In 1994, five designers were assigned the task of designing the world’s first online banner ad. If a junior designer was asked today to design a banner ad, you might be met with exasperated sighs as any designer knows the pain of having to crank out banner ads by the dozens as their ad agency intern experience. But back in the early 90’s, these designers took this banner ad project head on, and made it a success, even by today’s standards.
Technically AT&T’s ad was not the first, but it was the catalyst that made banner advertising what it is today. Not only did it gain success, but it also proved the enticing theory that back in 1994, people were willing to click off whatever website they were previously viewing to look at a sponsored campaign. Now a days, most banner ads have a click-through rate of .08% and even one of the original creators of the AT&T banner ad has multiple ad blockers to protect himself from banner ads.
At the time, the team that worked on the banner ad had an optimistic view of the future. Advertising was just as controversial during that time, and for the banner ad, it was a way to advertise without the negative impact. Digital was a new and yet to be tamed frontier, and they looked at it as if it was a sacred ground. AT&T found out that MCI, who back then was their biggest competitor, had signed up for one of the original spots. This gave their marketing team that extra boost to compete on the web by paying somewhere between $20,000 to $30,000 for banner advertising.
The digital creative that helped AT&T agreed that the banner would be clickable, in order to take advantage of the medium’s interactivity, but it would also avoid trying to sell the user. They didn’t want it to feel like an ad, but a pleasurable experience of what the Internet could be. So they decided on a campaign that enticed the user to see the future and be excited about it, but to remember that AT&T was the one to bring that future forward. Adjacent with the banner ad, AT&T was running a television campaign, “You Will,” that showcased what future technologies AT&T was working on to bring the masses. They only needed to bring that campaign online to further drive the concept.
The ad was slated to run on the arts and style section of HotWired, so they thought the reward for clicking should reflect that content. As for the design, they wanted the banner to stand out on the gray pages of the Internet, hence the ’90s rainbow letters.
When clicked, the banner, that didn’t sport the AT&T logo, led to a separate, gray page with three hyperlinks. The first led to a map of the United States labeled with clickable links to art museums and galleries that had an online presence at the time, including digital-only galleries. The second was a directory of AT&T websites, which did not exist anywhere else, not even on AT&T’s own page. The last link on the page led to a survey, asking people about the ad. At the time, people didn’t really know how to use the Internet. The design team wanted people to really understand; this is how it is suppose to be used. Part of the mystery of the Internet back then was no one knew what was on it, or the possibilities of what was out there.
The banner ad was an absolute success, the click rate settling at around 44%, but that could have been because the Internet was new and people were curious. Today, banner ads clutter our favorite websites and are ignored and loathed. Despite today’s attitude towards banner ads, none of the people involved with handling the campaign regret their involvement. The original creators even went as far as coding a live website to celebrate the 20 year anniversary to the banner ad to give millennial the original experience of the gray Internet pages of 1994. If you’re curious click on over to thefirstbannerad.com and see for yourself.