In a time of ancient computers, HTML2 and 28.8 kbit/s dial-up’s, a Web in turmoil cried out for a hero. It was the first banner ad, a mighty tool forged in the flames of ingenuity. Novelty, unselfishness and willingness to help people – its courage would change the world of digital advertising!

And thus, on October 27, 1994 the first banner advertising went live on the Internet populated by as ‘few’ as 30 million users. It was designed by a digital agency called Modern Media and sponsored by the AT&T company to promote art museums among the readers of HotWired.com, a web-magazine that became the first website to ever run a banner ad.

That day set one of the generic pillars upon which the modern web, as we know it, is built. Proving the importance of online audiences, forcing big and small business alike to establish Internet presence and eventually turning digital advertising into an over 20 billion USD industry. Are you ready to witness the banner ad that reshaped the Web overnight? Here it is, literally the Mother Banner!

One Plain Mother Banner

The first banner ad launched in 1994

The original banner ad from the 90s

Not quite what you expected, is it? Why yes, it does look sort of… plain, but that’s pretty much how the Web rolled in 1994 – archaic pre-Netscape browsers and dial-up modems left little room for visual creativity. But has advertising ever been about the looks? Plain as it might be, the first banner ad holds the undefeated record of 44% CTR – something that flashy modern ads can’t even get close to even if you equipped them with an FTL engine. Why?

Because 99,9% of banner ads nowadays just suck. It’s official.

You would think that in over 20 years in digital advertising, people would actually learn to perfect banner ads and not reduce them to something that works a thousand time worse than it used to. But no, as the creator of a banner ad, Joe McCabley, admits, ‘banners are a nuisance at best, and invisible at worst’.

So how come over 20 years of evolution turned one of the best advertising techniques ever invented into a perfect scourge that plagues the Web?

When Need Was More than Greed

Although the most evident, the visuals are not the show-stopping difference that sets modern banner ads far apart from the banner ads of old. Originally designed to put a customer’s experience before squeezing profits out of them, it was a banner ad that had discovered viral marketing long before Social Media did. That’s right, people would actually share links to banner ads back then – even trying to imagine that in 2016 seems impossible, let alone believing something like that could happen.
And yet, it did happen. Why? Because banner ads used to base on the same principle that has been driving Google to dominance: offering to help users find what they’re looking for instead of forcing an empty-pated sales deal on them.

But before we continue bashing modern banners, we should probably cut them some slack: after all, winning in 1994 was easy, considering there were only six agencies lining up for HotWired. For 4 years, the industry had more talent than jobs to accommodate it, and that’s nothing compared to the brutal advertiser melee happening right now. So was it the competition that rendered banner ads so uneffective? Hell no, it was the competitors!

Banner Golden Mine

The sleeping dogs of advertising could not lie forever. After years of turning their back on the Web, big agencies finally smelled the money it offered. Inspired by the success of banner ads, advertisers rushed to take full advantage of it, pouring billions of dollars into digital advertising campaigns in hopes of returning even bigger profits. And hey, it worked at first, but by 1998 a banner ad as a means of successful advertising had already been spent.

We don’t have to tell you why that happened – as a Web surfer, you’ve learned to know better than to look away from the center of your screen the hard way. And still, if you’re interested in a more consistent explanation of how people on the Internet inherit the grudge for banners, here it is (we’ll try to keep this grubling short):

Then

When big agencies first invaded the Internet, the shortage of qualified specialists who knew the lay of the Web became a problem real fast. So most advertisers treated the digital space just like any other media they’d used before to try and sell their stuff – TV, radio, magazines, press, you name it. Should we even mention how they literally flooded millions of those bulky CRT terminals with everything the humanity had learned to hate about advertisements with no regard for the specifics of the Internet? Bold text, huge flashing red blocks of cheesy sales pitches, even trickery and ‘fishing’ – those guys poured hell on the Web.

Didn’t take people to learn to hate or at least ignore all banners, even the harmless ones were guilty by association. That’s what caused the drop from 44% to 0.04% in ‘good results’.

Today

Old habits die hard, so many agencies are still very persistent in bleeding the banner stone. Even when people started migrating to mobile devices, most advertisers could not think of anything better to catch up than to use banner ads again, just shrinking them to fit smaller screens. Tough luck, however, showed that 4 out of 10 clicks on those banners were caused either by a slip of a finger or better yet – trickery.

Fortunately, big-time media companies are trying really hard to drive the change in digital advertising, slowly but surely reanimating its ‘old ways’ invented by pioneers like Joe McCabley and his colleagues.. And we sincerely hope they succeed.

Should I Give Up on Banner Ads?

Most certainly not! The damage is done alright, but not all trust for banner ads is lost. After all, it is proven to be one of the most successful advertising tools out there, and even millions of precedents when that tool was used for worse won’t change it.

If you create and run your banner ad campaign in accordance with the way an online banner was designed to be in 1994, you have a really good chance of nailing it. It won’t be 44%, but as you can tell from reading the article, numbers can be deceiving in modern day advertising. That stresses the importance of putting a lot of consideration in choosing an advertising company for your service or product.

But if you think banner ads are dead and gone – hey, it’s not a bad bet either. Let’s see what the next day brings to the world of advertising, but make sure you’re ready for it by learning what new ways of advertising there are!