The World’s First Banner Ad

First banner ad (HotWired, 1994)

In anticipation of The Mashies, Mashable is running a weekly series celebrating some advertising “firsts.” Watch for new installments in the series every week.


As opposed to other advertising “firsts” like the first TV ad or the first print execution, bringing banner ads into the world seems like a dubious accolade.

…the first banner seems quaint but also ominous, evoking feelings similar to looking at a gallery of baby pics of dictators.

Joe McCambley, the guy often credited with inventing the ad unit in October 1994, is somewhat conflicted about it. He recently wrote a Harvard Business Review op-ed arguing that after a promising debut, banners were a spent force by 1998: “We were back to delivering what TV spots, radio spots, and print ads had delivered for years: sales messages,” he wrote. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Or is it? As McCambley acknowledges, the banner business is bigger than ever. Nielsen estimated that the display business grew 26.3% globally in the first quarter. eMarketer has also predicted that display revenues will eclipse search advertising revenues in the U.S. in 2015.Clearly while McCambley thinks banners are a creative wasteland, there are lots of people still lining up to buy them. Craig Kanarick, who worked with McCambley on that first banner 19 years ago, says that it’s no surprise that most banner ads suck. “Ninety-nine percent of most advertising is bad,” he says.

So about that first banner ad.

In 1994, there were “only” about 30 million people on the web. Most of them accessed the Internet via services like Prodigy and CompuServe. Those ISPs ran their own ads, but since the networks were private they are not considered true banner ads. Instead, the Oct. 27, 1994 issue of HotWired, the web version of Wired, was poised to be the first to run true banner ads.

McCambley’s client, AT&T, was one of several to be featured in that issue, but is credited with being the first. Why? Either because its materials were the first to reach HotWired‘s office or it was the most popular. It depends whom you talk to.


Note that the AT&T logo wasn’t anywhere to be seen. That’s because the client wasn’t completely signed off. The language also referred to a prescient campaign at the time themed “You Will,” that promised that you would soon be able to do things like read a book online, get directions in your car and send a fax from the beach.

In this case, clicking the banner brought the user to a microsite where they could find lists of the top museums and other mind-expanding sites. “We saw our ad as kind of a public service announcement,” says Otto Timmons, who worked on the banner and is now principal at 3GR.

The idea, McCambley said, was that AT&T wanted to “transport people” via the web. The ad had a click-through rate of 44%, a stat that owes much to the ad unit’s novelty. (The current CTR is around 0.1%.) That’s not the only reason, though. As Kanarick notes, there wasn’t much to do on the web in 1994. Much of the activity revolved around reading sites that listed links to other sites.

Viewed through the lens of 2013, the first banner seems quaint but also ominous evoking feeling similar to looking at a gallery of baby pics of dictators. While McCambrey feels conflicted about his role in creating a now-reviled form of advertising, though, Kanarick currently the CEO of Mouth Foods, says he’s proud of the role he played. “It was great and exciting,” he says. “It was an experiment.”

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Image: iStockphoto, dumayne