In my role as strategy group leader, I am often asked by my team or clients to weigh in on what’s next. And in my 15 years of working in the digital marketing space, I’ve seen a lot of bad ideas. Usually the bad ideas can be picked apart strategically as an internal exercise and we move on with life. But some bad ideas not only threaten to waste clients’ dollars—they threaten the very evolutionary survival and success of the digital marketing industry. Some ideas are evil in that they wish to bring marketing back to a time when we treated people like captive cattle at the impression trough. The people working on them are not necessarily evil, but such companies need to be called out. Today I would like to share why I am firmly against “CAPTCHA Advertising”—in hopes that you help save everything we’ve worked for in the next evolution of marketing.

For background, CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test. This is a tool that websites often use to ensure that an action is completed by an actual human being, rather than a spamming bot. Here’s an example from a company called reCAPTCHA.

If you have left comments on blogs, or registered for just about anything online, or you a react developer that want to implement it in your project, you have likely completed a CAPTCHA. They can sometimes be difficult to read, and are made more difficult to read as spammers get better and better. But for now they are a necessary evil on the Web.

The Advertising Innovators Strike

For decades now there are many innovators and inventors in the world who dream of grabbing a piece of the multibillion-dollar advertising market by creating a new, owned “network” for marketers to hock their wares. The result is everything from advertising on airport runways to gas pumps to sheep grazing in a field. Back in 2005, Ilya Vedrashko, a marketing thinker I admire, wondered on his blog why no one had tried to turn these CAPTCHAs into an advertising medium.

A few years later Carnegie Mellon University created a system called reCAPTCHA which asked users to enter words from scanned books. This allowed the school to both block spammers and digitize many out-of-print books. It was a novel way to do something positive with a chore done by millions of people each day. In 2009, Google acquired the tool and continued to use it to digitize its book collection as well as the historic printings of The New York Times. Another novel improvement on the CAPTCHA is something Facebook recently introduced: A test for people who lost their passwords in which you must correctly pick out a picture of a friend.

Alas, other not-so-noble ideas took hold after five years when a handful of companies began creating ad unit CAPTCHAs. Instead of deciphering a meaningless word or helping digitize a textbook, companies such as Solve Media ask consumers to write out a brand’s tag line or selling point, as in the example for Dr Pepper at the top of this page. The companies claimed that this was good for consumers, who no longer had to type in something that is often illegible; it offers advertisers a new, “captive” audience who was forced to interact with brand messaging; and it promised website owners the opportunity to further monetize content through ad revenue sharing. And in the past few months the hype around Solve Media and other CAPTCHA ad competitors is getting deafening.

I’ve been quietly ignoring these ads and pushing people away from it for some time. Until now my one public comment on the medium was in the comments of an iMedia article that claimed Solve Media as something that creates “real engagement.” But recently a client and friend of mine directly asked me for my point of view, and I put together an analysis that I would like to share with you here: The 5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use CAPTCHA Advertising:

1. It’s Not Strategic

Such ad units are clearly a tactic, not a strategy, and therefore not worth much time at all for marketers to assess their value. At most, a brand manager who is running an awareness campaign online would expect that her media-buying agency is keeping an eye on the CAPTCHA ad space for really cheap CPMs. Already most marketers don’t spend enough time looking at bigger, strategic opportunities in digital through social, mobile, and CRM.

2. It’s Not Scalable

Solve Media and its competitors are targeting the big marketers who spend millions of dollars a year on mass marketing campaigns. What they fail to recognize, however, is that these companies want big numbers for their impression bucks. And the numbers on CAPTCHAs just don’t add up. Solve Media claims that there are about 300 million CAPTCHAs solved per day around the world. That’s not many impressions in a planet of 7 billion people who see about 3,000 ad impressions per day. Let’s say a full third of that comes from the U.S., so that’s 100 million CAPTCHAs per day for 100 million households in the U.S. That means most of us probably “solve” one CAPTCHA per day.

That’s right, even if 100% of these were by these ad networks, you would have one impression per household per day. Imagine if people saw one TV commercial per day, or one print/outdoor/banner ad per day. If there are a hundred total companies advertising on this medium, then your brand might only serve one ad per person per quarter. Why waste the time and energy for so little of an impact?

Ah, but Solve Media might just increase the number of CAPTCHAs that people have to solve per day! Imagine if people had to solve five or 10 of these per day?! (Step back and think of doing that! You’ve got to type in 10 brand slogans per day just to read a few articles!) But it’s still too little, and starts to anger the people who use your websites. (See below for more on that.)

3. Results Are Unproven

Marketers want to see the data and results before testing their budgets, so it was smart for Solve Media to invest in a study to gauge consumer interest and effectiveness of its new tactic. However, it is still far too early to trust in what little information has been shared so far. The company frequently quotes its “Wharton Study” that was done in summer 2010. Unfortunately this is the only data I can critique, and there are a few big issues with it.

In the study, 234 college students were asked to read an article. One leg had to sit through an interstitial ad between two pages of the article, which you might recognize as the kind of ad that you are forced to sit through before getting to content that you want to read or view. It’s so annoying that most websites won’t put it into use for fear of losing visitors. The second leg had no interstitial, but readers were asked to type in an advertising phrase in order to vote in a poll at the end of the article. By choosing interstitials as the comparison leg—one of the most annoying ad formats that exist—Solve Media stacked the deck in its favor in terms of measuring annoyance in a User Enjoyment score that came out flat between the two.

The big data quoted in the experiment is that Brand and Message Recall were much higher for those who had to type in the brand message with a CAPTCHA unit versus an interstitial. This makes sense, as people who have to write something down naturally will remember it better. But, again, there are issues: First, every new form of digital interruption I have seen has similar stronger numbers than “older” ad units, simply because people have not learned to ignore the new format. Second, the survey was given only 5 minutes after the ads, so the large Recall number does not necessarily translate to memory in the days later when someone is making a purchase at the store. Meanwhile Recall tests with TV advertising typically call people 48 hours after the survey to see if they still really remember what brand was advertised.

These are major flaws in the research, and marketers deserve more proof before handing over their shrinking budget dollars.

4. Too Little Benefit for Publishers

Solve Media and its competitors claim that this new ad format is a boon for content publishers and webmasters. They claim that their revenue sharing model is a way for people to keep getting valuable, free content. But the websites that have used these tools are seeing little benefit so far. Solve Media pays a whole 10 to 20 cents per CAPTCHA solved. Adverlab points to some interesting comments from websites that have tried the service, including:

“So, basically, if you annoy the crap out of 1000 of your visitors with these things, they’ll give you, the webmaster, 15 cents on average.”

“The payout threshold is a whopping $200…will take me 3 years to reach.”

Although the payout numbers are small for publishers, it seems that the spam rate gets a lot higher when you put Solve Media’s system into place. As one commenter in this article points out the fundamental issue: “Advertisers love clear (easy to read), consistent messaging (same answer every time). Spammers love easy to read images that always decode to the same CAPTCHA answer.”

5. The Risk of Angering Customers Is Too High

Let’s face it; our consumers have become tough and demanding, especially after surviving years of pop-ups, scam/spam email, spyware, privacy violations, and hacked laptops. They have a very low trust for advertising overall and digital “innovation” like this in particular. In fact, a recent survey by AdAge and IPSOS Observer found that digital formats take up the top four spots in consumers’ most-disliked ad platforms (in order: mobile, email, social, and websites). A very large and growing percentage of people feel that they have a right to skip pre-roll video ads and install banner ad and cookie blockers on their browsers. So a new “unbeatable” forced ad will leave a lot of people angered.

This particular ad unit feels like a punishment, and while a few marketing bloggers might say this is a clever idea, go check out some real consumers’ comments on Reddit or this take from Gizmodo. And it only takes a small amount of angry consumers to make this look like a bad idea quickly. If, say, only 10% of people decide not to buy your brand because of this kind of advertising, it might take 10 or 100 people to be slightly positively impacted enough by the CAPTCHA ad to make up for this loss.

And while these new ad companies say that they started the business in part because the old, hard-to-read CAPTCHAs were frustrating for consumers, now they are creating new, video ad units. So where you used to have to just decipher a phrase (branded or not) to comment on that article, you will increasingly have to sit through a video.


Along with these logical, strategic arguments against CAPTCHA Advertising, I feel compelled to add a personal point of view: This type of marketing represents everything I have worked against in my career, and it violates the Marketing with Meaning concept that I have been driving in this space for years. It treats our precious, loyal consumers as bad children who must be forced to memorize our brand assets. It seems aimed at tricking people into remembering or liking a brand rather than earning the business with great products and meaningful marketing.

We need to stand up against these kinds of advertising ideas because they lure marketers into believing that the old, interruptive, tell-and-sell ways can still work in the post-digital age.

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