Violators are obtrusive visual elements that are deliberately inserted into advertisements or placed on packaging to disrupt -- or violate -- the original design layout of the advertisement or package. Violators, also called "snipes," are effective in announcing "new" product features and special promotional offers such as coupons, free offers, rebates and sweepstakes. Used for decades in print advertising and packaging, marketers are finding new applications for violators in TV advertising and digital marketing.


Violators are deliberately obtrusive precisely to disrupt the flow of verbal and non-verbal information that people receive in an advertisement. They create cognitive awareness of new information that marketers insert into the message. Violators in print and packaging media commonly take the form of starbursts, color bars or strips, and splats. They've been around for decades, because they are highly effective in fulfilling their intended purposes. In a sea of homogeneous-looking boxes on a retail display shelf, violators grab shoppers' attention at the critical time when purchase decisions are made. Marketers commonly use violators in their print ads and outdoor billboards to show price or time-sensitive information such as a "3-Day Sales Event."

Television Violators

Violators in television are messages that crawl along the bottom of your television screen and animated miniaturized ads, typically for other TV shows. Because violators are inherently obtrusive, they can be annoying at times when audiences resent being obtruded upon. For example, they seem to pop-up in the middle of game-changer plays in basketball and football games and during, say, the car chase in an exciting movie. John P. Falcone of CNET Reviews laments, however, that "the genie's out of the bottle." John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC Universal, agrees. Miller predicted in a 2008 "AdAge" article that broadcasters will make in-program commercials --violators -- available to all advertisers to circumvent viewers skipping commercials outside of programs with DVR and TiVo devices.

Digital Violators

Violators in the digital space are pop-ups that appear when you open a new browser window and pop-under ads that appear behind active windows. Early metrics on pop-ups suggested that they were more effective than banner ads. CNET reported in a 2003 article that pop-ups had a click-through rate nearly twice that of banner ads. Click-through rate is the number of times an ad is "clicked on" divided by the number of times the ad appears. Subsequent to 2003, hard data on pop-ups is sketchy, at best. However, it is indubitable that pop-ups are so annoying to so many people that popular web browsers such as Mozilla Firefox feature automatic pop-up blockers.

Small-Business Violator Uses

Marketers constantly walk the fine line between being persuasively assertive and being obnoxiously annoying. New technological developments and techniques in digital marketing tempt some marketers to cross that line. As a small-business owner, accept that ethical marketing practices help to define your brand in the eyes of your customers. Your use of violators in offline, traditional print advertising and promotions programs constitutes fair game; tried, proven and consumer-approved use of violators. The jury is still out on the use of violators for TV commercials, and especially the use of violators in digital marketing. In these situations, "caution" should be the operative word.