Can banner ads be emotional?

A draw back of online ads is their lack of emotional content. But experts say its not a case of technology holding the industry back. The tools are there--except no one has figure out how it all fits together yet.

Chances are, there haven't been many Internet advertisements that inspired you to call your mom to say how much you love her.

The online ad industry has struggled to create ads with emotional hooks, a technique widely used in traditional advertising.

"More and more companies are relying on emotional ads to make connections with consumers, and if the Internet can't facilitate that emotional relationship, it's a potential drawback for online advertising," says Patti Williams, assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We can give a piece of information that is so personalized and so real to that it touches an emotional core of that individual..."

Neil Feinstein

Emotionally stirring ads could come with faster Internet connections. "To create a real emotional reaction with an audience requires bandwidth," says Eric Rosenfeld, business director at Second Story in Portland, Ore., which has created interactive promotions for Eastman Kodak, the National Geographic Society and Nike. "We get more out of having audio, narration and animation in terms of creating an emotive experience online, and that takes time and bandwidth."

But the problem isn't just due to technological constraints. Some rich-media ads can be produced to work fine even on slow connections - such as Gizmoz's pop-up marketing messages - but many ad agencies are having trouble making creative use of the medium. John Young, chief creative of Tribal DDB Worldwide, the interactive division of DDB Worldwide, says many advertisers are confounded by the very thing that makes the Internet so valuable: its interactivity.

"I'm frustrated because we have words, pictures, sounds, animation, movie, videos - but you add interactivity to all these magical pieces, and then how do you tell a great story when the user is involved in it?" Young says. "That's something that the entire industry is trying to figure out, but no one has the answer."

The search for a solution may be worth it. Neil Feinstein, the director of the creative services division at direct e-marketer Bigfoot Interactive, argues that the Internet can translate emotion in new ways. "We can give a piece of information that is so personalized and so real to [consumers] that it touches an emotional core of that individual that a television commercial can't do," he says.

One recent online campaign praised for its emotional impact was produced for Rock the Vote, which used Unicast Communication's Superstitial rich-media format. The ads featured images depicting controversial issues like abortion and gun control, coupled with a soundtrack of eerie background music.

Viewers could click through to learn about both sides of the issue, with the purpose of inspiring them enough to register to vote and subsequently go to the polls. The campaign was launched Sept. 25 - only a week before online voter registration closed - but in that week, about half of all users who viewed the ads clicked through to register, according to Rock the Vote. And that kind of result would give any advertiser a warm and fuzzy feeling.