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Advertising Is The Problem

Saturday, May 26th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

When the Cluetrain Manifesto was first published in 1999, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read. It was a call for companies to stop treating people like mindless, consumptive creatures, and to engage in conversations with people and a larger market; it influenced a number of things I’ve written about brand and experience. Perhaps the most important point was hidden in their 95 Theses, as point #74:

We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.

Many of us are, indeed, immune to it. We’re so far past watching live television that there’s no need to mute the ads anymore; we’ve never clicked on a Google ad, except by mistake; and we’ve installed a barrage of extensions in chrome to make sure we never see a single banner ad.

Yet thirteen years after the Cluetrain Manifesto, advertising still fuels nearly all of the mass media in the country, and some of our most beloved platforms are giant advertising engines in poor disguise. How is it that Google can be worth so much? Why the crazy valuation on Facebook?

When you buy stock in Google or Facebook, you’re investing in an unprecedented, massive advertising infrastructure.

When you search for graphic design degree online, you see ads for the Art Institute. If you are the type of person that clicks on a Google ad, you are also probably the type of person that’s never bought Google ads through Adwords. “Graphic design degree online” is selling for $23.00 a click. You can click on the ten links presented and generate $230 in revenue for Google in a blink of an eye. The way the internet works becomes a little clearer. When you consider that over 12 million websites use Google analytics (and over 57% of the top 10,000 most popular sites use it), the idea of a “rich profile of user behavior” becomes a little clearer. When you consider that Google’s reading the email of more than 350 million people, things become a whole lot clearer. We forget, sometimes, that Google owns Youtube and Doubleclick. Maybe we never knew that Google bought Zagat. We probably never even heard of Admeld, Adscape, Punchd, Sparkbuy, or the Zave Networks, but they own all of them, too – all extensions for couponing, advertising, daily deals, price comparisons, and loyalty programs.

I think that the emperor wears no clothes. I think that online advertising, broadly speaking, doesn’t work. Advertisers are slowly starting to pull their facebook ads because they aren’t working. And while it’s hard to escape Google’s massive footprint, people are increasingly looking for alternatives to Gmail. I’ve seen an increase in the number of stories of people unplugging from everything Google. And when a Google engineer recently quit, he described the change he’d seen in the organization: “The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”

But I don’t think any of these rejections of the Goog matters. Because when Google’s advertising revenue goes down, and they stop hitting their revenue targets, they’ll play the corporate game of reorgs and layoffs. I’ve seen the future, and it’s awful. It’s The Shallows: In the future, you’ll only see the things that are most likely to get you to buy. Everywhere. All the time. It’s an internet of consumption, based on an algorithmic profile of everything you’ve done, and it’s constantly selling, selling, selling. It’s pervading into real life, through targeted and adaptable advertising on digital billboards, physical computing, mobility solutions, kiosks, digital product placement, taxi flat screens, in-flight entertainment, and on, and on. There’s no conversation. It’s not engaging. It’s consumptive. It’s mindless. And it’s happening all around us.

Advertising is not a legitimate business model, although it may be a financially lucrative one. My suggestion to those engaged in these activities: grow some ethics, and start building the world around you that you would actually want to live in.

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