Category Archives: bad design

Tragedy of The New York Times’ commons

We’re all for effective advertising, which is why we wince sometimes seeing major publishers over-clutter their homepages in a desperate attempt to juice ad sales. Take NYT, which sold about 39% of its visual real estate to eBay with this massive trifecta banner concoction. Yes, you can’t help but notice it. Yes, CTRs and conversions may go up, giving eBay’s current campaign a little squeeze for its cost per acquisition. But what does this do to the total ecosystem of advertising in general?

Are you, dear reader, enjoying this view?

When advertising goes too far

A few years ago, Clear Channel radio got a bit (we’re hypothesizing only here lawyers and this certainly can’t be true) greedy and jacked up the minutes of commercials per hour. Ratings fell, and Clear Channel was forced (again, conjecture!) to launch a “less is more” campaign, promoting the fact it now ran less spots per hour.

This is a common pattern in communication networks. Car salemen were overly aggressive until automakers installed consumer surveys and learned distributors should back off. Telephones were encroached by marketers until consumers got pissed about telesales and all signed up for the Do Not Call lists, vaporizing that industry. And way back in the 1960s TV shows ran only 9 minutes of commercials an hour, while today broadcast stuns you with about 18 minutes — so is it any wonder now that younger generations are rushing to Hulu to watch shows with limited commercial interruption?

The sad reality for advertisers is they intrude upon a group of consumers whose majority doesn’t want the interruption, so some mutual restraint is required to make the model work. Direct mail may be the next victim of failure, if over-encroachment gets enough consumers to clamor for a “Do Not Mail list” (we’d link to it except we fear it might destroy the United States Postal Service). If every individual marketer or publisher goes for maximum selfish yield, they damage the entire advertising community, just as John Nash’s game-theorying laddies hitting a bar all go home without a date if they all try to hit on only the single prettiest girl. Group collaboration is required to optimize the yield on any ecosystem. Individual salesmen screaming for more dollars today may get the gold watch, but burn out their future.

So. Dear New York Times, we love you, but keep it up, and you’ll be done with print and HTML, posting news only to your millions of Twitter followers who prefer 140-character updates with no commercial interruption. Your online traffic is down about 20% since the height of Obama’s inauguration. Your Twitter followers now surpass your printed circulation. Is this the path to building a monetizable audience?

The sexual impetus for your hatred of Gap’s logo

Word to the advertising community: The new Gap logo doesn’t suck. You’re just hung up about sex.

Before we explain, let’s review the rebranding kerfuffle. Gap, a purveyor of American denim and flannel, this week did what companies often do — redesigned its wordmark. The advertising world screamed bloody murder. Abe Sauer over at Brandchannel said the revamp “looks like it cost $17 from an old Microsoft Word clipart gallery.” David Brier of Fast Company called it “goop” and suggested protagonists would get fired. Someone launched the site offering infinite versions of Gap-crappy logos, and Adweek named the mock @GAPlogo to its top 25 Twitter accounts. And when Gap backpedaled suggesting it was open to new ideas, the blog ISO50 gathered more than 260 submissions.

What gives? Well, sex…

Ad gurus are steamed, you see, because Gap didn’t include enough nuance in its design, and nuance drives humans at the sexual core. It’s certainly not about the actual result, because Gap’s new use of the classic font Helvetica is similar to the wordmarks of other major brands — 3M, American Airlines, Panasonic, Toyota. Agency types are wringing their hands because such simplicity leaves their minds out of the game.

Nuance is a foundational human incentive because sex, food and shelter require it. For sexual attraction, humans look to symmetry as the core indicator of health and high-value sperm or eggs to produce strong offspring. Look at a photo of anyone you consider super attractive — Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson — and you’ll find near-perfect symmetry in their features. We focus on nuance because it signals reproductive health. In the long history of human evolution, nuance also led us to berries with more vitamins, tar for blocking shelter gaps, and metal better for battling enemies. Nuance is how we grow and survive.

If nuance is an over-focus of humans in general (Did you see the lines on the latest BMW? Did you try the latest Starbuck’s Via coffee?), it’s even more vital to ad agencies. Agencies are glorified temp workers, extensions of real marketing departments often filled with extremely intelligent right-brain creatives who are rewarded for ideas that scale memes across the masses. This is hard, because the idea marketplace is crowded, so ad creatives explore every angle of every communication and possible response. When found, a slight nuance is often the edge required to succeed. Nuance is the key to breakthrough success.

Gap’s logo failed for the design community because it lacks their core value: nuance. The logo is achingly simple, based on the old 1957 Helvetica typeface that has been used for decades by New York City subway signs. The irony of the outcry is the Gap logo’s Helvetica is one of the most beloved fonts among typography geeks; Helvetica is an everyman’s font because its thin lines are filled with nuance, such as a defined spur in the capital G or slight curves at the terminus of the lowercase a. Heck, designers love Helvetica so much they often mock the competing font Arial as a bastardized Microsoft knock-off. You see Helvetica in the logos for BMW and Target. You could argue Helvetica is the most popular font for brand icons in the world.

In its wrap-up of the debate, Yahoo Finance noted Nate Jones as one commentator who actually liked the Gap wordmark redesign. Jones wrote the new icon “brings to mind visions of a streamlined, technologically dominant future America where everyone wears white suits and cool glasses.” Gap’s icon moved away from the nuanced differences. Gap just went simple.

And since simplicity is the opposite of what you want in food, shelter and sexual partners, no wonder you are pissed.

LA Times sells sugar on Page 1, faces hypoglycemia

Like a kid grabbing a cookie not realizing the sugar is bad for her, the once-mighty Los Angeles Times has run a front-page advertorial article that reads like real police blotter copy. To wit:

“It’s not every assignment that puts you in the back of a squad car, especially one that gives you a true glimpse into the hearts of the heroes behind the badge. This is the story of one such day when this reporter got a chance to …”

… what? Investigate cops in a squad car? Cool, sounds like LAT is winding up for a Pulitzer.

Alas, it’s an ad, and even with the clarifying logo at top, if we had an IQ below 100 we’d be tempted to think this is real news. We checked in with the American Society of Magazine Editors to see how the higher-brow glossy set manages advertorial copy, and they have strict guidelines: “For magazines to be trusted by consumers and to endure as brands, readers must be assured of their editorial integrity… advertisements should look different enough from editorial pages that readers can tell the difference.”

And that’s the rub. Whether newspaper or magazine, confusing the boundaries between ads and editorial helps no one in the long term. Misled readers tend to move away to resources they can trust. Nicely played, NBC. We pity all the advertisers riding in the response rate cars that follow you. Via Make the Logo Bigger. dies. Is your web lead form next?

Ad pundits seem pleased that has kicked the can. The site drew heavy criticism when it launched, and Adweek editor Brian Morrissey has perhaps the best analysis of how failed by trying to be a content portal in a world of disseminated internet entertainment.

We wrote a year ago that one major problem was the lead form, or more accurately the sign-up process. asked visitors to create accounts with a complex age-verification system that included your driver’s license number. The site launched with a $30 million Super Bowl blitz and content by Kevin Spacey’s Triggerstreet and Matt Damon’s LivePlanet, but instead of reaching the goal of 2 million users per month, traffic hovered around 150,000 uniques, then slid. Anheuser-Busch tried to fix the site with help from guerrilla New Media Strategies. eventually was redesigned to give away some content previews. Alas, fail. At last check Alexa gave a traffic ranking of 1,296,883 among all web sites; by comparison, this niche blog’s ranking is 958,442.

There is an important lesson — web sites who hope to build audiences or sales need to give away something of value before asking too much of users in return. Anheuser-Busch was in a tough box, trying to promote beer and so being forced to verify the ages of its participants really before they got to the juicy content. (We hear there were wild girls-on-film parties inside, but never made it past the bouncer.) Registration processes or online lead forms that request too many data fields are a sure way to kill the buzz.

Seriously,, what do you want?

We took a close look at today to see how they are countering, and have some free strategic advice for conservatives trying to rebound from Obamamania. Please, Republicans, blow up your web site and start over.

Here’s why. If your audience doesn’t know what to do, you fail. The point of any communication is to create a desired action. Direct mail: Respond. TV ad: Go buy our stuff. Newspaper report: Read and be enlightened. While Obama has been direct in his messaging (first, donate, now, support the economic recovery plan) the site is all over the place. We count at least 18 calls to action:

1. Create a personal GOP profile!
2. Join the GOP Facebook group!
3. Contribute.
4. Join the Young Eagles!
5. Shop the GOP store.
6. Create a profile (redundant link).
7. Donate (redundant link).
8. Call talk radio.
9. Join GOP.
10. Register to vote.
11. Contribute (redundant link).
12. Path for (or to find?) elected officials.
13. Create MyGOP.
14. Get GOP stuff.
15. Make friends.
16. Visit the RNC’s Center for Republican Renewal.
17. Download the GOP search bar!
18. Check the event in January!

We imagine a future Rush Limbaugh hitting this site, desperate to get involved in restoring the Republicans to power … and falling asleep at his desk after 10 minutes of puzzling over what the hell to do.

For web strategy shops, we highly recommend you reach out to and pitch them a redesign. The right is struggling and this bizarre communications approach is going to get them nowhere. It’s a good test for your own business, too. If someone visits your web site, could they find what they want in 2 seconds? And can they understand what action you want them to take?

Damn that iPhone battery

In Vermont farmers say that if you let cows loose in a giant field filled with grass, they roam immediately to the edge, stretching their necks for more, causing their tails to get tangled up in electric fences.

Reminds us of the iPhone. Consumers always have to rush to the edge of technology, demanding more, and so technology often stretches and fails. The new iPhone 3G model is faster than the 2007 version, but alas sucks energy MUCH faster from the poor battery. Apple didn’t include a removable battery, which would have allowed you to swap in fresh batteries but harmed the sexy interface. (That probably would have hurt sales of iPhone upgrades next year, too.)

So Apple, having seeded 2009’s product obsolescence, has posted 13 tips on how to extend the battery life by basically turning off all the things you bought the new iPhone for: stop using the zippy 3G connection; avoid checking email frequently; don’t use GPS. Heck, dim that gorgeous display.


Apple pushed too far too fast, and consumers are daft if they buy a sexy piece of glass with speedy wireless only to turn off that feature. The most frustrating thing is despite these obvious flaws, we’re tempted to buy the Apple gizmo — because our Darwinian evolutionary genes demand that we gather pelts and nuts and shiny glass objects to prepare for the next Ice Age.

So here’s a free tip: Turn off the iPhone’s power, too. Then you can show off the shiny toy for hours without harming the battery.

Tip via Steve Rubel. Photo: Nathan Borror.

NYTimes and InformationWeek, why are you shouting?

Clutter diminishes response.

We thought of this recently reading, where an errant mouse scroll causes annoying ads to pop up for things we are NOT interested in. Alas, this week The New York Times also began running those damn interstitial ads on its main home page — meaning you had to see a full-page ad before you get to the news.

The trouble is responses, or click-through rates, decline when consumers see clutter. This is true across media — direct mail postcard response rates slide in November, when mailboxes are stuffed with catalogs; newspaper costs per inquiry shoot up the week of Thanksgiving, when papers are overstuffed with mall ads; and, a popular women’s web site, has given clients we know some of the lowest-possible click-through rates.

One of the reasons ad networks (collections of web sites) are attracting advertisers is their results, in terms of click-through rates, are often better than single major content sites. Many people think it’s because behavioral targeting allows you to track people of a certain description across thousands of sites.

Could be. Or maybe those smaller sites just have cleaner layouts, so the ads get noticed.

Adweek’s duh! moment

Adweek has relaunched with a cleaner print layout and a rather pretty web site missing one piece of functionality: You. Go to and there’s no way for you to comment on articles.

This is a big Duh! moment, because Adweek is under serious threat from online blogs and communities that are wild parties of marketing discourse. Advertising professionals are swarming around sites such as Adrants, IWM, and AdGabber to find and share industry news. And the vital piece of social media is rapid, off-the-cuff, look-aren’t-we-intelligent response.

Comments engage. They build buzz. They forge networks. They connect individuals to a community. Almost every one of the top 150 marketing blogs lets you, small reader, post a comment at the end of a thought leader’s missive from the mountaintop. Heck, even The New York Times is starting to let readers post comments after thought pieces.

But at, no can do. Not for lead stories. Not for columnists. We loved Mark Wnek’s brilliant piece on bad writing and so wanted to chime in (and see what others thought, too). Uh-uh. You can join a community, but only if you carefully click through the right path and spend 5 minutes filling out a lengthy data application. We did, but haven’t clicked back.

Come on, Adweek. It’s. Called. Social. Media.

The horror of the American Marketing Association’s web site

Why does the AMA’s web site suck so bad? We hit it today to see what might be relevant in planning our own agency’s growth in 2008 … and were greeted by at least 45 links in 11 content categories. Egad. Maybe this is why blogs are so popular; you can find a point of entry quickly, the content is fresh, and you walk away with a useful idea or two.

This isn’t a quibble; this is a failure to meet member needs and probably drives AMA losses. The American Marketing Association is a subscription model with 38,000 members around the globe, and we suspect it has a churn rate of perhaps 10-20% of subscribers, with defections concentrated among year 1 members who bail after trying out membership and seeing limited utility. Members who defect may be lower-value in the AMA hierarchy (after all, if you are an executive for Ford you probably don’t pick up the tab, while smaller business members probably watch every expense). But younger members are the future of the organization, and younger members demand something meaningful from the web.

Let’s imagine what would happen if the AMA fixed its site. Say losses were reduced by net 5% — for 1,900 incremental AMA members a year each paying $185 in dues, for $351,500 in new revenue. In three years, that’s $1 million. The web site could be fixed for less than $100k. That’s a 10:1 payback.

There are also strategic reasons to light a fire under this project; if we, as marketing professionals, can now network on the 100 top marketing blogs, why do we need a stodgy old AMA? AMA might brush up on Porter’s Five Forces Model and consider it faces huge competition from new market entrants. A bad web site might do more than contribute to 5% annual member churn — it might be the frozen deer in the headlights looking at a social-media Mack truck bearing down on your membership heartbeat.

We imagine there are several challenges to solving the crappy site problem. Most AMA members have day jobs and focus elsewhere. The AMA is an event-driven networking organization, and the web site is probably item No. 49 on a list of top 50 priorities. Perhaps few AMA members dare to criticize the site, for fear they may bite the hand that publishes their white papers. We’re AMA members too and a little nervous about using the word “suck” and AMA in the same sentence.

Look, AMA. Call it tough love. We want you to succeed. We want the marketing industry to grow. So it’s not about you — it’s just about your site. So turn this thing around. For inspiration, we recommend two doses of Adgabber (look, members are engaged and seek out other members!), one dose of Slate (hey, clean points of entry!), a dash of Janet Jackson (not the thong — the user-generated viral content), and seasoning from (make us want to come back with something personal and useful). Come on, AMA. It’s time to market yourself.