October 30, 2012

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On FlightAware I see three spaces filled with the same message. That’s a screenshot of one, on the right.

The guilty extension, I am sure, is Adblock Plus for Chrome. What that extension blocks is an ad, not a page. I can tell it’s an ad by looking on other browsers without that extension.

The block is also not an error. It is intentional, on my part. I’d rather not see the ads, or wait for them to load before I do.

On other sites in Chrome, such as the New York Times, blocked ads are just blank or closed spaces. On Firefox, where I also run AdBlock Plus, the same spaces are blank. So, what causes that image to appear? Is it Google (maker of Chrome) saying a blocked ad is a blocked page? Is it FlightAware? Does it appear only for Google-placed display ads? Or is there some other mechanism involved that has nothing to do with the Chrome brand? (Which is diminished by this practice, regardless of who’s doing it.)

[Later... It's a bug. Thanks to Hanan Cohen in the comments below for digging up that fact.]

The unclarity of all this testifies to the opacity of the whole advertising system to users, and even to the media through which ads are placed.

For example, an ad for laundry detergent that appears next to a story about little league baseball on the YourTown Journal site may not be placed by the detergent maker, its ad agency or the YourTown Journal. Its provenance might be any combination of ad networks, ad exchanges, dynamic auctions with real time bidding (RTB), demand side platforms (DSPs), supply side platforms (SSPs), or or some other arcane mechanism inside the millworks of online advertising placement.

In many — perhaps most — cases, no one person has the whole picture of how a given ad gets placed at any given time. That’s why you don’t know whether the detergent ad is meant for all the readers of the YourTown Journal, or if the ad was targeted to you personally. Or, in the latter case, if it was targeted because you have kid who plays baseball or because the system at the moment “thinks” it knows some other personal facts about you.

In the case of Flightaware, on another browser (without ad blocking) I see three ads in the three spaces occupied by “error” messages such as the one above in Chrome. Those ads are for Fisher Investments, Verizon FiOS and Target Stores‘ weekly savings. All three are wasted on me, except as brand messages. I already have FiOS, I’ll probably never use Fisher Investments (though now I’ve heard of them) and sometimes I shop at Target (but would never want to get into their promotional mill, which clicking on the ad would likely do).

For what it’s worth, which is more than zero, I love FlightAware, and would gladly pay them for the services they provide.

And, for what it’s also worth, which is $billions more than zero, it is important to understand the distinction between brand and direct response advertising:

  1. Brand advertising is not personal. It is broadcast to whole populations, and conveys what economists call a signal of sufficiency. That signal says “we are substantial enough to afford advertising.”
  2. Direct response advertising, which began decades ago as direct mail, and then grew to become direct response marketing in general, is personal. That’s an economic signal that says “this is for you.”

On broadcast and print media, which are not personal, the distinction is clear. Here on the Web, which for each of us is personal, the line between brand and direct response advertising is fully blurred. It is very hard — or impossible — to tell if an ad is just for you or for lots of people that some system thinks resemble you — or for everybody, because the advertiser and its agency happen to like the site where the ad is displayed.

I want to make clear here that I don’t dislike advertising or marketing. I was in that business for most of my adult life, made a good living at it, and am proud of the work we did. Our agency was Hodskins Simone & Searls. It was born in 1978 in North Carolina and headquartered in Silicon Valley from 1985 to 1998, when it was acquired by Publicis. One of our core principles was to “respect the media environment.”

Lack of respect for the Web is a big reason I have a problem with the blurred distinction between brand and direct response advertising there, and with the extreme liberties that are taken by sites and services with our personal spaces and our personal data. They take those liberties because they enjoy a lopsided power advantage over users — an advantage that has turned an ordinary distributed computing model called client-server into a complex but hardened system of obfuscation and entrapment we call calf-cow. We users are the calves and the sites are the cows. We go to the cows for the milk of HTML, plus cookies and other tracking files we neither want nor ask for.

The market is pushing back on bad practices by the cows of the world. For evidence look at the Mozilla stats for AdBlock Plus:

  • 176,853,243 Downloads
  • 3,442,720 in last 30 days
  • 14,781,239 Average Daily Users
  • 14,645,444 average in last 30 days

Look also at ClarityRay’s report on ad blocking. While the company has an interest in the subject, the figures seem close enough to real for me, because advertising on the Web is clearly out of control — namely, ours.

The original browser was like a car: a private vehicle that was operated by the individual for his or her own purposes. Like a car its spaces and operations were ours. We drove it around, “browsing” and “surfing” up and down the “information superhighway,” seeing and collecting only what we wanted to see and collect.

Today the Web has gone almost fully commercial, becoming a vast strip mall. In it the browser has morphed from a car into a shopping cart that gets skinned afresh at each commercial site we visit. As a shopping cart, the browser is no longer private. Its spaces are those of the sites we visit, and so are the liberties taken with those spaces when we are there. That’s why sites feel free to infest our browsers with tracking files that we carry around the way a deer carries fleas and ticks. Those files report our travels, choices and behaviors back to the sites and their third parties, most of which are advertising mills. Operators of today’s online marketing mills are now urged by vendors of big data analytics to imagine that constructing a “portrait” of us is a worthy substitute from knowing us directly, and that this portrait — rather our real and human selves — is the “chief executive customer.” (More about that.)

Here is what I said about all this in The Wall Street Journal, back in July:

…the Internet is young, and most development work has been done to improve the supply side of the marketplace. Individual customers have benefited, but improving their own native technical capacities has attracted relatively little interest from developers or investors.

As a result, big business continues to believe that a free market is one in which customers get to choose their captors. Choosing among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for your new smartphone is like choosing where you’d like to live under house arrest. It’s why marketers still talk about customers as “targets” they can “acquire,” “control,” “manage” and “lock in,” as if they were cattle. And it’s why big business thinks that the best way to get personal with customers on the Internet is with “big data,” gathered by placing tracking files in people’s browsers and smartphone apps without their knowledge—so they can be stalked wherever they go, with their “experiences” on commercial websites “personalized” for them.

It is not yet clear to the perpetrators of this practice that it is actually insane. Think about it. Nobody from a store on Main Street would follow you around with a hand in your pocket and tell you “I’m only doing this so I can give you a better shopping experience.” But that is exactly what happens online (as The Wall Street Journal has shown at length in its investigative series “What They Know”).

It’s easy to forget that a founding and persistent grace of Google is the relative lack of promotional cruft on its index page. For a brief sweet moment before we search there, we don’t see ads for anything. Its brand value at that moment is maximally “thick” (as Umair Haque explains here).

We need to get back into that headspace and zero-base our thinking about advertising. Leave business-as-usual outside the door and look again at what a site or a service was born to do. In most cases it’s not advertising.. Peter Drucker says a company doesn’t go into business to make a profit, but “to make shoes.”

Most businesses don’t call themselves “advertisers.” If they do advertise, they see that as one activity among many, and as a form of overhead. It’s mostly people in the advertising business who call companies advertisers.

What makes FlightAware valuable is not its ads. Same goes for Google, Facebook and Twitter. None of them went into business just so they could run ads. They created their services to do other things, and only later came to rely on advertising as a business model.

The Web as we know it is only seventeen years old. That’s old enough to develop some bad habits and young enough to change them.

Do we want the Web to be a strip mall when it grows up? Or what it was born to be in the first place?

Bonus linkage: Don Marti’s business posts.