August 14, 2018

The Good In Online Advertising

For over 10 years I've been writing about how shitty, worthless, and dangerous I think most online advertising is. Today I want to talk about the good in online advertising.

The best part of online advertising is that it funds an amazing array of free stuff (let's try to avoid the "it's not really free because you are the product" cliché for a few minutes.)

Sadly, online advertising has been so debased by creeps and crooks, and oversold by hustlers and liars that it is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate the good in it. If we could eliminate the creeps, crooks and hustlers, and allow the web to provide what it is capable of providing...well, that's what this post is about.

A look at the numbers illustrates clearly how much we value what we get online. The average person in America now spends almost four hours a day online. This is not inconsiderable. And we wouldn't be here if we weren't getting some substantial value from it.

The key piece is this: Virtually everything we enjoy about the web is paid for by advertising. Whether you hate advertising or love it, there is one simple truth that must be acknowledged -- advertising provides the money for companies to create the stuff we like and use online. This is why it is important to preserve an ad-supported web.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with online advertising. But there is something terribly wrong with the flavor of online advertising that we have evolved.

Essentially there are two kinds of online advertising. The good kind supports quality publishers, does not spy on us or track our every move, and respects our privacy by not collecting unnecessary personal, private information (what the marketing industry loves to call "data".) It doesn't share it, sell it, or leak it into the digi-sphere.

The bad kind of online advertising is only superficially advertising. It is mostly tracking-based spyware disguised as advertising distributed primarily by machines ("programmatically.")

The bad kind is the kind that the online media industry has defaulted to. It relentlessly follows us around the web and collects unnecessary personal and private information about us usually without our knowledge and consent. And it shares, sells, and leaks this information promiscuously in all directions.

It supports the shittiest publishers by using software to find the cheapest, crappiest environments to distribute ads to, thereby stealing money from quality publishers and giving birth to self-inflicted brand safety issues.

Because its primary model is data-based direct marketing (what we used to call junk mail) it leads to a style of "click here" advertising that magnifies the most annoying and irritating aspects of advertising.

The politics of online advertising is the part that I find most bewildering. For over a decade, the powerful players in the advertising world have been working relentlessly against their self-interest.

Advertisers would be much better served if they knew where their ads were running; if their budgets were spent influencing consumers rather than enriching adtech middlemen; if their ads were appearing on high quality sites instead being "programmatically" strewn all over trash sites; if tens of billions of dollars weren't being stolen by criminals with fraudulent websites and imaginary viewers; if hundreds of millions of people were not blocking their ads.

All of these problems could be substantially mitigated by doing one simple thing -- ending tracking. And yet the moment there is a suggestion of setting some limitations on the ability of online advertisers, media, and publishers to spy on us, the advertisers rise up through their tainted trade organizations (4A's, ANA) to oppose it.

The same is true of publishers. Quality online publishers are having their audiences and revenue stolen from them through data leakage (in which programmatic systems follow valuable customers to cheaper sites and reach them there); they are victims of criminal activities like fraudulent lookalike websites stealing their audiences and ad revenues; they are losing more than half their potential revenue to the sinkhole of adtech middlemen; they have lost control of their brand identities by allowing automated systems to determine who and what can be advertised on their sites; and they are losing revenue as ad blocking continues unabated.

And yet, once again, the moment the subject of limiting the slimy hand of tracking and adtech comes up, they mostly oppose what is clearly in their own best interest.

Online advertising doesn't have to...

   - be despised by the public
   - subvert democratic institutions
   - enable corruption and fraud
   - place personal and private information about us within the reach of criminals
   - devalue the work of legitimate online publishers
   - waste billions of dollars of advertisers' value on fraud
   - degrade our news media and journalism

Online advertising supports so many good things we enjoy and appreciate about the web. It gives us entertainment and information. It allows us to befriend people we would otherwise never know.

It would take so little for the online ad industry to do so much good -- for itself and for the public. We have decades of evidence that tracking is not a necessity for advertising success. TV never tracked us. Radio never tracked us. Newspapers and magazines never tracked us. And we have more than enough evidence that adtech is in many ways not just non-productive, but counterproductive.

We need to get rid of tracking -- not advertising -- to make the web what it ought to be.

August 07, 2018

The First Principle Of Advertising

When you come to bat in a baseball game the first principle is to hit the ball. What happens after you hit the ball is out of your control. Where the ball happens to land and what the defense does is secondary. First you have to hit the ball.

If you can't hit the ball the rest is irrelevant. It doesn't matter how strong you are, or how fast you run, or how beautiful your swing is. If you can't hit the ball, you are useless.

In advertising there is also a first principle. The first principle of advertising is to attract someone's attention.

If your ad doesn't attract someone's attention, everything else is moot. It doesn't matter how lovely it is, how wonderfully it is written, how strategically brilliant it is, or how precisely it is targeted. If nobody notices it, it is a complete waste and utterly worthless.

Sadly, most advertising is invisible. Most advertising is ignored largely because it looks and sounds exactly like advertising -- and usually like someone else's advertising. This is not good. But there is one place where invisible advertising has found a welcome and comforting home -- online.

In other media, invisible advertising is recognized as a failure. Not online. Online advertising is judged by how precisely it is targeted, not how widely it is noticed.

In traditional media even awful advertising usually gets noticed. This is because it's often big, loud, annoying and relentless. Online, even the rare excellent ad gets ignored. This is because it's small, quiet, and interactive -- and consumers are about a thousand times more likely to "interact" by clicking away from it than clicking in to it.

The unmistakable fact is that essentially nobody notices online advertising. As a rule, it gains no attention. Have there been some cases of online advertising attracting a lot of attention? Sure there have. But the likelihood of it happening is alarmingly remote.

The religion of precision targeting and one-to-one communication tries very hard to ignore the fact that online advertising has scandalously low impact. The science of how dreadful online ads are at attracting attention is available (a few examples here and here) but the science is mostly ignored because most marketers don't understand the difference between science and data.

The truth is most advertisers and most marketers don't really want to know the facts. They have already put a large stack of chips on online advertising. Fear of finding out (FOFO) that they have been wasting large sums of money on a medium that is corrupt, fraud-ridden, dangerous, and largely invisible keeps them in a state of nervous denial.

The proliferation of media types has made attracting attention a much more difficult task than it's ever been. And much more important. To a large degree, marketing communication has become a contest to garner attention.

Those who believe the primary objective of advertising is to engage an individual do not understand the first principle of advertising. Engaging an individual is the slow bus to nowhere. Advertising's first objective is to gain the attention of a lot of people.

If it doesn't, you'll never get to first base.

July 26, 2018

Lies Of The Marketing Industry

There are two types of lies. Lies of commission (when you say something that isn't true) and lies of omission (when you neglect to say something that is true.)

The marketing industry is guilty of 10 years of lying by omission.

I am specifically speaking about the events at which the marketing industry comes together -- our conferences. These are the occasions when the industry "gathers" and "networks" and "shares" all the dumb shit that we happen to be obsessed with at the moment.

It seems that there is a new marketing conference every half-hour to solemnly explore whatever the marketing fad-of-the-month happens to be. The trade press, finding it ever harder to make a buck publishing, has jumped head-first into the conference business with a never-ending stream of "insider summits."

The problem with these conferences is that while they pretend to be educational, they usually have a hidden motive that is antithetical to truth-telling. In fact, most of the conferences you attend are financed to a significant degree by companies with an agenda. And what is the undercurrent that defines that agenda? Usually, the propagation and glorification of marketing and advertising technology.

The headline speakers at these conferences are often cheerleaders for whatever new technology is at hand. The talks are usually boosterism disguised as information. Dissenting points of view are rarely represented. The result is that we have become an industry that has lost its traditional sense of skepticism and does not even know what questions to ask when force-fed the latest techno-bullshit.

Do you think Facebook and Google want people at the conferences they are sponsoring to talk about the horrifying dangers of tracking and surveillance marketing? Do you think the adtech industry - whose members sponsor scores of conferences - want speakers spelling out the facts about the waste, fraud and corruption enabled by adtech? If you were paying good money to sponsor a conference would you want people onstage describing what a stupid, dangerous product you were creating? Let's not pretend the conference organizers don't understand the unwritten rules. Let's not pretend they don't book these conferences accordingly.

Here is a list of the so-called "Gold Partners" for this year's Advertising Week conference in NYC...

You don't have to be a philosophy major to figure out what segment of the ad industry is being advanced by this conference.

And who's going to be speaking at Advertising Week? Do you think Google will have a speaker at the conference? No, they'll have at least eleven of them...

Isn't anyone embarrassed that one company has eleven speakers at a conference? Have we gone so far down the rabbit hole that no one thinks this unseemly? And people are willing to pay good money to witness this?

I get invited to these conferences once in a while because I get cast as the amusing, slightly nutty old guy who thinks adtech is a bunch of dangerous horseshit. You know, comic relief.

These things are usually just a 3-day festival of self-congratulation and cheerleading for the stinky online ad industry, the dubious operators who serve it, the "futurist" baloney peddlers, and the gullible suckers who pay to suffer through it.

Adtech corrupts everything it touches.