I was reading online the other day and I saw a display ad (not from AdWords, but I didn’t inspect the source to see which network it was) for the BBC. Let’s see if what stands out to me also stands out to you. Look at this screenshot I took:

 

Display Ads As Signalling: A BBC Ad

 

Here’s what’s odd about the photo: the hand gesture that the woman is making. Normal people don’t stand around doing that with their hands. Why would they make an ad with someone doing such an odd hand gesture?

On the surface, it makes no sense. It’s not a natural gesture. It doesn’t make her look warm, nor fun, nor smart, nor interesting, nor any other characteristic you might want in a panelist of a show you’re advertising. If anything, it gives off a stilted, weird feeling, which could put people off.

The explanation is not that it was random and she happened to be standing like that when the photo was taken. We know that isn’t the case because people don’t stand like that with their hands. Plus, in serious online advertising, nothing is accidental.

The explanation is that display ads have some purposes other than getting conversions. Branding is one that everyone often talks about. But another one that almost no one talks about is the role of signaling. Lots of details are used in ads to send signals to the small numbers of people who understand the signals.

Think of using symbolism like cryptography. If we use a symbol of a “tree” in an ad—for a hypothetical example—to us, it’s a tree. Perhaps it implies nature, health, sturdy growth, the environment? But to people who happen to believe that trees represent the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, then our use of the tree takes on a different meaning. Maybe if only 1% of people are religious enough think about that meaning, then that 1% understands, while the other 99% don’t.

I will confess to something embarrassing; it took me decades of thinking about marketing and working in serious online advertising before it dawned on me one day the reason why Apple’s logo has a bite in it. It represents the bite that Adam and Eve took from the apple from that very same tree. That’s how subtle it is, it’s right there in the logo of the most famous and richest company in the world. Yet the vast majority of people never even realize that symbol that is right in front of their faces!

So, what is she doing with her hands? It’s a symbol. But a symbol for what? Well, some symbols are more fun to hint at than to discuss. But the best learning is doing your research. So, it might be fun for you to start paying attention to people using this symbol—in obvious ads, and in subtle ads (aka, “content”)—and see if you notice it anywhere else.