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It’s a harsh reality, but the fact of the matter is, many people don’t like ads. Everyone reading this is a consumer who has had to contend with an annoying ad from time to time. Even those of us who earn our livings from advertising (cough) must admit that ads can be a bit…aggressive, at times.

In this post, we’ll discuss the power of appealing to the ego, the nature of human wants and needs, and share how content can play a role in reducing ad blindness.

What Really Fuels Ad Blindness?

In our exploration of ad blindness, it may be helpful to circle back and discuss its cause and impact. According to several recent surveys, ad blindness is indeed a real menace. For instance, multiple surveys conducted by organizations like Janrain show time and time again that consumers think ads are too aggressive. Other studies, like surveys done by Kantar Millward Brown, indicate that consumers are losing patience with what they perceive to be intrusive ads, with the majority of respondents saying that ads are more intrusive now than they were even a few years ago.

Many consumers indicate that ads appeal to their interests and needs, but that they still find them ‘creepy’ and intrusive.

What is driving this?

Part of the problem is that even “good” publishers are feeling the pressure as more and more consumers turn to ad blockers. This leads them to load ads over content, attempting to maximize key performance indicators. This behavior, in turn, pushes ever more customers toward ad blockers.

In order to avoid alienating customers, it’s increasingly necessary to take a step back from metrics and KPIs like viewability. More and more, what’s needed is a strong focus on user experience.

When you design or deliver ads, are you providing an experience the consumer will be receptive to?

Ultimately,  ad blindness will chip away at the click-through rate. Therefore, the optimal strategy is not to make ads flashier or impossible to ignore. The go-to strategy should be to create ads that consumers will want to engage with. One way to do this is to focus on what customers actually need.

Consumer Needs

What is a “need,” really? In the most basic terms, it is something that a person must have in order to function. An organism needs certain things in order to live, such as food and water. But needs can be broader than this. For instance, a writer needs certain tools in order to perform their function. So too does, say, a landscaper. Both of these individuals need tools, and they’re likely to be receptive to ads for those tools when and if they need replacements.

But a writer won’t care much about a cutting-edge ink pen if they have a working pen. If they do care, they’re responding to want, not a need. They have a working pen.

But advertisers learned early on that you can’t appeal only to needs. The most effective advertising takes a want and elevates it to need status.

Turn Wants into Needs

Effective advertising has a way of making us think of luxuries as things we actually need. You can see this phenomenon in action. Think about it: A few years ago, a smartphone was seen as a luxury. Now, most people have one. Go back a few more decades, and the idea of people having computers in their pockets would seem ludicrous. Yet here we are.

Apple’s initial iPhone launch was very successful because they took the idea of the smartphone and normalized it. Hey, they said, This isn’t a big deal.  In a way, Starbucks did the same thing with the latte.

How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I can’t start my day until I’ve had my [insert caffeinated drink here]?’

In the ‘50s, the same thing happened with fast food. All of these products were thought of at one time as luxuries.

Yet today, any given teenager needs an iPhone.

A hungry child needs a happy meal.

Effective marketing takes a want and normalizes it.

It gives people permission to want that thing.

The want then becomes a need, even if it really isn’t. There are several factors that drive the process:

  • Social or peer pressure. The customer wants to keep up with their peers.
  • Status. The customer wants to reach a certain social status so they can be admired by others.
  • Comfort. The customer wants creature comforts that put them higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Note that all of these elements center around the ego.

When creating digital ads, then, you should always focus on the prospect’s ego.

Ego is not always driven by logic. In fact, rarely is it driven by logic. What drives the ego is emotion. One way to eliminate ad blindness, then, is to circumvent the logical part of the mind and appeal to emotion instead.

Many studies, such as The Appeals of Luxury Advertising: An Application of Taylor’s Six-Segment Message Strategy Wheel, by William M. James, have underscored the fact that appealing to ego is a core component of successful campaigns.

Because the ego is a slave to emotion, urgency can be a powerful tool for the marketer. Urgency implies loss, and everyone is sensitive to possible loss. This was, for most of human history, a function of survival. Therefore, sales and time-sensitive opportunities remain a powerful hook. The key, though, is to make your point and get out of the way. Don’t use flashy ads or other tactics that distract the reader. Doing so can the prospect less receptive.

Another way to appeal to the ego is to be sensitive to the consumer’s economic reality. If you study ads made between the years 2007 and 2009, you’ll find that they reflect the reality of the recession. Ads from Home Depot, for instance, appealed to ego by reinforcing the image that men and women could undertake their own home repair projects and didn’t need to rely on hired contractors.

During those years, K-Mart and Wal-Mart revitalized layaway, ensuring that parents could still get quality gifts for their children by making payments over time. Remember the above drivers? Social pressure, status, and comfort.

Then, the fast-food industry invented the ‘dollar menu’ to ensure that folks could still frequent their restaurants, providing comfort.

The logical thing to do during this period of economic hardship was to save as much money as possible. Yet, note that Apple thrived during this period, offering eager public access to their revolutionary tablets and smartphones.

Today, now that economic concerns have eased, savvy marketers are appealing to ego in another way. Many of today’s campaigns center on helping consumers feel socially responsible. For instance, P&G’s recent campaign, The Look, with its accompanying hashtag, #TalkAboutBias, aims to make people more aware of how it feels to be marginalized.

McDonald’s recently launched its Share The Love campaign for National French Fry Day. This campaign promoted diversity by having the famous arches formed by diverse pairs of hands.

Circling back to ad blindness and digital ads, there are two main takeaways.

#1 Use Relevant Content to Your Advantage

As an advertiser, it’s your responsibility to understand your prospect’s wants and needs. In order to do that, you have to understand them as people. That means understanding what drives them.  So, when delivering ads on a website, you should, as much as is possible, seek to understand why they’ve landed on the page your ad will be delivered on. Specifically, what aspect of ego has driven them there?

Are they looking to be comfortable? To have a better social status? Or are they only there because of peer pressure?

If you understand their underlying need, you stand a much better chance of engagement. For instance, if someone is on the page because a friend shared a blog post with them, they’re unlikely to be receptive to your advertising. Not much you can do about that.

To maximize your chances in every other context, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Don’t deliver ads until you know what your target audience wants or needs
  • Use relevant content and keywords to minimize your chances of annoying the reader
  • Use an ad network that will allow you to display ads on sites that are relevant to your target audience
  • Use cookies, beacons or other tracking technologies that will allow you to identify users who have visited your site before, and then create customized ads for those people

Finally, if you’re sure that your product is relevant to the content on the page, use contextual links. Contextual links within the content itself are extremely powerful, and such links can cut right through ad blindness. Platforms like Taboola and Outbrain make this simple.

#2 Use Native Advertising

This leads us to the second item on this list: native advertising. If you want to cut through ad blindness, your best bet is to avoid the typical ad zones. You know, the right sidebar, or the header? Those places. The user’s brain has been trained, through hundreds or thousands of encounters with the Internet, to ignore those areas.

The area of the web page that gets the most engagement is the core content. Therefore, if you have highly targeted ads to display, it’s a good idea to display them within the content itself, if possible.

Another reason that native advertising is so powerful is that most consumers want to learn about a product via content, and not through stand-alone ads. What’s more, if you can integrate your ads into high-quality content, then you may be able to get users to share your ads for you. If they share the article, they’ll share the ads too.


In this post, we explored how advertising can be more effective if it focuses on appealing to ego. We also looked at a few ways to defeat ad blindness by integrating ads more closely with relevant content. Stick around for the next post, where we will explore ways to reduce the impact of ad blindness by optimizing ad design!