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Mobile Ads Are the Future. They're Also Lousy

What gap in the consumer attention span can they fill?
Mobile Ads Are the Future. They're Also Lousy
Photo illustration by 731; Photographs by Don Farrall/Photodisc Green/Getty Images (billboard); Amana Images Inc./Alamy (TV); Sorendls/E+/Getty Images (bus stop)

Companies across the Internet continually proclaim mobile ads as the next great frontier. Pandora Media, Twitter, and other big names often derive the majority of their revenue from them. On Oct. 23, Facebook’s stock leapt more than 10 percent on news that the social network earned 14 percent of its third-quarter revenue from mobile ads, up from almost nothing in the first quarter. That mobile advertising should be an enormous business makes sense. After all, our smartphones are always with us, know where we are, and collect far more data about us than a desktop PC. So if mobile has such potential, why are the ads so mediocre?

“Most mobile advertising is done as an afterthought,” says Eric Picard, chief executive officer of Rare Crowds, an ad technology company. “Immature designers have just sort of slapped banner ads in there.” Working with a tiny canvas—a smartphone display—most ads take one of two forms, each with obvious shortcomings. There is the tiny banner ad Picard refers to, which has little room to say anything more than “Click here for something!” and the interstitial, the screen that pops up and interrupts you while you’re trying to read something else.