Marketing Moments: Collecting digital advertising


March is Advertising Month for our American Enterprise team! Over the month we’ll be posting highlights from the museum’s rich advertising collection, both here and on the museum’s Facebook page.

This fall, the American Enterprise team was given a wonderful opportunity to work with Brown University students to develop the Marketing Moments section of the exhibition. For their final exam in Dr. Susan Smulyan’s “American Advertising: History and Consequences” course, the students created their own exhibits based on the Smithsonian’s collections, several of which we’ve featured on our blog. Along with those projects, we asked the Brown students to draft short memos on one of the most challenging aspects of the show – digital advertising.

Although the museum already has outstanding resources related to the history of advertising, more recent, born-digital advertisements pose a number of thought-provoking questions. Consider the difficulties of collecting even a very basic form of online advertising – the pop-up ad. Who owns that ad: the company it advertises, the agency that creates it, or the website it appears on? Moreover, once the ad falls into museum’s care, how can it be preserved over time? Does a pop-up make sense if it’s separated from the website where it was featured, or even the web browser it was viewed in? And finally, which pop-up ads deserve preservation?

These questions grow even more difficult when we consider how much digital advertising has changed over the past thirty years. As the Brown students highlighted, the rise of the World Wide Web and social media have forced advertisers to revolutionize their techniques. Fiona Condon, a senior studying Computer Science and American Civilization at Brown, created an online exhibition that traces this evolution in digital advertising:

The sheer rapidity of the these changes means that, if our cultural institutions don’t act quickly, we could lose the historical record of a revolutionary period in the history of American advertising. With their memos, we asked the Brown students to give us their advice – how should the museum go about collecting digital advertising? What particular challenges do digital ads pose? Their responses were, in a word, outstanding, filled with new insights and  detail. If anything, the students raised the bar, pushing the team to re-examine our assumptions about what advertising is, and what should be saved for future generations.

Here are two critical lessons about digital advertising that we learned from the students at Brown:

Context matters, because it reveals the systems that makes digital advertising possible.

Thanks to the recent growth in online retailers, search engines, and social media, online advertisers have an almost unprecedented ability to “individualize” their customers, analyzing their behavior and tastes in order to create tailored advertisements and campaigns. While we often welcome these changes, enjoying the convenience of targeted ads, the process raises questions about online privacy, and the way companies share personal information about their customers. Unscrupulous advertisers could use the information they collect to manipulate customers, encouraging harmful habits and inflating prices.

Many Brown students argued that the museum should place digital advertisements in context in order to illuminate these hidden systems for our visitors.  Several recommended creating emulations (virtual but exact representations) of popular search engines and social media profiles in order to show how digital advertisements respond dynamically to our personal preferences and word choices.

Digital advertising blurs the boundaries between advertising and content.

While many of today’s digital advertisement function like recognizable print, television, or radio ads, the most innovative companies have tried to expand their brand by offering consumers content. Recently, for example, Nike made waves in the advertising world with its “Nike +” campaign, which gave customers the ability to track their running statistics and compare them to other customers online. Many other companies have started giving their customers special coupons and deals that they can share, virally, with friends and family via social media sites. In all these cases, advertisers get customers to willingly identify themselves with a brand without using a recognizable “ad.”

Since much of this work is still experimental, and rests on collaborations between producers, advertisers, and consumers, the students at Brown suggested that our team interview trend-setters in the industry, creating an oral history for this period of change. Since content-based advertising creates new relationships between advertisers and consumers, many students believed we should interview customers as well, seeing how they interpreted these new campaigns for themselves.

What do you think? How should the exhibition preserve and display the history of digital advertising?

Be Sociable, Share!

    • Harry Hallman

      The students make a lot of sense in that showing the digital ads in context will also help future research to determine intent better.

      As for the ownership of ads I don’t see how that is any different than ads in print or television. Normally it is the  company who commissioned the ad in the first place not the medium it was displayed on. If you have to show the web site with the ad then I assume you have to get their permission as well.

      You were looking for a way to display ads. I suggest you look at this web site This is the home of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. They have been capturing full digital web sites since almost the beginning of the Internet. I can see sites I created in 1998 when I search. This technology could be useful for your efforts.