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The rap on Apple for years was that it made gear just for hipsters and schools. But that’s no longer the case. yourbizhere copyIt’s kicking ass in business now too, and in a way that may end up being more dominant than IBM and Microsoft ever were.

A refresher…

From the mid-’80s to the mid-’00s, Microsoft and Windows ruled the business world. To a huge extent they still do. A Windows box is to a corporate desktop today what an IBM 3270 Display terminal was to the same in the Mainframe Age. And countless ATMs, airport displays and PoS (Point-of-Sale) systems run on Windows.

But executives like their Macs and their iOS mobiles, and both kinds of devices are now becoming common, if not quite ubiquitous, on corporate desktops, in the hands of waiters in restaurants and workers in the field — and even at PoS locations.

And Apple has the huge advantage of total vertical integration: they make and run the hardware, the software, the app platform and the company store. Not saying that’s a good thing, but it is a major thing.

The iPad Pro has the look and feel of a design machine: it’s easy to work on, especially with its Pencil, and has a beautiful screen and UI. But it’s also good just for display. And will be handy in the field both for doing business work and for showing that work off.

Any company dealing in stuff that needs to look good to B2B clients or B2C customers will find the iPad Pro is an invention that mothers necessity: now ya gotta have one. Or a few.

I mean, they’re so much better than whipping out a laptop. There’s something about opening one’s laptop for others that feels like you’re letting them into your bedroom, with all this personal stuff laying around. It’s not pretty. Or easy. Or simple. On a slab like the iPad, drilling down to the pix you want is almost artful.

Anyway, watch the space. It’s a lot bigger than it used to be.

And think twice before buying the current inaugural model. Always best to wait for the next version, which will have lots of V1bugs and design errors worked out.




A few months back I wrote a post with a headline in the form of a question: How will WMAL-AM survive losing its transmitter? Here was my best guess at the time:

To stay on the air, WMAL will need to find replacement acreage, somewhere that allows the signals … to cross as much of the Metro area as possible, meaning it will have to be northwest of town. For that Cumulus will need to either buy land out that way, or co-site with some other station already operating there.

The only two stations with transmitters out there are WTEM (“ESPN 980″) and WSPZ, both sports stations (on 980 and 570 respectively) and owned by Red Zebra Broadcasting (in which the main stakeholders are also those of the Washington Redskins)…

Of those, WSPZ’s site looks like it has more room. It’s in Germantown, about 22 miles from downtown Washington, more than twice the distance from downtown Washington as WMAL’s current site. I suspect the signal patterns could be “tightened” to concentrate energy toward Washington, though, and that might help. But ground conductivity — which matters hugely for AM signals — is poor in Maryland and Virginia, which is one reason AM stations there tend to suck in the ratings.

Now comes word that Cumulus plans to use the WSPZ/570 site. Here are the day and night signal applications to the FCC. The day power will be the same as at the current site: 10000 watts. But the night power will be only 2700 watts, rather than the current 5000 watts. As I expected, the signals both day and night are “tightened” to a headlight beam shining toward the District. The day signal is on the left and the night signal on the right. (Source:



WSPZ has similar day and night patterns, at 5000 and 1000 watts, using the same four towers.

Here is how sees WSPZ’s day and night patterns. Since the two stations are close in frequency (which greatly affects propagation: lower on the dial is better), expect WMAL’s coverage to be about the same as WSPZ’s.



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reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:


As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.

no-ads-trackingHere is a list of pieces I’ve written on what has come to be known as the “adblock wars.” That term applies most to #18 (written August of this year) and beyond. But the whole series works as a coherent series.

  1. Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008)
  2. After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009)
  3. The Data Bubble (31 July 2010)
  4. The Data Bubble II (30 October 2010)
  5. A sense of bewronging (2 April 2011)
  6. For personal data, use value beats sale value (13 February 2012)
  7. Stop making cows. Quit being calves. (21 February 2012)
  8. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  9. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future? (Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  10. Earth to Mozilla: Come back home (12 April 2014)
  11. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  12. Time for digital emancipation (27 July 2014)
  13. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  14. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  15. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  16. Because freedom matters (26 March 2015)
  17. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  18. Captivity rules (29 March 2015)
  19. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  20. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  21. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  22. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  23. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  24. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  25. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  26. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  27. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  28. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  29. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  30. How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  31. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)

There are others, but those will do for now.

Question: Should this whole thing be a book?

ripping up a contractLet’s reset our thinking to what a user’s expectations are, when operating a browser and interacting with pages and sites.

In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.

(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)

Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.

So, for example, when I go to, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.

In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In  Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”

Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”

When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.

Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends

My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.

This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.

Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)

How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.

Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.

But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:

  1. Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  2. Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  3. Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.

Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.

A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.

Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.

What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.

Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.

The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.

In The Data Bubble, I said,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.

Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.

But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.

Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business?
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions

Check this out:


I took that screen shot at the excellent Oakleaf restaurant in Pittsboro, NC a few days ago. Note the zero bars (or dots) of telephone service, and the very respectable (tested!) data service. To confirm what the hollow dots said, I tried to make a call. Didn’t work.

This seems to be a new thing for T-Mobile in North Carolina, where I spent much of this summer — or at least in the parts of it where I visited.

The company’s mobile phone coverage is pretty lousy to begin with, on the whole: great on highways and in the larger towns; but spotty when you head into the suburbs and countryside. What changed is the sudden near-disappearance of voice phone coverage in some places where it had worked before, and the improvement at the same time of data coverage.

At my sister’s house, near a major interstate highway, I could use my phone on the porch or in the yard, but not indoors, where I’d see the most dreaded two words in mobile telephony: “no service.” Or at least that was the case in July and early August.

Then something strange happened. I started getting data service indoors at her house, and in other places where before there was nothing. But all I got was data, identified by that little “LTE.” Telephony was five empty dots. At my sister’s place I also couldn’t make or get a call out in the yard, on the street, or anywhere in the neighborhood. But the data service was now terrific.

So I’m wondering if this is just me, or if T-Mobile is lately favoring data over telephony in some places. Anybody know? (I note that T-Mobile’s coverage maps only seem to deal with data, not telephony. But maybe I’m missing something.)

By the way, I should add that I wouldn’t trade T-Mobile for any other carrier right now, because I travel a lot outside the country. In addition to fine coverage in New York, Boston, and all the places I tend to go in California, T-Mobile gives me free data roaming and texting everywhere I go, and 20¢/minute on the phone. Yes, the data rates tend to be 2G rather than 3G or 4G/LTE. But it tends to be good enough most of the time. It also makes me tolerant of a less-than-ideal coverage footprint here in the U.S.


wheatAdvertising used to be simple. You knew what it was, and where it came from.

Whether it was an ad you heard on the radio, saw in a magazine or spotted on a billboard, you knew it came straight from the advertiser through that medium. The only intermediary was an advertising agency, if the advertiser bothered with one.

Advertising also wasn’t personal. Two reasons for that.

First, it couldn’t be. A billboard was for everybody who drove past it. A TV ad was for everybody watching the show. Yes, there was targeting, but it was always to populations, not to individuals.

Second, the whole idea behind advertising was to send one message to lots of people, whether or not the people seeing or hearing the ad would ever use the product. The fact that lots of sports-watchers don’t drink beer or drive trucks was beside the point, which was making the brand familiar to everybody.

In their landmark study, “The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375-390), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising does more than signal a product message; it also gives evidence that the parent company has worth and substance, because it can afford to spend the money. So branding was about sending a strong economic signal along with a strong creative signal.

Plain old brand advertising also paid for the media we enjoyed. Still does, in fact.

But advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.

In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff.

To explain why I say that, let’s start with two big value-subtracts of adtech: 1) un-clarity about where any given ad comes from; and 2) un-clarity about whether or not any given ad is personal.

For example, take the one ad that appears for me right now, on my Firefox browser, in this Washington Post story:


What put that ad there?

If I click on the tiny blue button on the upper right corner of the ad (called “Ad Choices,” which I’ll visit later), I get to a linkproof “About Google Ads” page, so I guess Google placed this one. The page mostly pitches Google advertising to potential advertisers, but also says “you may also see ads based on your interests and more.” How do they know my interests? By tracking me, of course. Did I ask for that, or know how the tracking happens? No.

But I also don’t know if this ad is based on tracking. In fact I suspect it is not, because the ad is nowhere near any interest of mine. It was the only ad that got past the tracking blockers I have operating right now on Firefox. Why? Not sure about that either. According to my Ghostery add-on, these entities are following me on the Washington Post site:


Google isn’t one of them. But then, Ghostery doesn’t see, or stop, as many trackers Privacy Badger, which I also have installed. Here’s that list:


Since I’m not currently running an ad blocker (e.g. Adblock Plus) on Firefox, but I am running Ghostery and PrivacyBadger (both of which follow and selectively valve tracking), I can assume that turned-off trackers causes some of the blank white spaces flanking editorial matter, each with the word “Ad” or “Advertisement” in tiny type.

Thus I suppose that the Google/Zulily ad got through because it either wasn’t tracking-based or because I have Ghostery and/or Privacy Badger set to wave it through. But I don’t know, and that’s my point. Or one of them.

Now let’s look at what I’m missing on that page. To do that, I just disabled all tracking and ad blocking on a different browser — Google’s Chrome — and loaded the same Washington Post page there.

It took twenty-seven seconds to load the whole page, including seven ads (which were the last things to load), over a fairly fast home wi-fi connection (35Mbps downstream).

Instead of the Zulily ad I saw in Firefox, there is an ad for the Washington Post’s Wine Club. A space-filler, I guess. Can’t tell.

Only one of the six other ads feature the little blue Ad Choices button. It’s one for the Gap. When I click on it, this comes up:

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 11.01.20 AM

Then, when I then click on “Set your Ad Preferences,” I am sent to Gap Ad Choices, which appears to be a TRUSTe thing. The copy starts,

Interest-based ads are selected for you according to your interests as determined by companies such as ad networks and data aggregators. These companies collect information about your activity – like the pages you visit – and use it to show you ads tailored to your interests; this practice is sometimes referred to as behavioral advertising.

You can prevent our partner companies listed below from showing you targeted ads by submitting opt-outs. Opting-out will prevent you from receiving targeted ads from these companies, but you may continue to see our ads that are not shown through the use of behavioral advertising.

I’ve never heard of any of those companies, or those on the PrivacyBadger list, except for Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and other usual suspects. Nor have you, unless you’re in the business.

These companies are not brands, except inside their B2B sphere, which includes a mess of different breeds: trading desks, SSPs (Supply Side Platforms), DSPs (Demand Side Platforms), ad exchanges, RTB (real time bidding) and other auctions, retargeters, DMPs (Data Management Platforms), tag managers, data aggregators, brokers, resellers, media management systems, ad servers, gamifiers, real time messagers, social tool makers, and many more.

To see how huge this field is, visit Ghostery’s Global Opt-Out page, which companies that “use your data to target ads at you.” I haven’t counted them, but to get to the bottom of the list I had to page down twenty-eight times. And it’s still just a partial list. Lots of other companies, such as real-time auction houses, aren’t there.

If you’re game for more self-torture, check out LUMAscapes such as this one:


Or go to the master Ad Choices page. The headline there says “WILL THE RIGHT ADS FIND YOU?” — as if you want any ads at all. The copy below says,

Welcome to Your AdChoices, where you’re in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.

The Advertising Option Icon gives you transparency and control for
interest-based ads:

  • Find out when information about your online interests is being gathered or used to customize the Web ads you see.
  • Choose whether to continue to allow this type of advertising.

Watch three short videos to learn how the Icon gives you control of when the right ads find you.

And if you want to go completely bonkers, try watching the videos, which feature the little ad choices icon as the “star” in “your personal ads.”

“Bullshit” is too weak a word for what this is. Because it’s also delusional. Disconnected from reality. Psychotic.

Reality is the marketplace. It’s you and me. And we have no demand for this stuff. In fact our demand, on the whole, is negative, for good reason. According to TRUSTe’s 2015 Privacy Index,

  • 92% of consumers worry about their privacy online. The top cause of concern there: “Companies collecting and sharing my personal information with other companies.”
  • 42% are more worried about their privacy than one year ago.
  • 91% “avoid doing business with companies who I do not believe protect my privacy online.”
  • 77% “have moderated their online activity in the last year due to privacy concerns.”
  • 86% “have taken steps to protect their privacy in the last twelve months.”
  • 63% “deleted cookies
  • 44% “changed privacy settings”
  • 25% “have turned off location tracking”

Ad blocking has also increased. According to PageFair’s latest report,

  • “Globally, the number of people using ad blocking software grew by 41% year over year.” (Q2 2014 to Q2 2015.) In the U.S. the growth rate was 48%. In the U.K. the rate was 82%.
  • In June 2015 “there were 191 million monthly active users for the major browser extensions that block ads.”

I should pause here to add that I use four different browsers on this laptop alone, and make it my business (as the chief instigator of ProjectVRM) to try out many different VRM (vendor relationship management) tools and services, including those for privacy protection, among which are tracking protection and ad blocking systems. These include Abine, Adblock Plus, DisconnectEmmett‘s Web Pal, Ghostery, Mozilla’s Lightbeam, PrivacyFixPrivowny and others you’ll find listed here. I switch these on and off and use them in different combinations to compare results. The one thing I can say for sure, after doing this for years, is that it’s damn near impossible for any human being — even the geekiest — to get their heads around all the things adtech is doing to us, through our browsers and mobile apps, or how all the different approaches to prophylaxis work, especially if more than one is working at the same time in a browser. The easiest thing for everybody is to install (or switch on) a single ad and tracking blocker and be done with it. Which is exactly what we’re seeing in the research above.

Another delusion by the “interest-based advertising” business is the belief that we “trade” our personal data for the goods that advertising pays for. In October 2010 John Battelle wrote, “the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal.” I responded,

In fact we don’t know, we’re not cool with it, and it isn’t a deal.

If we knew, the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have a reason to clue us in at such length.

We’re cool with it only to the degree that we are uncomplaining about it—so far.

And it isn’t a “deal” because nothing was ever negotiated.

But adtech grew like crazy, rationalized by the faith John summarized. Then, in June of this year, came The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploiitation, a report from the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania. In it Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper say that’s not the case. Specifically,

…a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. Our study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened.

And it isn’t just about “giving up” data. It’s about submitting to constant surveillance by unseen entities, and participating, unwillingly, in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. This —

…establishes a new form of power in which contract and the rule of law are supplanted by the rewards and punishments of a new kind of invisible hand…

In this new regime, a global architecture of computer mediation turns the electronic text of the bounded organization into an intelligent world-spanning organism that I call Big Other. New possibilities of subjugation are produced as this innovative institutional logic thrives on unexpected and illegible mechanisms of extraction and control that exile persons from their own behavior.

And yet, scary as it is, Big Other is limited by three realities that are now beginning to become clear through the veil of adtech’s delusions.

First is the paradox Don Marti isolates in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful: “The more targetable that an ad medium is, the less it’s worth…For targeted advertising, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If it fails, it’s a waste of time. If it works, it’s worse, a violation of the Internet/brain barrier.”

Second is adtech’s belief that we are nothing but consumers, and that all are ready at all times to hear a sales pitch — especially a personalized one.

Third is that this actually works, when most of the time it does not.

For example, I just looked up Mt. Pisgah at In “search nearby” (which Google volunteers as a default search choice, along with a picture of a pizza), Google’s search algorithm assumes that I’m looking, by default, for hotels and restaurants. But what if I’m looking for hiking or biking trails, or something else that costs no money? No luck. Google instead gives me a hotel, a lake and another wilderness area. In fact Google — which one might think knows me well, since I’ve been a user of their services since the beginning, and has me logged in on Chrome  — has no idea why I want to look up that mountain. (In fact it was to illustrate this point, for this essay. Nothing more.)

I just went back through the last seven days of my browser usage on Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera, to see if there is any hint about anything I might have wanted to buy. Out of many hundreds of pages I’ve visited, there is a single hint: a search I did for a replacement remote control for my sister’s Sansui TV. (I didn’t buy it, but I did email her a link.)

Even Amazon, which deals with us mostly when we are in shopping mode, constantly promotes stuff to us that we looked for or bought once and will never buy again. (For years after my grandson had moved past his obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, Amazon pushed Thomas-like merchandise at me.)

Worse, Amazon constantly mixes wheat and chaff banner ads, so you don’t know whether what you’re seeing is there because Amazon knows you, or because it’s blasting the same promo at everybody.

This has been the case lately with Amazon’s “Home Essentials” banner, “presented by Pure Wow.” If you click on the Pure Wow logo, you get sent to a page that identifies the company as “a women’s lifestyle brand dedicated to finding unique ways to elevate your everyday.” Is Pure Wow a division of Amazon? Is it a company that paid Amazon to place the ad as a branding exercise? Does Amazon think I’m a woman? WTF is actually going on?

Fortunately, it’s possible to tell, by looking at Amazon through a browser uncontaminated by cookies or spyware. (In my case that’s Opera.) This is how I determined that Pure Wow is a simple brand ad, blasted at a population. In other words, wheat. But the fact that it’s hard to tell is itself a huge problem, for Amazon and Pure Wow as well as for the rest of us.

Because marketing is now so totally data-driven, and it is possible for marketing machinery to snarf up personal data constantly and promote at people in real time, the whole business has become obsessed with sales, rather than the rest of what marketing used to be all about. (As taught, for example, by Theodore Levitt and Peter Drucker.)

Nearly the entire commercial Web — the part that’s funded by tracking-based advertising — is so high from smoking its own exhaust that it actually believes that we are buying stuff all the damn time.

These intoxicated marketers completely miss the fact that 100% of the time we are dealing with stuff we’ve already bought, and often need serviced. (Like my sister with the lost remote control.)

Thus we have the strange irony of marketing talking about “brand value,” “loyalty,” and “conversation” while doing almost nothing to serve actual customers who need real help, besides answering complaint tweets and routing inquiries to robots and call centers (which are increasingly the same thing).

My point here is that giant companies — the Big Other — really think homo sapiens is homo consumerus, which is a category error of the first water.

Worse, it’s an illusion. Getting would-be oppressors to assume we are doing nothing but buying stuff all the time is one of the all-time-great examples of misdirection.

And think about what happens when personalized advertising works — for example, when it serves up an ad we can actually use. The actual value of that ad is still compromised by the creepy suspicion that we’re seeing it because we’re being followed, without permission, using who-knows-what, all of it stuck like leeches to our virtual flesh by parties that may not be Google or others who want to point us to the nearest pizza joint when we just want to know what exit to take.

Kapersky Labs calls the who-knows-what “adware.” Specifically, adware is the payload of cookies, programs and other code inserted into your browser, your computer and your mobile device, mostly without your knowledge or permission. The industry and its associations (such as the IAB and the DAA) say adware is all about giving you a better “advertising experience” or whatever. But to the Kaperskys of the world, adware is an attack vector for spreaders of malware and other bad actors — especially those looking to siphon money off an easily gamed system, often by planting hard-to-find bots and other malicious files inside your gear. Kapersky’s 2014 report, for example, is full of arcana that’s hard for civilians to understand, but is worth reading just to get an idea of how very bad this problem is for everybody. Here’s a sample:

Almost half of our TOP 20 programs, including the one in first place, were occupied by AdWare programs. As a rule, these malicious programs arrive on users’ computers alongside legitimate programs if they are downloaded from a software store rather than from the official website of the developer. These legitimate programs might become a carrier for the AdWare-module: once installed on the user’s computer it can add advertising links to browser bookmarks, change the default search engine, add contextual advertising, etc.

Here is one example of one piece of malware at work:

The verdict is also connected to advertising and all sorts of “potentially unwanted” activities. This is how scripts placed on Amazon Cloudfront to redirect users to pages with advertising content are detected. Links to these scripts are inserted by adware and various extensions for browsers, mainly on users’ search pages. The scripts can also redirect users to malicious pages containing recommendations to update Adobe Flash and Java – a popular method of spreading malware.

No wonder security expert T.Rob Wyatt says Online advertising is the new digital cancer. He explains,

I often refer to AdTech as the Research & Development arm of organized cybercrime. The criminals no longer have to spend money inventing new ways of penetrating the mobile device or PC since they can purchase a highly targeted ad for mere pennies instead. Thanks to very effective personalization capabilities delivered by ad networks, the cybercriminals can slice and dice their content and tailor the malware for specific audiences.

There are many ways to personalize content.  For instance, do you ever wonder why we so much email spam is obvious? Spam is often riddled with misspellings, bad grammar, and other glaring clues as to its malicious intent. We think “those must be some really dumb spammers” as we click delete.  Who would fall for that, right?  Actually, that is intentional. People who are so eager for the promised product that they are willing to overlook those obvious clues are self-selecting as the most gullible targets, and therefore the most lucrative. Malvertising relies on a similar filtering mechanism: Anyone NOT using ad blockers is self-selecting into the cybercriminal’s target pool.

There are many names for digital advertising’s chaff. “Interest-based advertising” is the Ad Choices conceit. Inside the business, “adtech” and “programmatic” are two common terms. Kapersky uses “adware.” Don uses “targeted.” I like “tracking-” or “surveillance-based.”

The original name, however, before it began to be called advertising, was direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising was annoying, and always will be. But at least we knew it paid for the TV programs we watched and the publications we read.

So now is the time to separate advertising’s wheat from its chaff, in the place where it’s easiest to do, and where it counts most: in our own browsers, apps and devices. It’s much easier to defeat the problem ourselves than by appealing to policy-makers and the industrial giants that rule the commercial Web. And we’re already part way there, thanks to friendly makers of browsers, extensions and add-ons that are already on the case.


An easy solution


All we need is a way to see what’s wheat and what’s chaff, and to separate them as we harvest content off the Web.

In agriculture this is done with a threshing machine. On the Web, so far, it’s done with ad and tracking blockers. All we need to do next is adjust our browsers and/or blockers to allow through the wheat. (Or to continue blocking everything, if that’s our preference. But I think most of us can agree that encouraging wheat production is a good thing.)

For that we need to do just two things:

  1. Label the wheat on the supply side, and
  2. Be able to pass through wheat on the demand side.

This can be done with UI symbols, and with server- and browser-based code.

By now it is beyond obvious that the chaff side of the chaff-obsessed advertising business won’t label its ads except with fatuous nonsense like the Ad Choices button. They can’t help us here.

Nor can attacking problems other than tracking. Not yet, anyway.

This is why well-meaning efforts such as AdBlock Plus‘s Acceptable Ads Manifesto can’t help. While everything the Manifesto addresses (ads that are annoying, disruptive, non-transparent, rude, inappropriate and so on) are real problems, they are beside the point.

As T.Rob puts it in Vendor Entitlement Run Amok, “My main issue with vendors turning us into instrumented data sources isn’t the data so much as the lack of consent.”

If we consent to wheat and block the chaff we solve a world of problems. Simple as that.

And we’re the only ones who can do it.

In her Black Hat 2015 keynote, Stisa Granick says,

Now when I say that the Internet is headed for corporate control, it may sound like I’m blaming corporations. When I say that the Internet is becoming more closed because governments are policing the network, it may sound like I’m blaming the police. I am. But I’m also blaming you. And me. Because the things that people want are helping drive increased centralization, regulation and globalization.

So let’s not just blame ourselves. Let’s fix the problem ourselves too, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

And believe me, there are still plenty of creative people left on the old wheat-side advertising business — on Madison Avenue, and in the halls of AdAge and MediaPost — to rally around the idea of labeling the good stuff and letting the bad stuff slide.

By harvesting wheat and threshing out chaff, we also encourage good advertising and re-align it with good editorial (a word I prefer to “content,” which always sounds like packing material to me). We may not like all the ads we see, but at least we’ll know they have real value — to the sites we read, the broadcasts and podcasts we watch and listen to, and to the ad-supported services we depend on.

Then, for those of us who want or welcome certain kinds of tracking, we can also create useful flags for those as well, and consent that’s worthy of the noun.

But let’s start where we can do the most good with the least effort: by threshing apart advertising’s wheat and chaff.

Bonus links:

guy-in-a-shrink-wrapIn a provocative OuiShareFest talk titled You Are the Product, Aral Balkan says this:

I think we are at the point where we have to ask ourselves the very uncomfortable question: What do we call the business of selling everything else about you, that makes you who you are, apart from your physical body? And why, if this is our business, is it not regulated?

While I think regulations too often protect yesterday from last Thursday, I’m in sympathy with Aral on this one. While I’ve been working for years on simple means to signal, for example, whether or not we wish to be tracked when we leave a website, I’m not sure those signals will be respected unless backed by the force of law.

But my mind is open about it.

So there are two questions on the floor here.

  1. What do we call the unwanted harvesting of personal data (our digital body parts) online?
  2. What policies, if any, would we recommend to back the expressed wishes of people not to be followed when they are online?

Thanks in advance.

In “Cool Influencers With Big Followings Get Picky About Their Endorsements,” Sydney Ember of the NY Times writes,

The more brands that use influencers for marketing campaigns on social platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, the less impact each influencer has. At the same time, many influencers, who once jumped at the opportunity to endorse brands, are being much more selective for fear of appearing to sell out.

In How the gig economy has turned bad analysts into vendor advocates, Horses for Sources writes,

The technology and services industry today is awash with individuals whose only professional activity is flitting from vendor conference to vendor conference, with the sole purpose of writing completely non-objective puff pieces praising their vendor hosts in exchange for money (or in the hope said vendors will pony up some dough in gratitude).

And in MediaPost‘s Influencers: When Are they a Bad Bet?, Erik Sass wisely writes,

Okay, let’s admit some basic facts: when you look at many influencers, there’s really not much to them.

So “influencer,” it appears, is a euphemism for sell-out. We’re talking about shills here.

What should a brand do with truly valuable customers? I see three choices:

  1. Pay the customer to shill for them. That seems to be the default in today’s marketing world.
  2. Reward the customer in some way, as airlines do with frequent flyer programs.
  3. Recruit the customer to get more involved with the company itself, helping to improve its products and services. In other words, use the customer as an influencer on the company, rather than on some target audience. Generate real value at the source.

I submit that #3 has far more value than #1, and can add enormous value to #2.

Think of three companies for which you are a committed customer. Then think about what value you can give to those companies as a veteran user and good source of intelligence and insight.

As examples, I’ll name three of my own:

I’m way past a million miles with United, and have been a “1K” (100k miles/year) passenger for years. Naturally, United is nice to me, as it tries to be with all frequent fliers. I have no complaints, and can think of much to praise. I’ve also done my best to be good to United as well (though not by shilling them). One small way is by tagging with “United,” “United Airlines” and “UAL” all the 10,000+ scenic photos I’ve taken out the windows of their airplanes.

But I would be glad to do more. For free. Like other frequent (and expert) fliers, I have plenty of ideas it would be good for United (or any airline) to hear, whether or not they implement them. But, aside from United’s feedback surveys, there is no easy or standard way to do that.

According to my personal account pages at, I own six Garmin GPS units and a map for one of them. In fact I’ve owned more than I see on both lists. (Some have been lost or stolen.) I’ve also loved every Garmin product I’ve ever used. My current fave is the little eTrex 20 GPS. That unit and earlier Legend and Vista models have yielded lots of useful data for me, including what’s visualized here on the company’s free BaseCamp map app:


Same goes for data remembered, somehow, by Garmin’s older RoadTrip app:


Note the differences. I’d love to combine and reconcile them somehow, but have no idea how to do that. I’d also like to see the next-generation eTrex bring back some of the virtues I enjoyed in the Legend and Vista (such as the rubbery back and the non-flimsy way the earlier models held a MicroSD card).

I’ve had a number of conversations, over the years, with Garmin call centers, and their agents have always been highly knowledgeable and helpful. But I’d love to have a better way to relate to Garmin than the means the company alone provides.

I actually have only one Apogee product: the Mic microphone. It’s handy, and vastly improves sound over the built-in mics in my laptop and mobile devices. I carry it with me everywhere. In fact, I like the Mic so much that I would be glad to buy some of the company’s other products. But I haven’t, because the legs of my Mic have all fallen off. (Each were held on by a tiny phillips-head screw that easily unscrews and disappears. Two of the legs are now held on by substitute screws and the third by a twist-tie.) I just opened a support ticket on Apogee’s support page, asking for replacement screws, and attempted unsuccessfully to wake up the Live Chat thing. We’ll see how it goes with the support ticket.

I have two points here.

One I’ve already made: good customers have far more value to add than their patronage alone.

The other is new to business: we need a standard and common way for any customer to contribute useful intelligence to any company they care about. This would unlock immeasurable value through improved products and services.

We can’t get there by working the company side alone. Even if every company in the world improves its customer service to the max, every company’s systems and improvements would still be as different as they are today.

We can only innovate here on the customer side.

It helps that there is nothing new about this. The entire Internet is an example of exactly the kind of innovation we’re talking about here. It gives every customer scale, and provides a common way for everybody to engage everybody else. Same goes for basic tools we use on the Net. For example, browsers and email. Browsers especially provide standard and common ways for individuals to engage Web sites and services.

What we’re talking about here is a breed of VRM: Vendor Relationship Management. But it’s one breed, not the whole thing. And it’s a new breed.

I think it needs a name, so we can classify development there. Got one? Lemme have it.

Meanwhile, here is one hypothetical example of an innovation in this space.





bob-kauffmanWhen the Los Angeles Clippers open their first game at home this season, I want them to pause and celebrate their original franchise player: Bob Kauffman, the team’s all-star center for its first three seasons, when they were the Buffalo Braves.

In fact, I think the team should retire Bob’s jersey, #44. For the ceremony the team should also bring out his four daughters, all of whom were also basketball stars: Lara and Joannah at Georgia Tech, Carey at Duke and Kate at Clayton State. Bob died on July 27 at age 69.

Bob was an amazing player to watch, a privilege I enjoyed often as fellow student at Guilford College. Guilford was nowhere before Bob arrived and a powerhouse by the time he left. Same went for the Braves.

At 6-8 and 240, Bob was a big guy, but he played bigger. Here’s what Guilford wrote about him a couple days ago:

Kauffman scored 2,570 points on 64 percent field-goal shooting and collected 1,801 rebounds in his 113-game career, all current school standards. He also holds Guilford marks for career scoring average (22.7 ppg.), single-game rebounds (32), single-season rebounds (698, 1967-68), career rebounding average (15.9), career field goals (943), single-season field goal percentage (.712, 1967-68), single-season free throws (273, 1966-67), career free throws (684) and single-season free-throw attempts (344, 1966-67).

Great stats, but none suggest how tough and intimidating Bob was as a player. I remember watching one Braves game against the Celtics on TV, pleased when the announcer said Bob was the only center in the NBA who knew how to play Boston’s Dave Cowens, straight up. Amazingly, I just found an account of what followed, in 30 Things About Dave Cowens:

…he slugged Guilford’s Bob Kauffman, appropriately nicknamed “Horse,” at the foul line, then patiently waited for Kauffman to swing back. Kauffman hit Cowens so hard Cowens finished the game wearing an eye patch.

And yet he was totally generous: a consummate team player. I remember Bob McAdoo’s first game with the Braves, against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Bob grabbed an offensive board he could have put right back in; but instead he kicked it out to the rookie, so the kid could get off his first pro shot.

Bob’s pro career started as what today we’d call a lottery pick: he was taken third in the 1968 draft by the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) behind future Hall-of-Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. But the Sonics didn’t know what to do with Bob. Nor did the Chicago Bulls, where he played the next year.

Then Bob got lucky. Thanks to various trades and player shufflings, he landed with the Buffalo Braves, an expansion team, for their inaugural season. The fit was perfect. Here’s Jerry Sullivan in The Buffalo News:

In the Braves’ first season of 1970-71, Kauffman averaged 20.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He averaged 18.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in ’71-72 and 17.5 points and 11.1 rebounds in ’72-73. He made the Eastern all-stars in all three seasons for Buffalo teams that lost 60 games.

As his daughter Lara put it to Jerry, Bob left his heart in Buffalo:

“The Buffalo fans from all over, people who moved to Atlanta or wherever I go, they all remember my dad,” Lara Kauffman said. “What people remembered about my dad was he played very blue-collar. I think he was sort of a reflection of a lot of people in the Buffalo community the way he played. He wouldn’t back down from anybody. He played against Lew Alcindor at the time. He matched up against Wilt Chamberlain. My dad would go head-to-head with those guys.

“He was undersized. He was 6-8 and played a face-up game. But because he was so physical, oftentimes he would match up against the toughest player. He would go toe-to-toe with them. I think his style of play reflected Buffalo a lot. He was a hard-working player. Every timeout, he ran off the court. He was the first to the bench.

“He tried to set a good example of hard work and play,” his daughter added. “If my dad had a late night the night before with the guys, he was up at 5 a.m. running six miles. He never stopped. He was just a committed athlete. He was also a gentleman. He would sign autographs. He had all the patience in the world with the fans. They were important to him. He never treated people as second-class. He always had time for them.”

And that’s how I remember him as well. Back at Guilford, there wasn’t a bigger man on campus than Bob, yet he was sweet and friendly with everybody.

Bob’s career as a player was sadly short. Hip problems forced him to retire at 28, from the Atlanta Hawks. After that he coached the Detroit Pistons for a year and then returned to the Hawks’ front office before leaving the game for other work. (If memory serves, Bob was the GM for Detroit when they hired Dick Vitale as coach.)

My favorite testimony to Bob’s value as a player was uttered by his coach at Guilford, Jerry Steele. After Guilford’s play-by-play announcer told Jerry that Catawba College guard Dwight Durante (“the best 3-point shooter you never saw“) appeared that week in a Sports Illustrated piece, Jerry replied, in his usual slow drawl, “Well, Dwight Durante may have his picture in Sports Illustrated, but I’ve got Bob Kauffman’s picture in my bedroom.”

The announcer was Carl Scheer, known today as a legendary NBA executive, former GM of the Carolina Cougars, Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and Charlotte Hornets — and the inventor of the Slam Dunk Contest, among other distinctions. If it weren’t for Bob, Carl might still be a lawyer in Greensboro. Suzanne Dietzel in Greater Charlotte Business:

After a respectable run in undergraduate college basketball and baseball, Scheer graduated from Marquette Law School and began a career in a small law firm in Greensboro. After realizing that his desire to litigate cases would likely be unrealized due to the size of the firm, he visited Guilford College and asked to be slated to broadcast basketball and football games – a passion he had indulged in graduate school.

Scheer had made fast friends with many in the sports community when opportunity knocked. According to Scheer, “Guilford was embarking upon an aggressive, small college basketball campaign, largely driven by star player, Bob Kauffman. I had announced his college career, and once he found himself in demand by two competing leagues, he asked me to represent him for his contract negotiations.”

Scheer elaborates, “In 1968, agents were unheard of. Knowing I was a lawyer, Bob asked me to represent him.” He jokes, “I am sure I left the poor guy quite a bit of money on the table! But, really, the experience introduced me into the world of sports and business; I was hooked.”

Not surprisingly, his work ethic and comfortable personality helped to foster a good rapport with team owners, and he was asked to interview for the position of assistant to the commissioner of the NBA.

Recalls Scheer, “The NBA commissioner at the time, Walter Kennedy, told me after my third interview that he liked me and thought I was a great candidate, but the job was going to ‘the other guy.’ At the time I was content with that. I had had that 15 minutes of glory and was happy to go back to my small North Carolina law firm. But months later he called back and told me the other candidate declined the position, and asked if I would like to be reconsidered. It was a dream come true. I moved to New York and began my indoctrination into the game. There, my sports career started.”

The best lives have the best consequences. I’d like one of Bob’s to be a celebration of his place as the Clippers founding all-star — who also happened to be a four-star dad.



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