HP PONG: Advertising’s Atom Smasher

In 1996, at Red Sky Interactive, in partnership with a rebellious band of talented individuals, I developed the HP PONG Banner Ad: the first interactive banner ad on the net, and the web’s first example of “rich media”.  But behind the scenes, that banner was an atom-smasher, revealing the very principles of interactive advertising- and sweeping industry changes yet to come.    

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The HP Pong Banner was created in service to Hewlett-Packard’s campaign at the time: “Built by Engineers, used by Normal People” (by Goodby, Silverstien & Partners). As you can hopefully see, it was a full-working version of the classic video game Pong, coded into a banner. GS&P’s campaign was smart and put the focus on the brilliant, if often eccentric, HP engineers, and as represented, the Pong banner was created by an Engineer named “Jerry”, after drinking quite a lot of coffee.

But GS&P had only hired Red Sky to do what everyone else was doing at the time – create static and, if we could manage within the budget, animated banners (GIF 89 files).

In those days Red Sky Interactive was a little like Fantasy Island, you know, you came in thinking you wanted “X”, and Mr. Roarke sent you off with what you needed – usually not “X”.  That was Red Sky’s DNA. And the HP PONG Banner was one of those instances. Actually, it wasn’t an easy sell. No one had done anything like it before, and if you are in anyway involved with deploying ads online today, then you know how restrictive the media owners can be with regard to formats and “unusual” technology.  None of which helped us in making the case to Goodby and HP.

Ultimately, Goodby and HP bought the idea – and together we all fought the fight to strike agreements with the media owners to get it posted.

By video game standards, the banner was mildly entertaining, it was only Pong after all. But after it’s release MSNBC and CNET both reported that it had the highest click-through of any other banner on the Internet for it’s three month deployment (Yeah I know – that’s back when we measured click-through, sue me). It’s admittedly possible that a good percentage of those click-throughs were merely users confronting banner interactivity for the first time, but it was nevertheless considered a success for those involved.

I don’t think this banner does much eyebrow raising today, but at the time, it seemed as though few had considered degrees of interactivity within a banner. My argument in defense of the model back then had been that a longer, narrower stage didn’t mean a user couldn’t have a deeper experience that lasted as long as the user wanted. I am surprised that the creators of banner ads today still have yet to take this basic conceit to it’s most valuable extreme.

After the Pong Banner’s initial attention, we assumed that was about as much as we would see from that.But what happened next was a turning point for those of us at Red Sky.

We began to see the Pong banner stolen. No kidding, users were digging through thier cache folders, copying the .dcr file (Shockwave) and posting it to sites outside the media buy. And maybe more profoundly, they were attaching it to e-mails and sending it to their friends. Keep in mind – this behavior wasn’t easily done – it took some effort and technical know-how. There was no such thing as “viral marketing” in 1996 (actually, there still isn’t – that’s another posting). Nor was there such thing as “Word of Mouth” as in today’s popular online nomenclature. No one put buttons on web sites that said “Send to a friend”. No one was making games-as-advertisements; this was before all that. Or rather, this revealed all that.

Not entirely unlike it’s contemporaries of the time (and boy am I dating myself), the “Dancing Baby”, or the “Nieman Marcus Cookie Recipe” (told you) the Pong Banner spread. Not because it had a funny tag-line, or the HP logo, but because it provided value to an online audience. Was it a novelty? Absolutely. But it was novel enough to want to share.

It’s important now to stop and talk about value.  I’m not talking about the kind of value you get from finding a good sale price, I’m talking about something that’s either: entertainment, information, or a service.

Let me further qualify those words with the following semantics: a feature film is “entertainment”, a dictionary is “information”, a cell phone is “a service”.  Where does traditional advertising sit on that spectrum?  Well, it sort of doesn’t.  And that’s the point.

In answer to this question, more often than not, advertisers will tell you that advertising is entertaining.  Hard-core advertisers will tell you it’s a mixture of all three.  And while the case can be intelligently argued, that ads are entertaining, and /or that they provide information and that in doing so provide a service, let’s draw a relevant (if my own bias) distinction:

Ads may be “entertaining”, but they are not “entertainment“.

Before you go there, I’ve probably heard it. That “lots of people read the fashion magazines for the ads”, that “so many people watch the SuperBowl for the spots”, and that “people in Europe go to the movies early for the commercials”. These are memes that have circulated the ad industry since before the dawn of the commercial Internet.  Old industry lore, a small collection of unscalable, partially true, case-studies that serve to keep a lot of industry executives and creatives engaged everyday while they generate a bell curve that rather doesn’t reflect these stories.

For better or worse, interactive media and the audiences that wield it, don’t hold any respect for our sense of self-worth and the selectively adjusted context that we, as an industry, have constructed to nobelize our efforts. In fact, for the most part, we are in interactive audiences’ way.

Those of us in advertising today, now more than ever before in our industry’s history, have the sober responsibility to shake off any ancient, self aggrandizing dust, stare coldly at our body of work, and remind ourselves of this basic conceit:  That advertising, for all it’s creativity and arguable value, serves a master other than our audience, other than the creative muse, other than  our King, and is therefore starting from a deeply compromised position, where we must wield our very best creative powers just to make up the deficit.

Nowhere is this more urgently drawn than online, where the User is King. Where an interruption of any kind in our King’s desired path, be it a timed delay, or an occupation of screen real estate that might have otherwise been filled with His chosen content, is utterly, patently inauthentic. This is, in part, why we must compensate the King with such excessive value.

And here’s the main argument of this section: set against a traditional media landscape of pre-aggregated audiences and interruptive tactics where we’d become an industry of messagers- of communicators of value, that now, with the advent of interactive media, with the ubiquitous penetration of audiences in control, have no choice but to become an industry of value creators.  To cease merely communicating value, and to actually, honest-to-goodness provide it.  To start creating the kind of value that audiences will seek out. More than that, to start creating value that audiences will pay for, short of it being funded by an advertiser.

More specifically, and with respect to my semantic comments earlier, this means that successful interactive “advertisements” must take the form of content, products and services.

In contrast, over the years since Pong, our response to the amazing potential of interactive media has been incremental. Our ways are well traveled, and as an industry, due to size, maturity, experience, training, and so many other factors, we are loathe to rethink such sweeping, integral components, though everyone I know says they are.

Traditionally, advertising’s creative bar has been set at a level that requires creative teams to produce work that, at its base, will keep audiences from looking away. Our audience has always been collected for us. You might say we’ve been spoiled by that. The very existence of “art director & copywriter” teams, by definition, are in place to produce messages that meet this bar, not reach the greater value we’re contemplating here. Soon, this team structure will change. And so will many other elements, including our relationships with media owners, clients, our compensation models, our planning methods, deliverables, our training and staffing. And this must seem daunting. But the other side of the coin is exciting.

If you do this right,  you will find that you are no longer in the business of highly-creative communication, if you do this right you are in the business of entrepreneurialism. You will develop valuable offerings that squarely compete in an entrepreneurial landscape.  You will be creating products that compete, side-by-side, against the product companies.  You will be creating service-oriented businesses that effectively compete in the service industry.  And yes, you will also create content that competes with for-pay television, movies, books, etc.

And this (not messaging) is the future of advertising.

This doesn’t mean we cease to employ any of our existing skills, really, it’s a different type of communication.  Remember the old writers’ adage, “Show, don’t tell?”  This new era in advertising will be “Be, don’t show.”

The art of advertising at that point will be in conceiving business propositions that, through their very existence, stemming from the very process and product of this parallel business, will embody the client’s brand values while measurably expanding it’s business, and even forming new profit centers. Profit centers that the agency would most certainly be justified in participating in.

I call this type of value-based ad a “symbiotic business unit” (SBU).  A fully functioning business proposition that integrates at some level with the client’s core business. Funded by ad dollars, these executions will be particularly well adept at attracting the target audience digitally, and then dovetailing them into the advertiser’s primary offering.


If you’re an agency – start thinking in terms of building a start-up team, staffed with strong business minds, consultant types with a background in launching products and services of their own. Don’t wait for your client to request this- charge this new team with developing the odd SBU proposal for the right clients, unsolicited, in addition to your current deliverables. Based on their concept, consider what the agency is willing to invest in the SBU, and contemplate contracts in advance of the proposal that either:

a) procure some ongoing percentage of related new revenue,

b) retain ownership of the underlying intellectual property (software, systems, etc),

c) retain a degree of non-exclusivity such that you can redeploy the SBU on behalf of other clients, or such that you can take the product straight to consumer after some agreeable period of exclusivity,

d) consider filing patents – I doubt many ad agencies have actually gone to the effort of writing a patent for anything, but it’s a key part of operating any newly invented business. Be aware of the recent availability of “Business Method Patents“, a relatively new but highly relevant tool within the landscape of sweeping new technologies and their application to new businesses and innovation.

As you determine pricing for your client, do so such that you are indifferent as to which option the client agrees to (buy Vs lease for example). And if you’re walking in the door with a sound business plan, that shows skin in the game and tells a story of growth and expansion, they’ll agree.

Yeah, HP Pong was just a banner-based game, but I can report to you with sincerity that this vision is what it showed us all, with vivid clarity, back in 1996.

In case you were watching.