The Intersection of Advertising and the Product Experience: Part I

Some years ago, my former company, RealNetworks, rented Disneyland Paris for an evening. We invited our partners to one of Europe’s greatest theme parks to have fun. Every detail of the Magic Kingdom was polished. The doors were open, and we were free to become kids again. No crowds. No parental supervision. Most of Discovery Land was operational and sparkling.

I made my way to Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune. This French version of the ride was inspired by Jules Verne and featured pure steampunk. It was also the fastest Space Mountain in all of the Disney theme parks, and the only one to include corkscrew, sidewinder, and cutback inversions. In a word: “exhilarating.” I boarded a Golden Moon Train and sat in the front. I was the sole rider in a car that held 24 people. Riders above me were screaming from other Trains that rocketed through the sky.

Space Mountain is fast – you’re launched through a tunnel into the Columbian Cannon, careen through pitch black turns and asteroid fields, before you arrive at the moon. The ride is only two minutes and five seconds, but the condensed energy makes it seem much longer.

When my Moon Train landed back at the boarding station the attendant encouragingly told me I could go again. I briefly considered the option and quickly got out. Maybe later. My Moon Train sped off empty.

Thirty seconds later, as I was walking away, the ride and passenger screams suddenly grew eerily silent. I heard shouting – “Hey!” «Au secours!» “We’re stuck!” The ride had stalled. Turns out it was frozen for over 30 minutes. Disney was excellent about helping everyone disembark, but of course there was some waiting in the dark, maybe even upside down on a steep decline, unceremoniously pinned-in and struggling against a seatbelt. No beverage or bathroom in sight. The outage disrupted the Disney brand.

Development and marketing teams work very hard to provide a consistent product and service experience. In the world of gaming, the goal is to help consumers get lost in play for a long, long time in a state known as “flow,” where the player comfortably hovers (potentially for hours), between anxiety and boredom. Many forms of social media, digital media content, and online environments have similar constructs.

The suspension of disbelief in movies, games, music, and books is central to maintaining the illusion in film and literature. The worlds may be completely imaginary, but consistency within the experience supports the illusion. Phoebe Waller-Bridge breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the camera (i.e. the audience) in Fleabag, not unlike a Shakespearean soliloquy where the character steps downstage to share their inner monologue. Strange at first, but it works because the technique is consistently employed: The audience is an active participant. Having been constructed it can be a startling powerful twist when the fourth wall begins to erode.

There are unintended accidents that break the flow and the suspension of disbelief in products, and content. A power outage or a bug can derail the experience. Good UI design, recovery methods, and readily available help systems soften the interruption; and well-designed they get the consumer back on track.

Intended Disruptions

Intentional interruptions such as notifications, text messages, and other alerts can hamper mobile gaming or get in the way of consumers content experiences. Apple, Google, and other developers have considered the potential interruptions and provide settings to limit the intrusions, such as temporarily disabling text messages, or more subtly, casino-style – hiding the time.

Of course, some games, products, and services intentionally use disruption to send the user in another direction to deepen awareness, pitch a product offer, or funnel users to another property with higher lifetime value. Done well – appropriately timed, contextually relevant, and strategically invasive – the interruption can feel appropriate and benefit the user.

The Advertising Opportunity

Third party advertising can also work quite well and is an accepted form of reciprocity for free access to a product, service, or content. Companies make a lot of money from advertising, and advertisers have an opportunity to find new customers for their products. Advertising can be healthy for your business, the advertiser, and the consumer.

But what about products or services where third-party advertising is not a primary business engine? Or where third-party advertisements use the same containers that the product uses to deepen the customer relationship? We’ve all experienced those advertising interruptions that are so debilitating that you’re willing to pay to stop the ads so you can get back to the product. Marketers and development teams need to consider the long-term, unintended effect that third-party advertising has on the product, service, content, and brand.

Most advertising is disruptive by design. Great advertisements take you out of the moment and transplant you to another world, if only for a few seconds. Advertisers can use shock, surprise, humor, color, and clash to achieve their effect. Consumers are overtly or subconsciously imprinted by the ad.

In practice, consumers are highly unlikely to click on the ad and leave your product, but they’re left with an effect from the rented space: an impression of your product blended with the intention of the ad. The ad – container, timing, content, message, and call to action – are directly or indirectly commentaries on your product or content. Developers and Marketers need to actively evaluate and optimize the product experience and the boundaries of advertising.