Go from hell

Why do we continue, in 2007, to believe that markets are all about What Big Companies Do? Worse, why do we continue to take advertising for granted as the primary source of the the Bux DeLuxe required to fund technical, social and personal progress?

For example, take this BusinessWeek story, which begins,

  Imagine your cellphone as a mini marketing machine. As you head into your car after dinner, a text alert pops onto the screen of your handset announcing the 9 p.m. lineup at a nearby cineplex. You choose the Jodi Foster flick The Brave One and a promo video for the next Warner Bros. (TWX ) release, a George Clooney movie, starts running. Afterward, more text appears, prompting you to launch the phone’s Web browser so that you can click through to buy the movie’s ringtones and wallpaper.
  That kind of 24/7 advertising engagement–on a phone, no less–may sound like a nightmare. But what if you could determine the kinds of products you get pitched? Or, when your flight gets canceled in a faraway airport, text messages pop up for the best hotel deals in town? No random insurance ads or airline deals for trips to places you never visit. Best of all: Watch or read the custom ads, and your phone minutes are free.

It’s about a potential Google phone. Google isn’t talking, but others are. Later in the story we read,

  …once you combine Google’s financial heft with its ultra-sophisticated ability to target ads to specific customers. “The day is coming when wireless users will experience nirvana scenarios–mobile ads tied to your individual behavior, what you are doing, and where you are,” says Linda Barrabee, wireless analyst at researcher Yankee Group.

Here’s my nirvana scenario, Linda:

  1. No damn advertising at all. I don’t care how warm and fuzzy Google is, I don’t want to be tracked like an animal and “targeted” with anything, least of all guesswork about what I want, no matter how educated that guesswork is.
  2. Tools on my phone that let me tell sellers what I want, and on my terms — and not just on theirs. Whether that’s a latte two exits up the highway, next restaurant that serves seared ahi, or where I can buy an original metal slinky.
  3. I want to be able to notify the market of my shopping or buying intentions without revealing who I am, unless it’s on mutually agreed-upon terms.

Quick: Who wants their cell phone to be a “mini marketing machine”? And why would a BusinessWeek reporter even begin to think anybody would want that?

One huge reason we get these endless rah-rah stories framed by Advertising Goodness is that advertising pays the salaries of the writers. There is no “Chinese wall” between advertising and editorial. It may seem like there is, but there isn’t. Follow the money. (I know this is a controversial thing to say, but bear with me.)

Stories about money fighting money are also much more interesting than stories about ordinary programmers building whole new worlds for little or no money at all — so the rest of us (including the programmers) can all make more money in that world. Without the free tools and building materials provided by those programmers, we would have no Google, no Facebook, no Amazon, no eBay. Because there would be no Apache, no RSS, no memecached, no Lucene. No Internet.

It’s unfair to pick on journalists, because we’re all in the same boat. More to the point, we’re all in the same Matrix. All of us live a business world framed by the controlling ambitions of companies, rather than by the actual wants and needs of customers. Even when we study customer wants and needs, our perspective is anchored on the sell side. We ask “Which company (or product, or service) will serve them best?”, rather than “How can we as customers best express our wants and needs so that any seller can fill them?” The ironic distance between these two perspectives is deep and immense.

Alvin Toffler explored this irony in The Third Wave, published in 1980, where he said:

  (The Industrial Age) violently split apart two aspects of our lives that had always been one… production and consumption… In so doing, it drove a giant invisible wedge into our economy, our psyches … it ripped apart the underlying unity of society, creating a way of life filled with economic tension.

I wrote about that split, that tension, in Listen up, back in 1998 — eighteen years after The Third Wave and nine years before now.

David Weinberger and I also wrote about it a year later, in this chapter of Cluetrain. We called it “The Axe in Our Heads”:

  Ironically, many of us spend our days wielding axes ourselves. In our private lives we defend ourselves from the marketing messages out to get us, our defenses made stronger for having spent the day at work trying to drive axes into our customers’ heads. We do both because the axe is already there, the metaphorical embodiment of that wedge Toffler wrote about — the one that divides our jobs from our lives. On the supply side is the producer; on the demand side is the consumer. In the caste system of industry, it is bad form for the two to exchange more than pleasantries.
  Thus the system is quietly maintained, and our silence goes unnoticed beneath the noise of marketing-as-usual. No exchange between seller and buyer, no banter, no conversation. And hold the handshakes.
  When you have the combined weight of two hundred years of history and a trillion-dollar tide of marketing pressing down on the axe in your head, you can bet it’s wedged in there pretty good. What’s remarkable is that now there’s a force potent enough to actually start loosening it.
  Here’s the voice of a spokesperson from the world of TV itself, Howard Beale, the anchorman in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network who announced that he would commit suicide because “I just ran out of bullshit.” Of course, he had to go insane before he could at last utter this truth and pull the axe from his own head.

We’re all still Howard Beales today. We haven’t run out of bullshit, and there’s no less cause for anger than there was when Network, The Third Wave and Cluetrain each came out. The Information Age is here, but its future is not just (as William Gibson put it) unevenly distributed. Large parts of it aren’t here at all. The largest of those is actual empowerment of customers — in ways that are native to customers, rather than privileges granted by vendors. The difference is huge.

That’s why yelling doesn’t work. What we need instead is to make tools that work for us, and not just for them. We need to invent tools that give each of us independence from vendor control, and better ways of telling vendors what we want, when we want it, and how we want to relate — on our terms and not just on theirs. As Neo said to the Architect, “The problem is choice”. That problem will be with us as long as that axe is in our heads.

The axe is marketing. Marketing is what The Matrix does.

As a verb market is not merely about selling. It is about convincing. Its ideal is control. This may not be what enlightened marketers want the verb to mean, but marketing comes from the sell side, not the buy side. Thus in practice has become a tool of control by the industrial machine. Yes, some good people in marketing actually do talk to customers, actually do advocate them. But this is still the exception, not the rule. Marketing still comes from the side of the axe that’s buried in all of our heads — no less deeply than the electric spikes on which the heads of the human batteries that power The Matrix are impaled.

It’s a waste of time to revolt against the marketing machine. The job at hand is to build the Real World again, from the humans out to the companies that serve them. Real markets — the noun, not the verb — are what we need to strike a Neo’s bargain with the machinery of marketing. Unless we build tools for ourselves, we’ll just be talking the talk.

By the way, when I want to talk to somebody about what a real market is, my first source is Stephen Lewis. Like me, he has in his life labored far too long in the mines of marketing. Unlike me, he has lived in, and studied deeply, real markets in the real world. We need more of that.

Tag: .


  1. Michael’s avatar

    Mobile marketing will be as normal as commercials on tv. As the demand for new free mobile applications grow so will the desire for corporate advertising. They go hand in hand (no pun intended) and so we should embrace it and if you’re troubled by an ad, ignore it>

  2. Gavin | Learn SEO Training’s avatar

    Yea look doc I’m inclined to agree with you at drawing the line at mobile marketing… TV is brain dead time, so yea okay I don’t mind some witty ads. Banners are pretty unobtrusive on websites so I don’t really care, but Bluetooth spam, and mobile ads are just damn annoying. They take up precious space on a very limited screen realestate and really don;t like the idea of being location tracked either. Too much personal information, its gotta stop somewhere.

· 1 · 2

Comments are now closed.