.

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft were recently discovered to be quietly paying Adblock Plus, the maker of one of the most popular adblocking tools, to stop blocking ads on their sites. While this may be legal, the big question is do consumers want products, or even companies, that we think protect us from online ads to behave in such a fashion?

There are also a number of start-ups, such as New York-based Secret Media, offering advertising encryption that can get around the ad blocking technology.

And how long before adblockers adapt to block that kind of encryption too? It seems to be a gladiatorial contest that is unlikely to end well.

Some online publishers, such as Reddit, thank those people who visit the site without ad blockers, a polite if somewhat passive-aggressive — and probably ineffectual — approach.

Any lasting solution will surely have to involve a better sort of advertising — less obtrusive and perhaps offering some benefit rather than irritation to users — adding to bandwidth as opposed to using it up, enhancing the quality of a video rather than appearing to degrade it.

Failing that, publishers may have to revive the branded sweatshirt.

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