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Brand Strategy Advertising Media

My ad diary: How many messages get through our ‘personal paywalls’?

By Ryan Brown, Senior vice president



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November 28, 2023 | 6 min read

In a special miniseries, we’ve tasked 5 ad execs to a day of counting, recording, and thinking about the ads they’re exposed to. This week, 160over90’s Ryan Brown ponders on what gets through our filters.

A skull wearing headphones and dark glasses

We do a lot to shut ads out - but what gets through the forcefield? / Brett Jordan via Unsplash

For one full day, I noted every ad-like marketing message I was exposed to. On the day in question, I commuted into the Philadelphia office of 160over90, we hosted clients for a work session, and we all went out to dinner before I hailed a ride home… where I managed to watch an episode of premium TV before bed.

“Do I experience many ads in a day?” I recall asking myself before diving into the exercise. I suppose the operative word there is “experience”. While it certainly doesn’t feel like I encounter a deluge of ads on any given day, I figured the official tally may surprise me.

But more importantly than the number on the tally, which messages are really landing?

The tally

Let’s cut to the chase. I saw: 34 out-of-home ads, 40 on mobile (17 digital apps and web; 23 social) 30 digital ads on desktop (9 social, 9 direct, 12 search), and 8 embedded content/sponsorship ads.

Grand total: 112 ads in one day.

A new kind of paywall?

Many of us are willing to pay good money to keep ads out. My day of reflection had me realizing my privilege of being fairly insulated from ads for long stretches of my day – paying to wall off ads for more focused content consumption. From a paid YouTube subscription where I listen to content creators covering the news, music, global soccer, and finance, to ad-free streaming services in the evenings, I’m tuning in during limited windows and willing to pay a bit extra to maximize the focus and enjoyment during that time.

But what often passes right through these walls is thoughtfully sponsored content and entertainment marketing. Embedded right within the media I’m consuming, these messages have the appearance of being ‘approved’ by my favorite creators, which brings a greater degree of credibility and relevance. While I may be guilty of skipping past the ad segments often enough, I now know these brands and products.

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And they’re getting through. While I’ve limited my social media use these days, the hyper-targeted ads on those platforms are similarly being noticed.

There’s evidence of this all around me: The retro-designed digital display device in my office. The mix-it-yourself green juice I’m drinking at work. The upgraded webcam. The movie I took my kids to over the weekend. Upon a little introspection, many of us may realize we’re not as ‘unreachable’ as we might see ourselves.

Aspire to be iconic

With a background in design-driven branding and advertising, I was surprised by how many ads I’ve trained my eye to simply look past each day – many of which have obviously been there for some time. Suddenly I noticed those sun-faded messages along my daily commute that I’ve never truly seen before, like trees falling in a distant wood as I strolled on with my noise-canceling headphones.

Today’s more discerning (perhaps straight-up wary) consumers set a higher bar for what merits their attention – though it’s certainly not impossible to engage them. For smaller and lesser-known brands, there must be a very real recognition that breaking through is an against-the-odds proposition for the advertiser unless the brand is spending significantly.

Punching above your weight is a must. Success for companies of any scale or level of spend most often starts with a differentiated brand, an ownable voice, and a fresh point of view. The actual content (and media strategy) of your advertising and marketing build upon that foundation.

But you know what else was breaking through on my morning commute, or when scrolling through the news? Brands and businesses that are just trying to be more human. Simple, seemingly relevant messages: A clever, hand-drawn stand-up sign outside a café with today’s specials. A bold and sincere mural ad in Pittsburgh that a former colleague shared on LinkedIn. Human moments to appreciate, if even for just that moment.

This exercise reminded me: the best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing.

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160over90, part of the Endeavor network, is an award-winning cultural marketing agency that elevates brands by creating ideas for the world to obsess over and shared...

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