Tag Archives: Advertising

Generating Meaning or Fluff?

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I love this: a mashup that generates great-looking ads from Flickr pictures and a computer. The conclusion: We realise how easily affected we are by words and pictures together, but how the mix often doesn’t mean very much, especially when they’re ads.

By remixing corporate slogans, I intend to show how the language of advertising is both deeply meaningful, in that it represents real cultural values and desires, and yet utterly meaningless in that these ideas have no relationship to the products being sold. In using the Flickr images, the piece explores the relationship between language and image, and how meaning is constructed by the juxtaposition of the two.

Of course, it also raises the question: At what point would it be cheaper and more effective to generate ad copy by computer?

THE AD GENERATOR

How Reliable Is Google Maps?

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Was looking for a Singapore hotel this morning on Google Maps, which would seem to be a good place to start, and was perturbed to find it flagged in five different places, most of them several streets apart (above). These are all links from companies advertising rooms. So you’d think they would try to get it right. (Amusingly, the sponsored link at the top is for a hotel of the same name in Vancouver, which is slightly further down the road and across several oceans):

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So, some ways to go, I suspect, before the era of ubiquitous searchability and and mobile findability, or whatever it’s called.

The Privacy Myth

If there’s one myth that endures in this age of online participation, blogs, shared photo albums and Web 2.0, it’s that we’ve overcome our concerns about privacy. It sounds on the surface, logical: We must have gotten over this weird paranoia, or else why would we share so much online? Why would we bother about privacy issues when there’s no real evidence that people, companies, governments and the NSA are out to get us? This, for example, from Web 2.0 blog TechCrunch guest contributor Steve Poland:

I’m sure there’s data to back me up on this, but today compared to 10 years ago — people are way more comfortable with the Internet and have less privacy concerns. Or at least the younger generations that have grown up with the Internet aren’t as concerned with privacy — and spew what’s on their mind to the entire world via the web.

I can’t speak for the younger generation, having been kicked out of it some years ago. But if we’re talking more generally about folk who have embraced the Net in the past 10 years, I’d have to say I don’t think it’s that we don’t care about privacy. We just don’t understand it. In that sense nothing has changed. I think what is happening is the same as before: People don’t really understand the privacy issues of what they’re doing, because the technology, and its liberating sensuality, are moving faster than we can assimilate to our culture. This is not new: Technology has always outpaced our intellectual grasp. If you don’t believe me think radio, TV, cars and cellphones. We were lousy at predicting the impact of any of these technologies on our environment. Lousy.

Usually, it’s because we just don’t stop to think about the privacy implications, or we don’t stop to ask deeper questions about the sacrifices we may be making when we buy something, give information to a stranger, register for something, accept something, invite someone in to our digital lives, install software, sign up for a service, or simply accept an email or click on a link. The speed of communication – click here! register here! — makes all this easier. But I don’t really blame the reader. Often it’s us journalists who are to blame for not digging enough.

Take, for example, a new service called reQall from QTech Inc in India. On the surface, it sounds like a great service: phone in a message to yourself and it will appear in your email inbox transcribed with 100% accuracy. Great if you’re on the road, on the john or at a party and don’t want to start jabbing away or scrawling the note on the back of your spouse’s neck.

Rafe Needham of Webware initially enthuses about it on his blog. But then he later finds out that

Update: I’m told that ReQall’s speech-to-text engine isn’t wholly automated. “We use a combination of automated speech recognition technology and human transcription,” a company co-founder told me. Which means there may be someone listening to your notes and to-do items. Yikes!

Yikes indeed. Who would record a message knowing that a stranger is going to be transcribing it, and a company storing it on their servers? To be fair to Rafe he’s not the only one not to initially notice this privacy angle. And at least he bothers to write it up. Dean Takahashi didn’t mention it in his (admittedly) brief Mercury News piece, for example. The company’s press release makes no mention of it either, saying only that

reQall is patent-pending software technology that uses a combination of voice interface and speech-recognition technology to record, log and retrieve your tasks, meetings and voice notes.

(The same press release appears on Forbes’ own website, which I always think looks a bit odd, as if there’s no real difference between a story and a press release. But that’s another rant for another day.) That, frankly, would leave me thinking there was no human interaction either.

But then again, there are clues here and if we (by which I mean us hacks) were doing our job we should probably follow them. Any Google search for reqall and privacy throws up an interesting trail. A CNN report on memory quoted Sunil Vemuri talking about reQall but says issues about privacy and keeping such records free from subpoena have yet to be worked out. When a blogger called Nikhil Pahwa quoted CNN on ContentSutra someone from QTech wrote in:

Please note that there is an inaccuracy in the post. QTech is not “currently working on sorting out issues related to privacy laws, and how to prevent these recordings from being subpoenaed.” Can you correct this?

The text was duly crossed out, so now it reads:

According to the report, they’re currently working on sorting out issues related to privacy laws, and how to prevent these recordings from being subpoenaed are still to be worked out.

So we’re none the wiser. Are there issues? Are QTech working on those issues? Or are there issues that other people are working on, not QTech? Their website sheds little light. There’s nothing about human transcription on any of the pages I could find, nor in the site search. Their privacy policy (like all privacy policies) doesn’t really reassure us, but neither does it explicitly scare our pants off. A brief jaunt through it (I’m not a lawyer, although I sometimes wish I was, and I think John Travolta in “A Civil Action” makes a good one) raises these yellow flags:

  • QTech can use your location, contact details etc to “send you information related to your account or other QTech Service offerings and other promotional offerings.” I.e. the company knows where you are, your phone number and home address and could spam you.
  • QTech may “include relevant advertising and related links based on Your location, Your call history and other information related to Your use of the Services.” I.e. The company could send you stuff based on what information you’ve given in your messages, and any other information you carelessly handed over during the course of using the service.
  • QTech can use the content of your audio messages (and your contact information) for, among other things, “providing our products and services to other users, including the display of customized content and advertising,  auditing, research and analysis in order to maintain, protect and improve our services … [and] developing new services.” I.e. the company can mine the contents of your messages and other stuff and spam other customers. Somehow this seems more scary than actually spamming you.
  • QTech will hold onto those messages “for as long as it is necessary to perform the Services, carry out marketing activities or comply with applicable legislation.” I.e. don’t think your messages are going to be deleted just because you don’t need them anymore.

Privacy documents are written by lawyers, so they’re about as weaselly as they can be. And QTech’s is no different. But there is some cause for concern here, and we journalists should at least try to explore some of these issues. I looked for any acknowledgement that there’s a human involved in the transcription, and some reassurance that the content of those messages is not going to be mined for advertising purposes, and that it would be possible for customers to insist their messages are deleted. I couldn’t find anything, although to their credit QTech do say they won’t “sell, rent or otherwise share Your Contact Information or Audio Communications with any third parties except in the limited circumstance of when we are compelled to do so by a valid, binding court order or subpoena”. But if QTech are doing their own advertising then does that really make any difference?

I’m seeking comment from QTech on this and will update the post when I hear it. And this isn’t really about QTech; it’s about us — citizens, readers, bloggers, journalists — thinking a little harder about our privacy before we throw it away for a great sounding service. Do you want, for example, your personal memos (“Calling from the pub. God I really need a holiday. I think I’m cracking up”) mined for advertising (“Hi! Can I interest you in Caribbean cruise? I hear you’re cracking up!” “Hi, need psychological counselling? I’m told you do” “Hi! Need Viagra? I hear from that last message you left you probably do”)?

The Death of DRM, the Rise of Patrons

Forget being a big old mass music consumer. Become a Patron of the Arts.

The IHT’s Victoria Shannon chronicles the last few gasps of life in Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music, saying that “With the falloff in CD sales persisting and even digital revenue growth now faltering in the face of rampant music sharing by consumers, the major record labels appear to be closer than ever to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions.” This has the inevitability of death about it (this morning I tried again to rip my DRM-crippled Coldplay CD of X&Y, unsuccessfully) which makes me wonder: What will follow?

Most thoughts seem to be on the free music, supported by advertising, and largely distributed as promotion for expensive live concerts:

Jacques Attali, the French economist … who forecast in his newest book that all recorded music would be free in the next several decades — consumers will instead pay for live performances, he predicted — said the business model of digital music should reflect the old radio model: free online music supported by advertising.

“A lot of people will still make money out of it,” he said during an interview at Midem.

I think this shows a lack of imagination and understanding of how music has fractured. My sense is that while Britney Spears will continue to exist in the Celebrity for Celebrity’s Sake World, music has already spread via MySpace etc into much smaller, more diverse niches. I’m not saying anything sparkingly new here, but given that most articles about the majors and DRM and online file sharing focus on the big numbers, I would have thought a much more interesting model to look at is that on places like eMusic, of which I’ve been a subscriber since 2002.

What happens for me is this: I find an artist I like by searching through what neighbors are selecting for me, like this balloon on my login page:

And then I’ll follow my nose until I find something I like. Or I’ll listen to Last.fm until I hear something I really like and then see if it’s up on eMusic. This is all pretty obvious, and I’m sure lots of people do this, and probably more, already. But what I think this leads to is a kind of artistic patronage where we consumers see it in our interests to support those musicians we love.

In my case, for example, if I really like the stuff of one artist I’ll try to contact them and tell them so: No one so far has refused to write back and hasn’t sounded appreciative to hear from a fan. Examples of this are Thom Brennan and Tim Story, whose music I find a suitable accompaniment to anything, from jogging to taking night bus rides to Chiangmai in the rain. I’m summoning up the courage to contact my long time hero, David Sylvian, who doesn’t have a direct email address.

Of course, nowadays one can view their MySpace page, or join an email newletter, and build links up there. But my point is this: My relationship with these musicians is much more along traditional lines of someone who will support their artistic output through financial support — buying their music in their hope that it will help them produce more.

Surely the Internet has taught us one very useful lesson in the past year: That it’s well-suited to help us find what we want, even if can’t define well what it is. First step was Google, which helped us find what we wanted if we knew some keywords about it. Next step: a less specific wander, a browse in the old sense, that helps us stumble upon that which we know we’ll want when we find it.

An Advertising Conundrum

I guessed this would happen eventually: through one of the advertising aggregators I use for this blog a service I’ve been critical of has submitted an ad. Do I accept it?

Advertising aggregators provide a service to companies by letting them place banner and other web ads on participating blogs. I’ve been trying FeedBurner, for example, which puts ads on my blog and at the bottom of blog postings. They’re pretty obviously ads, since they’re all snazzy and jazzed up, and they help to defray (I love using the word ‘defray’) the costs of running the blog. Not everyone likes having to put up with ads, but we’re not running a charity here.

Anyway, Xdrive, an online storage service now owned by AOL, has just submitted an ad. I knew this might happen; I’ve seen their ad appear on other blogs using the FeedBurner service. But this blog has been something of a thorn in the side of Xdrive, ever since I started writing about some user complaints about a year ago (Google “xdrive” and a Loose Wire post appears among the first 10 results. Google “xdrive problems”  and it’s top.) And things don’t seem to have gotten any better: two readers complained only last week about the service.

My first reaction was to decline the ad, something I’ve only done once before with a service that was too unclear about what it offered to pass muster (I love saying ‘muster’ too.) Why should I allow an ad for a service that may not be up to scratch? But then cooler heads prevailed. Declining the Xdrive ad would imply I had somehow endorsed the ads I had approved to run. While I’ll try not to allow ads that appear to be questionable, I don’t think readers are going to assume that every product advertised on this blog is one I suggest they go out and buy. Or do you?

Two other issues raise their heads: Should I alert AOL that they’re running an ad on a blog that has been critical of the service that they’re advertising? Or is it their lookout? (Perhaps they know this already and are trying to redress the balance. Or they see criticism as part of the conversation.)

Another: Should I make clearer what my policy is on advertising so readers are not confused? And if so, where should I put it? And what should it say? That’s something I’m going to work on, and of course something I’d be delighted to take input on from readers. I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to face this issue. The debate about balancing the needs of advertisers with the needs of a free and objective press is not a new one, and not one that, to my knowledge, has ever been entirely resolved. Maybe bloggers can have a shot at it.

The Economics of Journalism

Daniel Harrison at the The Global Perspective takes issue with my post about media companies no longer being about content and all about the medium. He makes a fair point, and it’s a good thoughtful post (I’ll forgive him getting my name wrong), concluding that “it is misleading to get side-tracked into a debate on medium, when content is what it’s about”:

The medium is changing, but this is nothing new. One hundred years ago most newspapers did not have pictures; now they do. So what? The act of news reporting and delivery is what the economics of journalism is about.

I don’t think, sadly, this is true.The economics of journalism is to make money through advertising, and to a lesser extent, through subscription. The content — how many reporters can be hired, how far they can travel — is largely determined by this. Some publications manage to ignore this with the help of wealthy patrons, but eventually they all fall into the same equation. Newspapers have been economic for so long because they represented a viable logistical operation for delivering content (and advertising). But if the technology of logistics changed, so would be the business model. That is what is happening now. The delivery mechanism has changed so radically that it’s also changing the content mechanism. If bloggers on the streets of Bangkok can get pictures and news of a coup before the wires and TV crews, why not make that part of your content?

His commentary is in the context of the broader tug of war between bloggers and journalists — one he is right to say has a tendency to get too personal, too vitriolic. This is one of those weird artefacts of this period of change, and we’re going to look back and wonder what all the fuss was  about. There will always  be room for professional journalists — reporters, editors, commentators and columnists — and Daniel is right to say that content, in that sense, is still going to be a priority for many media companies. But it will be in a much changed environment, where the walls between creator and consumer are broken down, where delivery, creation and sharing are part of the logistical machinery, and where a well-known, respected blogger is as credible as a well-known, respected journalist.

The Blogosphere’s Soul Has a Buyer

The blogosphere is reaching its moment of truth sooner than one might have expected — in the form of a website that offers a marketplace for bloggers willing to write about a product in return for money. What’s revealing is the discussion that follows news about PayPerPost.com on TechCrunch — comments that not only bring into sharp relief the, er, varied, attitudes about not only PayPerPost, but other blogs and websites — including TechCrunch itself.

First off, the owner of the service, Ted Murphy, adds his own comment, in which he tries to clarify what the site does and does not do: “Advertisers will post all sorts of Opportunities, from a simple “link back to this site” to product reviews with pictures. Each Opportunity will have different compensation based on the advertiser. It’s up to you to pick the Opportunities that best suit you. If it doesn’t feel right, if you don’t own the product, or if you can’t be honest we ask you to pass on the Opportunity.” As he sees it, it’s a chance for bloggers to “make a buck for all the benefit they provide to companies. Celebrities get paid millions to wear products and be seen with their favorite drink. It’s up to the celebs to choose what they wear and drink and if they are being true to the fans. If they love the product and they can make a buck at the same time everyone wins.”

TechCrunch’s Marshall Kirkpatrick is suitably horrified about the new service, which he says requires not that the payment for coverage be disclosed, but only that PayPerPost.com must approve your post before you are paid: “Is this a bad joke designed to torpedo the blogosphere’s credibility in general? It doesn’t appear to be. If we’re all trying to negotiate a space between Hollywood and mainstream journalism, this is taking things way too far towards the most insipid parts of Hollywood.”

Which is pretty much my response. Murphy’s idea is flawed for a simple reason: If you as a blogger love a product, it’s your lack of financial and professional link with the company behind that product that gives your opinion some weight. That’s why media exists — to pay a salary to people who act as a medium between company, government or individual and the public. The public buys the media product because they believe that what they’re reading/seeing/hearing has some credibility, some independence from the subject they’re covering. As soon as someone acting as a medium accepts money to promote one item, their credibility is shot, not only for that item, but every single other thing they discuss.

What is interesting, though somewhat depressing, is the range of views of those who posted comments. Several of those betrayed a very weird understanding of what mainstream media is. Juan Luis wrote: “I really don’t see any difference with real old media… Or do you really think that advertisers don´t pay for reviews and articles in all sort of magazines,newspapers, tv, radio etc… Has the blogosphere more credibility than the CNN or Car&Driver??” Another: “Do you listen the radio? If you do then you’ve probably heard this type of advertising 1,000 times per day, when the host’s voice tells you about a product or service which they endorse and love. Ever read magazines? Then you’ve seen this kind of coverage all the time– when a major advertiser spends major dough, editorial coverage is all but ensured. Obviously it’s unseemly in many regards, especially if someone is running a tech blog and the advertisers are tech bloggers. But, if this website for example had a post by Marshall or Michael saying that he refi’d his mortgage through Ditech, and he had a positive experience, and that he’s being paid to write this post, I don’t think I would have a real problem with it. Using the cred you’ve gained from blogging to endorse a product is not that awful.”

Others pointed to blog sponsorship and ads as a sign this day has already come: “Product placement is everywhere and it’s already been happening for free in the Blogosphere since its inception. The only difference is that now a handful of people will make a few dollars off it … go to almost any bloggers site and you’ll see an ad already on there, including the sponsors of this page. They pay for ads here becaise it gets traffic – and exposire is what advertisers pay for.” (Sorry, haven’t corrected all the grammar here.) Another: “Why is it ethical to put Google Adwords in your blog, and it’s not ethical to write a paid post from time to time (provided that you openly disclose at the beginning of the post that the post is advertising).”

Others pointed to the widely perceived venality of some bloggers who only write about products that they get freebies of: “And allready there are a lot of bloggers who receive gifts and products to review them.This is the same as paying, or not? Perhaps this could be a more transparent way to get relations between bloggers and advertisers.”

OK. I acknowledge there are some gray areas here, born out of the fact that bloggers need to make money, and advertising is the obvious way to do it. This is no different from old media. What is different is that there are none of the usual Chinese walls that keep editorial and advertising apart (in theory), so that journalists are not influenced by, or even aware of, the advertisers that are buying ads next to their copy. True, these lines can get blurry, especially on radio and in “advertorials”, but they do exist. Blogs that carry ads are not Hollywood stars wearing company products as endorsement; they are a continuation of MSM’s advertising. Every ad is (or should be) clearly marked as sponsorship or ad. Of course, the proof is in the pudding; Will that site be objective about that sponsoring company in its writing, and, if it is, will the sponsor see that as a betrayal of sponsorship?

In MSM, individual journalists are sought after and influenced into writing about a product, but a good journalist — hell, a real journalist — will never write anything other than a fair, detached and balanced review of the product. There is no cash in exchange for reviews in old media; well, none that I know of. If bloggers aspiring to replace old media don’t know that, they need to. Otherwise the blogosphere truly is riding to hell.

There’s another point here. The very debate about this seems to me to be different to the kind of debate we’d have seen in the blogosphere a year or 18 months ago. It’s a much more pragmatic debate now, less utopian, less principled. As one commenter wrote: “If your writing is not objective enough, people are gonna know that you’re probably getting paid, and over time they’ll be less inclined to stay subscribed to your blog: which means that in the end it’ll all balance out.” While I would have said that would have been true a couple of years ago, I’m not so sure now.

The Pop Up Piggyback

Is it just me, or have these interstitial ads or whatever they call themselves suddenly become ubiquitous, and no less annoying for it? They now seem to be everywhere (even O’Reilly uses them, shockingly, although it does offer a way to disable them). These are ads, courtesy of companies like Vibrant Media IntelliTXT, that add underlined links to certain words on a website which, when you move your mouse over them, pop up an ad that’s tangentially related to the word in question. This one, for example:

Intellitxt

The ad is for digital cameras. The word link is “review”. The piece itself is about solar-powered garden lights from one of my favorite gadget sites, the long running Gadgeteer. But these ads drive me nuts. Move your mouse over any of the nine links on that article and you’ll get a popup window like the above. Few of them are useful or relevant, as the following study reveals:

  • AC adapter – as in “There’s something really cool about using the power of the sun instead of the power of an AC adapter, when it comes to powering products” — throws up an ad for Laptop AC adapters
  • Review – as in “that’s why I was more than happy to review a solar powered garden accent light” — throws up an ad for Digital Cameras
  • Light weight – as in “The product is composed of a durable and UV protected resin material that looks very much like stone, while remaining light weight” — throws up an ad for Light weight (sic. The ad text is for “Shop for great deals on light weight and millions of other products”. No idea what they’re talking about)
  • Picture — as in “One clue that this might be the case [i.e. that the product cracks; They’re thorough in their reviews over there] is the picture hanger built into the back of the stone” — throws up ad for Free Digital Photo Software
  • Battery – as in “On the back of the stone, you see the battery compartment” — throws up ad for PDA batteries
  • Batteries — as in “Two rechargeable nickel-cadmium AA batteries are included and pre-installed” — throws up ad for Siemens Cordless Phone Batteries
  • Rechargeable batteries — as in “pre-installed rechargeable batteries store energy to power the light at night” — throws up ad for Sanyo rechargeable batteries, the first ad in this bunch which is vaguely relevant to the context.
  • Photo — as in “The built-in photo sensor automatically activates the light” — throws up an ad for Musical Slideshow software
  • Flash — as in “Here’s a picture of the stone that I took without a flash” — throws up an ad for Pentax SLR Digital Flash, arguably relevant but so specific you have to wonder whether anyone is really going to be reading the piece and needing a Pentax SLR Digital Flash
  • Conclusion: Out of 9 ads, 1.5 might be possibly considered useful to the reader.

I’ve whinged about this before (and before), believing it was too intrusive and likely to create a conflict of interest on the part of content creators who may be influenced to insert words that are more likely to match contextual words sold to advertisers. In the example above, for example, a less scrupulous content producer than The Gadgeteer might have chosen, or be encouraged to choose “photo sensor” over “photosensor” (the latter spelling slightly more popular online than the former) because the word “photo” would attract more ads. That’s not a sinister example, but what if the ad sellers forwarded a list of words popular among advertisers, which would steer content producers into putting those words into their writing?

(Vibrant Media says that “IntelliTXT ad units are delivered in real-time and deployed after the article has been published by the website. This is an automated process that cannot influence, or be influenced by the Editorial Team at this website or any other partner publication.” It also includes in its guidelines (PDF) a line: “Vibrant Media strongly encourages publishers not to implement IntelliTXT in late breaking news, political coverage, or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate.”)

But the conflict of interest issue (news websites like Forbes.com stopped dealing with IntelliTXT, apparently over this issue) is less important to me than the annoyance and befuddlement that comes with these faux links. There is one real link in Julie’s review but it’s lost in there. First off, it’s the same color as the IntelliTXT ads, but it’s not double underlined, and it’s covered, when the mouse moves over the line above, by an IntelliTXT pop up (see if you can spot it in the screenshot above.) I find these ads annoying, distracting, and not a little confusing. When you compare it to the contextual ads displayed alongside content, you can’t help wondering whether this is a big step backwards for online content. (The ads alongside Julie’s review include one on Solar Powered Fountains and one on Solar battery chargers. I’d argue both those are a darned sight more relevant than any of the interstitials.)

Vibrant Media call this kind of advertising “user-driven advertising”. How is it user-driven? It says that “IntelliTXT helps empower users to view relevant advertising on their own terms.” Relevant? I think not. How “empower”, exactly? “Own terms”? I’d argue IntelliTXT piggy backs a fine tradition of hyperlinking — the vision and bedrock of the World Wide Web to sucker users into mistaking a popup ad for a genuine link.

Vibrant Media sells the idea to advertisers as a way to “Use words to brand. Cut through the online advertising clutter”. Actually, I’d argue it adds to the clutter, and, as the example above shows, has nothing to do with “branding” as anyone I know might understand it.

So what can one do? First off, IntelliTXT isn’t loading anything onto your computer. The ads are sleazy, but the actual implementation isn’t. If you’re a Firefox user, install Greasemonkey and then this IntelliTXT Disabler script. The IntelliTXT links will load, briefly appear and then you won’t see them no more. If you’re not a Firefox user, get it. Sure, websites need advertising to survive, but lets make sure they are either smart ads, funny ads, ads that are relevant to the content, ads that don’t mislead the reader, and, finally, ads that don’t get in the way.