“That has to be the dumbest ad I’ve ever seen,” exclaimed my wife. Our regular viewing of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu was (once again) interrupted by an ad whose inanity was surpassed only by its ugliness. As a researcher with one foot still in the advertising world I signed us up for an ad-supported account, but I was beginning to question my judgement. Just as we had become immersed in the drama’s rich visuals and provocative themes, we were torn from our contemplation by ads that were garish and glib to the point of condescension. At the end of each commercial break we braced ourselves for a repetition of the cycle, cautiously slipping into Atwood’s captivating world, knowing we would soon be wrenched away.

The devolution of ads from captivating to consternating

In the early 20th century ads aspired to beauty; it’s no wonder that many now frame and hang them as decorative pieces. Copy was often limited, with a greater emphasis placed on the aesthetic qualities of each work. Brilliant colors met scenes both fantastical and domestic to invoke a sense of adventure or the hearth’s warmth. Ads like these arrest the viewers’ gaze, drawing them into a world of fulfillment that is just within reach (if only you would buy the right product). Their goal is to enrich and inspire, not hammer an impression into the audience.

pervades even our most intimate spaces, but their ubiquity has seemingly failed to impress upon many advertisers and their agencies the need to create ads that enhance the viewer’s experience. Instead, digital ads are often incongruous at best, and at worst undermine the quality of the entertainment they accompany. Ad agencies have a clear duty to their clients, but one would think they’d be attentive to their audiences as well; ugly ads don’t win over consumers.

Clients and audiences can agree: beautiful ads are better

Superficially, agencies should avoid disrupting the audience’s enjoyment, be it on a beautiful beach or in the comfort of their home. It is best, though, to aim higher: to craft and display ads that contribute positively to the media landscape. While they are obligated to present their clients’ brands and products in a manner appealing to consumers, it is to the public’s benefit (and their own) to do so in a way that augments their audience’s digital media experience. 

shows that “users make lasting judgments about a website’s appeal within a split second of seeing it for the first time.” Beautifully crafted interfaces, or digital content, are not only enjoyable to experience; they also impart to the audience the creators’ attention to detail, inspiring trust. These initial impressions last, informing the audience’s opinion of the media and brand’s reliability and usefulness long after the first exposure.

importance of digital context. Audiences are more receptive to properly contextualized ads and understand them more easily, while brand messaging can piggyback on the psychological state cultivated by the surrounding content. Returning to “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” the garish ads stood in shocking contrast to the show’s tasteful tones, disrupting our experience. Their forced enthusiasm was equally grating in its conflict with the program’s somber intensity; you can imagine how open we were to their message.

Beauty elevates the mind and opens the heart


About The Author


Digital history isn’t history at all—until, without warning, it is. In an age in which any internet user is a creator-in-the-making, reaching a handful of virtual friends or entire corners of the web in a moment’s notice, the line between archive-worthy material and the detritus that populates our feeds grows vanishingly thin. Thus, a paradox emerges: whatever measure of historical value our digital traces may or may not leave behind for future researchers, each individual is capable of becoming a digital archivist, holding on to whatever materials that made their online lives consequential, even if such material means nothing to another human soul.

On paper, the tools to facilitate easy digital archiving already exist. We’re told that the wonders of cloud computing, Google Drive, and the endless memory of our Facebook profiles will hold our past lives in place for posterity, a constant reminder of selves we’d rather forget or those we wish had never left us. But in reality, the web remains a treacherous place for users keen on holding on to remnants of themselves, particularly in ways that escape corporate capture. As platforms and technologies reach obsolescence, abandoned by users eager to find the newest, most relevant home for their virtual selves, the cost of maintaining millions of photos, videos, songs, and memories overwhelms failing tech companies that aren’t in the business of remaining archivists of abandoned profiles.

It’s in this climate that Myspace announced earlier this year that it had lost its catalogue of user-uploaded music: some 50 million tracks disappeared in a moment of digital file corruption. While publications like the Guardian predicted a dozen years ago that Myspace would exist in perpetuity, its slow death was already underway just as the digital ink dried. (Digital newspapers are just as susceptible as everything else online to disappearance: one Columbia Journalism Review report found that the “majority of news outlets [interviewed] had not given any thought to even basic strategies for preserving their digital content.”)

Although Myspace still exists as a shell of its former self, the destruction of its entire music catalogue served as a reminder that the once-dominant social network hasn’t vanished completely. And yet, thanks to its poor digital stewardship, the first musical experiments of countless artists, amateur and professional, were lost in an instant. Even the announcement that 450,000 songs had been preserved by a team at the Internet Archive underlines the scale at which digital history can endure, precariously. While a one percent sample of the now-deleted archive could give any professional historian a lifetime’s worth of researchable material for study, it means little to those who made the nearly 50 million tracks that were lost, never to return. While the missing tracks may be remembered by many as the kind of digital debris that constantly churns from device to device, lacking any enduring value, the rate at which the internet swallows itself whole means that future historians may never be able to decide for themselves what was worth keeping for posterity.

At best, our digital past can feel like some half-remembered dream, in theory reachable but only occasionally dredged up by something like Facebook’s “On This Day” feature. While there’s a power in forgetting, this quasi-accessible personal archive makes any desire to return to the digital past unlikely, especially when huge chunks of our online presence, at least on Facebook, can be bound up in other people’s decisions. Your ex can delete their page, or at least the photos of your shared past. Suddenly a piece of your digital life would be lost forever.

For Molly Soda, a digital artist whose work engages with questions of revisiting one’s virtual legacy, however messy, preservation is an active concern. Soda, whose teenage experiences with Myspace and Facebook were recently featured in the video game Wrong Box, has had to try to preserve several of her digital archives, most recently her three-thousand-post Tumblr collection, downloaded in the wake of the service’s draconian crackdown on acceptable material. At the same time, she expresses a sense of acceptance when questioned about her archival efforts, in full knowledge that the web companies tasked with mediating our computerized identities are at best ambivalent in their roles as stewards of such intimate materials.

“There’s this feeling of a loss of control that I’ve always sort of signed up for online,” Soda said. “On the one hand, I’m very upset when these websites go down, but on the other hand I’m like, ‘Yeah, I knew that going into it.’ This stuff is very impermanent, in new ways that I wouldn’t have conceived of.”

Of course, the internet is not the first new media form that’s proven unruly for historians hoping to make sense of the past. For those interested in the early days of filmmaking, the silence of the historical archive is perhaps even more absolute than that of the early web. According to the Film Foundation, an archival nonprofit founded by Martin Scorsese in 1990, more than 90 percent of pre-1929 films, and half of all films made before 1950, are gone forever.

Much like the web, the gaps in historic film preservation happened for both technical and cultural reasons. Before 1952, movies were primarily shot using nitrate film; its brittle and flammable nature resulted in several blazes that destroyed entire archives. But for years, studios and filmmakers refused to see the value in keeping their creations after their theatrical run. In testimony presented at the Library of Congress in 1993, film preservationist Robert Harris, who was responsible for producing the best-kept editions of classic films like Lawrence of Arabia and Rear Window, told officials: “Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios. There was no thought of ever saving these films.”

Cowboy with amateur movie camera in Montana, 1939. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The near-total loss of filmmaking’s early history is a monumental blow for researchers, who are unable to fully grasp the cultural and aesthetic impacts of many of the era’s defining movies. But while our digital traces may feel quotidian in comparison to these lost artistic works, researchers who study everyday life on the internet nevertheless lament a general cultural apathy toward digital preservation. These experiences may in time gain a significance that is not obvious to us today.

“I ask myself if people do really understand that they invest so much in their Instagram life. It’s a lot of work, but it will be gone because there is no way to save it in the way that it is,” said Olia Lialina, one of the archivists and researchers behind the Geocities Institute, which investigates the legacy of the once-beloved early webpage-hosting website. “All the interactions, the likes and the fights and everything, at this moment there is no capacity to preserve it for anybody.”

Web archiving is always a form of approximation, especially since internet preservation has primarily been the domain of code-savvy computer users or of the Internet Archive web crawler—decentralized processes driven by the obsessions and perspectives of individuals and the uncaring reach of algorithms. For all future historians of the digital age, whether on an individual or institutional level, a recognition of such limitations is essential. Jason Scott, whose work with the Internet Archive has saved many traces of the early web, calls this selective preservation “ice-core drilling,” a necessary reduction of what’s preserved in the face of so much abundance. In many ways, it mirrors concerns raised by Harris in his film-preservation testimony. Discussing the overwhelming number of films to be saved, he argued, “It simply is not all worth saving with today’s limited funding.”

Film preservation depends on a number of fragmented but overlapping technical concerns. A quality film reproduction often requires extensive reconstruction based on disparate source materials. Similarly, any living webpage relies on a host of contingent, external services, with plug-ins frequently contributing to a site’s existence. As a result, the act of holding on to webpages in perpetuity is almost certainly a losing task. Consider the retroactive destruction of Lialina’s Geocities archive: when Geocities Japan, the last vestige of the once-popular service, closed earlier this year, it had an impact on many portions of the saved digital archive that still depended on the living site in a number of unforeseen ways. It’s as if a malevolent patron entered a library and scattered priceless books in unknown new locations—except that the loss of any given digital archive is far more likely to be permanent.

According to University of Waterloo history professor Ian Milligan, most historians have yet to take seriously the fact that the explosive growth of the web into everyday use has passed into historical memory. Without considering the ways in which normal people made sense of late twentieth-century life—mediated for the first time on sites like Geocities, Yahoo, and AOL—one would have a simplistic understanding of many of the era’s defining events, from the fallout of the Clinton impeachment to the contested election of 2000 and 9/11. The internet has irrevocably reshaped our lives. For now, the historical record still struggles to reflect that shift.

It’s a concern that animates Milligan’s new book, History in the Age of Abundance? “Our society used to forget—put another way, we did not leave so many traces of ourselves behind,” he writes. While the archive has always privileged the interests of those most capable of leaving something for posterity, the internet age should, at least in theory, serve to upend this historic imbalance. Even with a recognition of the unevenness of digital adoption—divided along familiar lines of class, race, gender, and national origin—the significance of digital technologies in political unrest in the Arab Spring, or during the Occupy movement, any historical examination that doesn’t determine the internet’s impact on these events is incomplete.

That hasn’t stopped researchers like Lialina and Milligan from trying to challenge this imbalance. For Milligan, one of the biggest difficulties in working with something like the Geocities archive is the need to respect privacy. Even if something had been posted publicly, its creator, especially in the web’s infancy, may not have believed that their materials would be available, decades later, for a researcher’s perusal. In determining an appropriate approach, Milligan refers to the notion of an “intimate public,” which may technically grant anyone access to publicly posted materials, but in practice is intended for a select, self-determined audience online. He calls it a “new landscape for research,” with potentially monumental consequences for academics. The increasingly invasive and pervasive gaze of Google and Facebook, recently documented in detail in Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, means that detailed personal-data collections exist in inaccessible servers, an invisible archive that Zuboff calls the “shadow text.”

“It’s shocking how open people are, but mainly because even though they’re writing on a public website, in the 1990s it was probably just ten, twenty, thirty internet friends connecting with them,” Milligan said. “But I can come along in 2018, and it’s a public document, maybe taken out of context. I don’t even need to go to my ethics board to use this material.”

For Lialina, one attempt to get closer to her sources, and to enrich our understanding of their early homepages, is to contact Geocities users via email. She’s reached out to hundreds of accounts, most of which are disconnected, tied to users who have died or to people in disbelief that a researcher would have questions about their decades-old homepage. While the three successful interviews she’s conducted thus far speak to the significance of everyday users’ experiences as crucial to the historical record, their wider absence speaks volumes. We still don’t know how to value normal people’s places in telling the story of the internet, even as oral histories are otherwise essential in tracing lived experiences through epochal changes.

“I think people have heard so many times that what they made was just ridiculous or wrong, that nobody needs it, and that we should move to the next, better platform,” Lialina said. “People are quite modest, actually.”

The examples are endless, and seem to suggest that, even with clear goals and a desire to find specific materials in our digital pasts, the virtual archive is just as fragile as anything in the physical realm. I’ve found this to be true in my own research, in awe of potential research topics from the now-distant past that have vanished thanks to the adversities of careful archiving. One such project was The East Village, a “cybersoap” that shot several dozen episodes in the mid-1990s. It’s now vanished entirely from the web. Even if the page it called home,, had been preserved, most of the video content would have gone unsaved because of dead plug-ins and data-dense video files. As it stands, I don’t even have that. There is no evidence to understand its character, narrative form, or view of the neighborhood in question.

Still, my digging led me to find the email of Charles James Platkin, now a health researcher but once the show’s creator. When I received a response, asking me to call, the hope that I had unraveled a small historical mystery gave me an immeasurable joy.

In moments, this happiness was dashed. Platkin informed me that the entire project—all the scripts, films, everything that once went on the web in its infancy—had been destroyed in a flood.

Woman uses computer, 1994. Photograph by Martha Cooper. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

An archivist’s dream is immaculate preservation, documentation, accessibility, the chance for our shared history to speak to us once more in the present. But if the preservation of digital documents remains an unsolvable puzzle, ornery in ways that print materials often aren’t, what good will our archiving do should it become impossible to inhabit the world we attempt to preserve?

The neglect of our digital past is mirrored by our increasingly tenuous hold on the physical world and its archives. These self-destructive tendencies were nowhere more vivid than in last year’s Brazilian National Museum fire, a readily preventable inferno that’s been described by cultural historians as “a lobotomy in Brazilian memory.” Especially with the ascendancy of protofascist Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has targeted humanities programs in Brazilian universities with sweeping cuts, the massive cultural death wrought by the museum’s destruction suggests a bleak future in which political and environmental forces unite to ravage our collective historical memory in unforeseen but unmistakable ways.

Both digital and physical archiving are rooted in the same fundamental impulse: hold on to the past so that it may retain meaning in the future. Or, as a voiceover from the recent documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, a film about a woman who saved decades of broadcast news, said: “All archives create futures.”

For every effort I’ve made to save digital objects of personal significance—rushing to get screenshots of my posts in a goofy Facebook meme group called Post Aesthetics, before the posts were deleted in the wake of a controversy around the “Dat Boi” frog and African American vernacular English—other artifacts are likely gone forever.

In 2016 I took a course at Northwestern University called “Art, Writing, Technology.” It was an unusual class, taught by an unusual professor. Danny Snelson is an English PhD by trade, but in practice someone who blurs scholarly boundaries and wouldn’t be caught dead teaching a course on Chaucer or Shakespeare. Our homework was a set of weekly art-making experiments, carried out primarily on a website called NewHive, a drag-and-drop pagemaking tool that made digital art readily accessible, perfect for making vivid webpages with tiled GIFs, flashing text, and embedded YouTube videos. While I mostly made use of the site during those eleven weeks—strange, discursive projects, reflective of a period of intense growth and change—my NewHive profile ever since has been a source of comfort and a testament to one of the most important months of my life.

Like many things that seemed too good to be true, NewHive had its warning signs. Mostly: it was free. Without monetizing my attention or charging me for server space to host my data-heavy creations, it seemed for years that the service was in a sort of suspended animation, needing growth and visibility to survive but lacking a clear path toward sustainability. Over time, I watched the service falter, as tiled GIFs went missing and audio files stopped functioning. Still, my homepage remained. Despite all advance warning, I never got around to preserving my pages.

My mind returned to NewHive a few weeks ago. Saving those old files now felt essential. I loaded my old NewHive URL, username hannertoward, into WebRecorder, the most accessible web preservation software available to the general public.

But almost thirty seconds after typing the URL into my browser, my fears were confirmed. My entire collection was replaced with a white page reading,

Home of the NEW NewHive…

We thank you for your patience

Everything was gone. I didn’t even get a warning.


Perhaps you’ve seen digital out-of-home (OOH) media platform Firefly’s “taxi-top” screens in San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles and wondered, “how can they measure a moving target?” That was my question until I spoke with Firefly Chief Analytics Officer (and former Googler) Taylan Yildiz.

Yildiz says that not only are Firefly’s screens are measurable but that the company’s targeting and attribution are highly precise and reliable. He also talked to me about the dynamic geo-targeting capabilities of the moving digital screen that neither traditional OOH nor digital (but stationary) OOH screens can match.

Helping drivers earn more money

Firefly, which launched at the end of last year and has raised more than $50 million to date (with Google parent, Alphabet, as an investor), aims to put its digital screens on top of every cab, Uber or Lyft in America. (There are more than 2 million Uber and Lyft drivers in the U.S., not accounting for overlap.) The pitch to drivers is that they can make 20% more income, passively, by mounting the screen on top of their vehicles as they drive.

One of the tactics that has greatly aided traditional billboards and other OOH advertising has been the pairing of these fixed placements with mobile-location data to match media exposures with offline consumer behaviors. Location intelligence companies can determine the mobile ad IDs that were exposed to the OOH placement and then whether those devices showed up in a store, for example, a week later.

Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google .


As a CMO, you see your C-suite colleagues as smart people with lots of common sense. That’s especially true when it comes to business or finance. But C-suite business savvy doesn’t always translate into digital smarts. And it’s why your colleagues can sometimes do things that place the company’s reputation on the line. Consider these examples:

  1. When a video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines plane by security because he wouldn’t give up his seat to airline maintenance workers went viral, you’d expect the company to issue a heartfelt apology. Instead, CEO Oscar Munoz praised employees in an email for following proper procedures.
  2. Fashion designer Kenneth Cole’s tweet during the political upheaval in Egypt in 2011 may have been intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but the backlash was anything but. When he Tweeted, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is available online at ….”, the Twitterverse responded with a rage that only the Twitterverse could muster. Cole later apologized, but it didn’t do much good.
  3. And who can ignore tech billionaire Elon Musk’s regular missteps on Twitter? They include making forward-looking corporate statements which cost Tesla a $20 million SEC fine and using an artists’ work without permission. This is in addition to deleting his organization’s Facebook account on what appears to have been a whim.

Why do smart executives do such risky things online?

Some of these examples might seem insignificant in hindsight, but they raise two pressing questions: Why do the smartest people – for businesses, the people occupying the C-suite – often do the dumbest things when it comes to digital, and what can be done to prevent it?

There are several theories on why this happens, and they make a lot of sense. Smart people are just that – smart and accomplished – but often forget that their smarts don’t necessarily translate into new areas of life, such as digital. And of course, executives are often distracted by other priorities. It’s easy to see why a CEO who’s trying to nail down the final details of acquisition might fire off a thoughtless Tweet to get something minor off of her to-do list.

What’s the best way to keep C-suite executives from doing bad digital things?

Simple: By giving them guardrails, or as I like to call them, digital policies.

Think of it as a pilot checklist. Few would dispute the fact that airline and military pilots are among the smartest, most organized employees out there. And yet, no matter how many years they’ve been flying, they perform the same pre-flight checklist every time — just in case. Just in case they’re distracted because their kid got an F on a test, or because they’ve done the same routine so many times they’re convinced they’d never forget a step. 

Even businesses that are well ahead of the curve when it comes to developing digital policy programs tend to see them as something that applies to everyone else. However, while those digital policies should apply to company executives as much as to front-line employees, executives need additional ones as well. These folks have legal, regulatory, and fiduciary responsibilities that far exceed other employees.

Think of the enormous mess that happens every time that Elon Musk launches an attack on regulators or receives criticism for posting artwork and refusing to credit the artist. While Musk may be an extreme example of what can go wrong when executives engage with digital, there is little doubt that it makes investors nervous, has a negative fiscal impact, and negatively impacts the Tesla brand.

That’s why a unique set of policies the folks in the C-suite are needed. Some areas of concern are already regulated and should be top-of-mind, like not posting information about quarterly results before the official press release (e.g., insider trading). But as the CMO, you are ideally positioned to develop policies that address your colleagues’ most significant responsibilities — not the ones that keep them from sending a Tweet that contains a typo, but the ones that prevent them from jeopardizing the company’s brand, making a mistake that could bankrupt the organization (plus the employees and family members that count on those jobs), lead to fines and lawsuits, cause shareholders to lose money, and even result in jail time.

In support of your colleagues

Often, social media and employee online behavior is left with human resources. But as the CMO, you are the optimal person to develop and socialize digital policies for the C-suite. Your HR and legal colleagues can provide input around options and consequences for those executives that break policies. However, as the CMO you:

  • Have firsthand knowledge of your corporate strategic objectives and how executives ought to use digital to enable the organization to meet them. In essence, you are the Chief Reputation Officer.
  • Are the organization’s brand steward and can best lead the conversation on opportunities and risks that arise with your executives’ use of digital.
  • As a peer and a trusted member of the C-suite, are seen as an enabler and not some digital outsider who is trying to tell smart business people how to act. 

Sound policies are an executive’s pre-flight checklist

Executive-level business leaders wouldn’t be where they are if they weren’t smart. But everybody gets distracted, everybody forgets things and everybody gets a little too confident and starts thinking they don’t need checks and balances. But acting on those misguided beliefs is the gravest of mistakes, and the consequences for executives and the companies they run are mind-boggling. As the CMO, you are ideally positioned to help guide your executive colleagues in safely taking off for their digital flight, and in the process, preserve your company’s online brand. 

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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