That’s because a massive personal data extraction industry has grown up around the simple fact that our data is there for the taking. Or so it seems. To them. And their apologists.
As a result, we’re at a stage of wanton data extraction that looks kind of like the oil industry did in 1920 or so:
It’s a good metaphor, but for a horrible business. It’s a business we need to reform, replace, or both. What we need most are new industries that grow around who and what we are as individual human beings—and as a society that values what makes us human.
Our data is us. Each of us. It is our life online. Yes, we shed some data in the course of our activities there, kind of like we shed dandruff and odors. But that’s no excuse for the extractors to frack our lives and take what they want, just because it’s there, and they can.
Now think about what love is, and how it works. How we give it freely, and how worthwhile it is when others accept it. How taking it without asking is simply wrong. How it’s better to earn it than to demand it. How it grows when it’s given. How we grow when we give it as well.
True, all metaphors are wrong, but that’s how metaphors work. Time is not money. Life is not travel. A country is not a family. But all those things are like those other things, so we think and talk about each of them in terms of those others. (By saving, wasting and investing time; by arriving, departing, and moving through life; by serving our motherlands, and honoring our founding fathers.)
Oil made sense as a metaphor when data was so easy to take, and the resistance wasn’t there.
But now the resistance is there. More than half a billion people block ads online, most of which are aimed by extracted personal data. Laws like the GDPR have appeared, with heavy fines for taking personal data without clear permission.
I could go on, but I also need to go to bed. I just wanted to get this down while it was in the front of my mind, where it arrived while discussing how shitty and awful “data is the new oil” was when it first showed up in 2006, and how sadly popular it has become since then:
It’s time for a new metaphor that expresses what our personal data really is to us, and how much more it’s worth to everybody else if we keep, give and accept it on the model of love.
Synopsis—Advertising supported publishing in the offline world by sponsoring it. In the online world, advertising has been body-snatched by adtech, which tracks eyeballs via files injected into apps and browsers, then shoots those eyeballs with “relevant” ads wherever the eyeballs show up. Adtech has with little or no interest in sponsoring a pub for the pub’s own worth. Worse, it encourages fake news (which is easier to produce than the real kind) and flooding the world with “content” rather than old-fashioned (and infinitely more worthwhile) editorial. When publishers agreed to funding by adtech, they sold their souls and their readers down a river full of fraud and malware, as well as indefensible manners. Fortunately, readers can bring both publishers and advertisers back into a soulful reunion. Helpfully, the GDPR makes it illegal not to, and that will be a huge issue as the deadline for compliance (next May 25th) approaches.
Do you think advertisers will pay enough for SafeAds to offset the losses publishers will have from selling fewer targeted ads due to privacy regs?
It’s a good question. (That’s what people say when they don’t have an answer, or can’t think of an easy one right away. But…) I thought about it, and replied with this:
Yes, and then some.
They’ll do it because there is more brand value to SafeAds.
The bigger question is for publishers: what business do they want to be in?
Do they want to operate barrels of “content” full of tracked fish baited there so adtech can shoot them with “interest-based” ads?
Or do they want to operate actual publications with good editorial that advertisers sponsor so their ads can be seen by readers who know those ads support the publication and are appropriate without being personal?
That’s the choice.
It helps that the second business — actual publishing — has been around for a couple hundred years, and even worked fine on the Web before publishers fell for the adtech sell.
Publishers sold a big piece of their soul when they consented to having their readers’ privacy violated, and with rampant impunity, by adtech. They also chose to ignore the fact that adtech is in the business of chasing eyeballs, not of sponsoring the good work publishers do, or of building brand reputation. (Which can’t be done by shooting people constantly with “interest-based” ads that mostly creep people out if they hit a bulls-eye.)
The GDPR, if it works like it should, will force publishers to fire adtech and normalize their relationship with readers. When that happens, publishers, advertisers, readers and agents for all three can start working out better business models than the creepy one we’ve had with adtech.
Ross quoted the first sentence of the second-to-last paragraph, which is probably the best one of the bunch he could have used. Most of the quotes he gathered from other folks in the biz were also very good. I study this topic a lot, and I still learned some new things. Hats off for that.
While I’m saluting what I just learned from Ross, however, I also want to visit some assumptions that surface in his piece. They aren’t his, but rather pretty much everybody’s, and that’s a problem. Here are four of them.
1) Consent can only go one way, meaning each of us should always be the ones consenting to terms proffered by sites and services. Here’s how Ross puts it:
The General Data Protection Regulation, which prevents brands from using a person’s data unless they have explicit permission to do so, could send more ad dollars to premium publishers that are more likely to obtain user consent than lower-quality publishers.
In fact consent can go the other way, meaning the publisher or advertiser can consent to our terms.
It is only because we made a Faustian bargain with client-server in 1995 that we remain stuck inside a model that assumes we “users” should always be second (and second-class) parties, with no choice but to agree as “clients” to terms proffered by server operators.
It helps that the Internet was designed so any one of us can be peers. This is an especially good design feature in the age that (at least I hope) begins with the GDPR.
One reason why I’m encouraged about the GDPR is that it says each of us can be “data controllers” as well as “data subjects.” (White & Case have a good unpacking of that, here.)
Tracking is the reason ad blocking, which has been around since 2003, didn’t hockey-stick toward the sky until 2012. That was when publishers and advertisers, led by the IAB, gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was merely a polite request not to be tracked that people could express in their browsers.
3) The best advertising is the most measurable, and is looking for a response from an individual.
That’s not true for advertising, but it is for direct response marketing (the wheat and chaff I talk about in the last cited piece). Unfortunately, as I say in that piece, “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”
The outlines of that alien replica can be seen in what Ross cites here:
Eric Berry, CEO of native ad platform TripleLift, said the GDPR could lead to a reduction in programmatic ad spend because ad buyers will struggle to measure whether their ads lead to purchases. There’s uncertainty about how the law will be enforced, but if users have to give consent to individual publishers, demand-side platforms and attribution vendors, the attribution companies won’t likely have enough data to make accurate measurements, which will lead ad buyers to shift their dollars to other marketing tactics. This would hurt publishers that rely on programmatic ad revenue, he said.
There is a reason perhaps a $trillion has been spent on adtech and not one worldwide brand everyone can name has been created by it, much less sustained or helped in any way.
As Don Martisays, only real advertising can carry the full economic and creative signals required to create and sustain a brand. And, as Bob Hoffman hammers home constantly (and very artfully) in The Ad Contrarian, the ad industry’s equation of “digital” with tracking is based entirely on bullshit. (His term, and the right one.)
Direct response marketing, which began as junk mail, and which looks to measure results for every message, wasn’t designed for that, and can’t do it.
Calling direct response marketing advertising was one of the biggest mistakes the ad industry ever made and masks the real problem the GDPR invites, which is that we risk throwing out the SafeAds baby with the FakeAds (adtech) bathwater.
If all the GDPR leads publishers to do is (as Ross says in his piece) “use intrusive messages — like pop-ups or interstitials — to get user consent,” and the EU fails to fine publishers and their adtech funders for violating the spirit as well as the letter of the GDPR, the GDPR will be as big a fail as the useless cookie consent notices people see on European sites.
4) There’s nothing really wrong with adtech.
Pretty much everything is wrong about adtech, but perhaps the wrongest of the wrong is the problem Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivasaid)visits in a NY Times piece titled Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses. Here’s a pull quote:
A core principle in political advertising is transparency — political ads are supposed to be easily visible to everyone, and everyone is supposed to understand that they are political ads, and where they come from. And it’s expensive to run even one version of an ad in traditional outlets, let alone a dozen different versions. Moreover, in the case of federal campaigns in the United States, the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance act requires candidates to state they approve of an ad and thus take responsibility for its content.
The bold-face is mine (or actually my wife’s, who found and highlighted it for me).
The economic signaling value of an ad comes from what it costs. Only a brand with a lot of heft can afford to sponsor a publication or a mainstream broadcaster. But it’s super-cheap to run ads that narrowcast to just a few people. Or to put up a fake news site. (Both are big reasons why journalism is now drowning in a sea of content. Adtech is what paid publishing to trade journalism for “content generation.” This is a cancer on advertising, publishing and journalism, and makes adtech the Agent Smith of digital.)
What’s more, adtech has created environments where micro-targeted ads and adtech-funded fake news can work very effectively to destroy brands.
Consider this possibility: Trump and his sympathizers succeeded in destroying Hillary Clinton’s brand, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of her own big-budget and big-media branding efforts (#SafeAds all) could do about it. (And try, if you are a Trump sympathizer, to ignore whatever you think about how much Hillary brought it on herself or deserved it. In badness of the smear-worthy sort, she has plenty of company, especially Trump. In using modern adtech and fake news methods, the Trump campaign and those helping it were very smart and effective.)
As Siva says in his Times piece,
Ads on [Facebook] meant for, say, 20- to 30-year-old home-owning Latino men in Northern Virginia would not be viewed by anyone else, and would run only briefly before vanishing. The potential for abuse is vast. An ad could falsely accuse a candidate of the worst malfeasance a day before Election Day, and the victim would have no way of even knowing it happened. Ads could stoke ethnic hatred and no one could prepare or respond before serious harm occurs.
Can the GDPR address that problem?
Yes, by supporting individuals (not mere “users” or “consumers”) operating as first parties, getting the good publishers to agree not to run ads like the ones Siva describes, and to open the floodgates to brand ads that actually sponsor those publications, rather than regarding them as bait for shooting tracked eyeballs.
The main takeaway for me, to both Elizabeth’s piece and Jon’s book, is making clear that Google and Facebook are at the heart of today’s personal data extraction industry, and that this industry defines (as well as supports) much of our lives online.
Our data, and data about us, is the crude that Facebook and Google extract, refine and sell to advertisers. This by itself would not be a Bad Thing if it were done with our clearly expressed (rather than merely implied) permission, and if we had our own valves to control personal data flows with scale across all the companies we deal with, rather than countless different valves, many worthless, buried in the settings pages of the Web’s personal data extraction systems, as well as in all the extractive mobile apps of the world.
It’s natural to look for policy solutions to the problems Jon and others visit in the books Elizabeth reviews. And there are some good regulations around already. Most notably, the GDPR in Europe has energized countless developers (some listed here) to start providing tools individuals (no longer just “consumers” or “users”) can employ to control personal data flows into the world, and how that data might be used. Even if surveillance marketers find ways around the GDPR (which some will), advertisers themselves are starting to realize that tracking people like animals only fails outright, but that the human beings who constitute the actual marketplace have mounted the biggest boycott in world history against it.
But I also worry because I consider both Facebook and Google epiphenomenal. Large and all-powerful though they may be today, they are (like all tech companies, especially ones whose B2B customers and B2C consumers are different populations—commercial broadcasters, for example) shallow and temporary effects rather than deep and enduring causes.
I say this as an inveterate participant in Silicon Valley who can name many long-gone companies that once occupied Google’s and Facebook’s locations there—and I am sure many more will occupy the same spaces in a fullness of time that will surely include at least one Next Big Thing that obsolesces advertising as we know it today online. Such as, for example, discovering that we don’t need advertising at all.
Even the biggest personal data extraction companies are also not utilities on the scale or even the importance of power and water distribution (which we need to live), or the extraction industries behind either. Nor have these companies yet benefitted from the corrective influence of fully empowered individuals and societies: voices that can be heard directly, consciously and personally, rather than mere data flows observed by machines.
Meanwhile new government policies that see us only as passive victims will risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with regulations that last decades or longer. So let’s hold off on that until we have terms of our own, start performing as first parties (on an Internet designed to support exactly that), and the GDPR takes full effect. (Not that more consumer-protecting federal regulation is going to happen in the U.S. anyway under the current administration: all the flow is in the other direction.)
By the way, I believe nobody “owns” the Internet, any more than anybody owns gravity or sunlight. For more on why, see Cluetrain’s New Clues, which David Weinberger and I put up 1.5 years ago.
My loyalty to Peet’s Coffee is absolute. I have loved Peet’s since it was a single store in Berkeley. I told my wife in 2001 that I wouldn’t move anywhere outside the Bay Area unless there was a Peet’s nearby. That pre-qualified Santa Barbara, where we live now. When we travel to where Peets has retail stores, we buy bags of our favorite beans (which tend to be one of the above) to take to our New York apartment, because there are no Peets stores near there. When we’re in New York and not traveling, we look for stores that sell bags of one of the bean bags above.
Since our car died and we haven’t replaced it yet, we have also taken to ordering beans through Peet’s website. Alas, we’re done with that now. Here’s why:
I ordered those beans (Garuda and New Guinea) two Thursdays ago, June 16, at 7:45am. A couple days after I ordered the beans, I checked my account online to see where the shipment stood, and the site said the beans would be shipped on Monday, June 19. According to the email I got yesterday (a section of which I show above), the beans didn’t ship until the following Wednesday, June 21. Now the estimated delivery is next Wednesday, June 28.
While this isn’t a big deal, it’s still annoying because we just ran out of our last batch of beans here and we’ll be gone when that shipment arrives. Subscribing (which Peet’s e-commerce system would rather we do) also won’t work for us because we travel too much and don’t settle in any one place for very long. True, that’s not Peet’s problem, and I’m a sample of one. But I’ve experienced enough e-commerce to know that Peet’s shipping thing isn’t working very well.
And maybe it can’t. I don’t know. Here’s what I mean…
Way back in the late ’90s I was having lunch in San Francisco with Jamie Zawinski, whose work as a programmer is behind many of the graces we take for granted in the online world. (He’s a helluva writer too.) At one point he said something like “Somebody should figure out what Amazon does, bottle it, and sell it to every other retailer doing e-commerce.” And here we are, nearly two decades later, in a world where the one e-commerce company everybody knows will do what it says is still Amazon. (I’ll spare you my much worse tale of woe getting new air conditioners bought and shipped from Home Depot.)
So that’s a problem on the service side.
Now let’s talk marketing. A while back, Peet’s came out with an app that lets you check in at its stores for rewards when you buy something there. You do that this way at the cash register:
Find the app on your phone.
Click on Check In, so a QR code materializes on your phone’s screen.
Aim the QR code at a gizmo by the cash register that can read the QR code.
Hope it works.
I’ve done this a lot, or at least tried to. Here are just some of the problems with it, all of which I offer both to help Peet’s and to dissuade companies everywhere from bothering with the same system:
It doesn’t work at every Peet’s location. This is annoying to customers who break out their phone, bring up the app, get ready to check in, and then get told “It’s not here yet.”
Workers at the stores don’t like it—either because it’s one more step in the ordering process or because, again, “it’s not here yet.” Some employees put a nice face on, but you can tell many employees consider it an unnecessary pain in the ass.
The customer needs to check in at exactly the right point in the purchase, or it doesn’t count. Or at least that’s been my experience a time or two. Whatever the deal is, the narrow check-in time window risks bumming out both the customer and the person behind the counter.
The customer reviews are bad, with good reason. On the app’s page in iTunes Preview it says, “Current Version: 17 Ratings (1.5 stars) All Versions: 94 Ratings (2 stars).” The only published 4-star review reads, “They are a little vague on the rewards system – do I get a point per visit, or a point per drink? Also not a very rewarding system, esp when compared to starbucks or non chains I know of. However, I’ve had no problems with the app malfunctioning, so although I dislike the system it’s not the apps fault.”
It sometimes doesn’t work. I mean, bzzzt: no soap. Or worse, works poorly. For example, when I opened the app just now, it said “Hi, Peetnik” and told me I have 0/15 reward points, meaning I’ve checked in zero times. Then, when I clicked on the “>”, it said “15 more & your next cup’s on us.” Finally, when I fiddled with the app a bit, it woke up and told me “4 points until your next reward.”
Here’s the thing: None of this stuff is necessary. Worse, it’s pure overhead, a value-subtract from the start. And Peet’s is one of the all-too-rare retailers that doesn’t need this kind of crap at all. It has already earned, and keeps, the loyalty of its customers. It just needs to keep doing a better job of making better coffee.
In The Intention Economy I tell the story of Trader Joe’s, another retailer that does a good job of earning and keeping its customers’ loyalty. You know how they do that? With approximately no marketing at all. “We don’t do gimmicks,” Doug Rauch, the retired President of Trader Joe’s told me. No loyalty cards. No promotional pricing. No discounts for “members.” (In fact they have no discounts at all. Just straightforward prices for everything.) Almost no advertising. Nothing that smacks of coercion. And customers love them.
On the marketing side, I suggest dropping the app and the gizmos at the stores. Save the operational costs and reduce the cognitive overhead for both personnel and customers. Personal data gathered through apps is also a toxic asset for every company—and don’t let any marketers tell you otherwise. Like Trader Joe’s, Peet’s doesn’t need the data. Make the best coffee and provide the best service at the stores, and you’ll get and keep the best customers. Simple as that.
You’re in the coffee game, Peet’s. Keep winning that way. For everything that isn’t doing what you’ve always done best, less is more.
In The Adpocalypse: What it Means, VlogbrotherHank Green issues a humorous lament on the impending demise of online advertising. Please devote the next 3:54 of your life to watching that video, so you catch all his points and I don’t need to repeat them here.
Got them? Good.
All of Hank’s points are well-argued and make complete sense. They are also valid mostly inside the bowels of the Google beast where his video work has thrived for the duration, as well as inside the broadcast model that Google sort-of emulates. (That’s the one where “content creators” and “brands” live in some kind of partly-real and partly-imagined symbiosis.)
While I like and respect what the brothers are trying to do commercially inside Google’s belly, I also expect them, and countless other “content creators” will get partly or completely expelled after Google finishes digesting that market, and obeys its appetite for lucrative new markets that obsolesce its current one.
We can see that appetite at work now that Google Contributor screams agreement with ad blockers (which Google is also joining) and their half-billion human operators that advertising has negative value. This is at odds with the business model that has long sustained both YouTube and “content creators” who make money there.
So it now appears that being a B2B creature that sells eyeballs to advertisers is Google’s larval stage, and that Google intends to emerge from its chrysalis as a B2C creature that sells content directly to human customers. (And stays hedged with search advertising, which is really more about query-based notifications than advertising, and doesn’t require unwelcome surveillance that will get whacked by the GDPR anyway a year from now.)
Google will do this two ways: 1) through Contributor (an “ad removal pass” you buy) and 2) through subscriptions to YouTube TV (a $35/month cable TV replacement) and/or YouTube Red ($9.99/month for “uninterrupted music, ad-free videos, and more”).
Contributor is a way for Google to raise its share of the adtech duopoly it comprises with Facebook. The two paid video offerings are ways for Google to maximize its wedge of a subscription pie also sliced up by Apple, Amazon, Netflix, HBO, ShowTime, all the ISPs and every publication you can name—and to do that before we all hit Peak Subscription. (Which I’m sure most of us can see coming. I haven’t written about it yet, but I have touched hard on it here and here.)
I hope the Vlogbrothers make money from YouTube Red once they’re behind that paywall. Or that they can sell their inventory outside all the silos, like some other creators do. Maybe they’ll luck out if EmanciPay or some other new and open customer-based way of paying for creative goods works out. Whether or not that happens, one or more of the new blockchain/distributed ledger/token systems will provide countless new ways that stuff will get offered and paid for in the world’s markets. Brave Payments is already pioneering in that space. (Get the Brave browser and give it a try.)
It helps to recognize that the larger context (in fact the largest one) is the Internet, not the Web (which sits on top of the Net), and not apps (which are all basically on loan from their makers and the distribution systems of Apple and Google). The Internet cannot be contained in, or reduced to, the feudal castles of Facebook and Google, which mostly live on the Web. Those are all provisional and temporary. Money made by and within them is an evanescent grace.
All the Net does is connect end points and pass data between them through any available path. This locates us on a second world alongside the physical one, where the distance between everything it connects rounds to zero. This is new to human experience and at least as transformative as language, writing, printing and electricity—and no less essential than any of those, meaning it isn’t going to go away, no matter how well the ISPs, governments and corporate giants succeed in gobbling up and spinctering business and populations inside their digestive tracts.
The Net is any-to-any, by any means, by design of its base protocols. This opens countless possibilities we have barely begun to explore, much less build out. It is also an experience for humanity that is not going to get un-experienced if some other base protocols replace the ones we have now.
I am convinced that we will find new ways in our connected environment to pay for goods and services, and to signal each other much more securely, efficiently and effectively than we do now. I am also convinced we will do all that in a two-party way rather than in the three-party ways that require platforms and bureaucracies. If this sounds like anarchy, well, maybe: yeah. I dunno. We already have something like that in many disrupted industries. (Some wise stuff got written about this by David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules.)
Not a day goes by that my mind isn’t blown by the new things happening that have not yet cohered into an ecosystem but still look like they can create and sustain many forms of economic and social life, new and old. I haven’t seen anything like this in tech since the late ’90s. And if that sounds like another bubble starting to form, yes it is. You see it clearly in the ICO market right now. (Look at what’s lined up so far. Wholly shit.)
But this one is bigger. It’s also going to bring down everybody whose business is guesswork filled with fraud and malware.
If you’re betting on which giants survive, hold Amazon and Apple. Short those other two.
Fire adtech (tracking-based advertising), which is full of fraud and malware, clogs data pipes, spies on people (which will soon be illegal in the EU thanks to the GDPR), and carries enormous operational and cognitive overhead for everybody. This will—
De-blurring Lines Between ‘Ad Tech’ and Advertising (Daniel Meehan@MeehanDaniel in Martech Series). I’m kindly sourced: “…Doc Searls dug into what on earth brands are doing — and have been doing for years. He’s just as confused by this shift of advertisers effectively offloading their jobs to algorithms. Searls also calls for an end to ad tech, in favor of a return to “traditional” advertising approaches. The state of ad tech’s been killing media, too. And he wants to save it before we venture too far.”
For today’s entries, I’m noting which linked pieces require you to turn off tracking protection, meaning tracking is required by those publishers. I’m also annotating entries with hashtags and organizing sections into bulleted lists.
The State of Ad Blocking and Online Ads: An Interview with Doc Searls (Matthew Maier in AdBlock) Pull quote: “What’s working is what has always worked: brand advertising in legacy print and broadcast media, and search advertising in the online world. Ads targeted at populations (rather than individuals) online also work, to the degrees that people are not bothered or creeped out by them. Not working is tracking-based ‘direct’ adtech, which succeeds because it’s called advertising, looks like advertising, and benefits from corporate appetites for the biggest possible data, and lots of maths to rationalize the expense.”
Apple reveals HomePod, a #privacy-focused smart #assistant (Zach Whittaker in ZDnet) Subhead: Throwing shade at its two data-hungry virtual assistant competitors, Amazon and Google, the iPhone maker said that nobody has “quite nailed it yet.” Pull-quote: “Apple’s logic is that, for the most part, it doesn’t want your data. Federighi reiterated that many of the advanced deep learning and artificial intelligence analysis — such as finding your location, facial recognition in photos, and setting calendar reminders — is done on the device, shutting Apple out of the loop — preventing anyone from asking Apple for data it doesn’t have. But for a company that doesn’t want your data — to make Siri better, it has increasingly been asking for it. Apple contends that it still doesn’t want to see your information.” Some #disambiguation is required there.
Why Does Apple Think It Can Get Away With Selling #Overpriced Stuff? (Mark Wilson in Co.Design) Pull-quote: “However, if Apple has any particular hope, it’s this: Amazon and Google are both invasive with consumer data. These companies track our activity largely with the goal of selling us something at just the right moment. Apple is far more transparent. It’s actively pushing machine learning to the device level by developing an on-device machine learning #APIandworking on a specialized machine learning chip to bring advanced AI to your phone, theoretically, without all your data going to a server, where it might be accessible by the government, advertisers, and more. It’s making cross-device #encryption a standard, which means a federal agent who seizes your phone at a border crossing—which happened during the Muslim ban—can’t as easily download its contents and read it all. And most of all, that new HomePod speaker, powered by Siri, will anonymize and encrypt everything you say. That means your private questions are not tied to your Apple ID for later reference. Such is not the case for Amazon’s and Google’s assistants. Apple has and will make trade-offs to protect consumer privacy. (Many of us, at the end of the day, get some value out of a Google knowing our history of things we’ve searched, even if it’s constantly #creepy.) It might not work, but at least we’re getting a clear picture of Apple’s big gamble going into the next decade: that people will continue paying more than they should for hardware, with the hope that it’s not just nicely designed, but that it operates with discretion, too.” All fine, but he misses another reason people pay more for Apple stuff: customer #support, especially at Apple Stores. Amazon and Google can’t, and don’t, compete.
My given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.
Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)
As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 miles as the crow flies.)
As a commercial station, WDBS had to sell advertising. This proved so difficult that we made up ads for stuff that didn’t exist. That, in addition to selling ads, was my job. The announcer’s name I used for many of the ads, plus other humorous features, was Doctor Dave. It wasn’t a name I chose. Bob Conroy did that. I also had a humorous column under the same name for the station’s monthly arts guide, with the image above at the top of the page. That one was created by Ray Simone.
Ray and David Hodskins, another WDBS listener, later approached me with the idea of starting an ad agency, which we did: Hodskins Simone & Searls. Since we already had a David, everybody at the agency called me Doctor Dave, which quickly abbreviated to Doc. Since my social network in business far exceeded all my other ones, the name stuck. And there you have it.
Brands are bailing from adtech, and news about it is coming fast and hard.
The New York Times said AT&T and Johnson & Johnson were pulling their ads from YouTube, concerned that “Google is not doing enough to prevent brands from appearing next to offensive material, like hate speech.” Business Insider said “more than 250” advertisers were bailing as well. Both reports came on the heels of one Guardian story that said Audi, HSBC, Lloyds, McDonald’s, L’Oréal, Sainsbury’s, Argos, the BBC and Sky were doing the same in the UK. Another Guardian story that said O2, Royal Mail and Vodaphone were joining the boycott as well. Wired and AdAge have weighed in too.
Agencies placing those ads on YouTube were shocked, shocked! that ads for these fine brands were showing up next to “extremist material,” and therefore sponsoring it. They blame Google, and so does most of the press coverage as well.
On Monday, at a breakfast briefing with journalists before he took to the stage at Advertising Week Europe — Brittin said the annual ad industry event gave Google a “good opportunity to say first and foremost, sorry, this should not happen, and we need to do better.”
Brittin added: “There are brands who have reached out to us and are talking to our teams about whether they are affected or concerned by this. I have spoken personally to a number of advertisers over the last few days as well. Those that I have spoken to, by the way, we have been talking about a handful of impressions and pennies not pounds of spend — that’s in the case of the ones I’ve spoken to at least. However small or big the issue, it’s an important issue that we address.”
Google also isn’t alone at this. They’re just the biggest player in an icky business. That business is adtech: tracking-based advertising.
Real advertising doesn’t do any of those things, because it’s not personal. It is aimed at populations selected by the media they choose to watch, listen to or read. To reach those people with real ads, you buy space or time on those media. You sponsor those media because those media also have brand value.
With real advertising, you have brands supporting brands.
Brands can’t sponsor media through adtech because adtech isn’t built for that. On the contrary, adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media.
Adtech is magic in this literal sense: it’s all about misdirection. You think you’re getting one thing while you’re really getting another. It’s why brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire chase eyeballs. Since adtech systems are automated and biased toward finding the cheapest ways to hit sought-after eyeballs with ads, some ads show up on unsavory sites. And, let’s face it, even good eyeballs go to bad places.
This is why the media, the UK government, the brands, and even Google are all shocked. They all think adtech is advertising. Which makes sense: it lookslike advertising and gets called advertising. But it is profoundly different in almost every other respect. I explain those differences in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff:
…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. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.
See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.
Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.
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 is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.
So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hardto tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.
This whole problem wouldn’t exist if the alien replica wasn’t chasing spied-on eyeballs, and if advertisers still sponsored desirable media the old-fashioned way.
Fixing it won’t be easy, because the alien replica has been drunk on digital for so long that very little humanity remains. This is true not just for Madison Avenue, but for both the client and the media stages of the advertising supply chain. On the client side, old-school sales & marketing VPs have been replaced by data-obsessed CMOs who would rather hire an IBM to paint a portrait of a fiction called “the chief executive customer” than actually talk to a real one. On the media side, publishers and broadcasters have long since fired their human sales people and outsourced income production to dozens of third party adtech systems.
But at least we’re seeing brands start to wake up, even if they’re still fooled by adtech’s magic tricks. And consciousness is surely happening a level or two above the CMO. Those senior executives, whose brains have not been snatched by adtech, will still recognize the obvious: that brands are best made and served by sponsoring media they know, like and trust.
After all, sponsoring trusted media is what produced brands in the first place. It’s also what still what makes brands familiar to whole populations, and what still sponsors worthy publications and the journalism they contain.
If brands still want to do “interest-based” or “interactive” advertising (adtech’s euphemisms for what it actually does) they should realize five things:
Adtech sucks at branding. Hundreds of $billions have been spent on adtech so far, and not one brand known to the world has come out of it.
Yes, it works, about .0x% of the time, on average. The other 99.9x% of the time it produces nothing but negative externalities, including lots of tendentious math by agencies and platforms to justify the expense.Among those externalities are subtracted value from brands themselves.
Yes, direct response marketing does work, and it works best when target customers have already opted in, consciously and deliberately. (Note that there is a great deal of ambiguity about how much being a Google or Facebook member amounts to deliberate and conscious agreement to being followed and targeted, privacy controls withstanding. The choices in those controls should be much more binary and clear than they are.) So if L’Oreal wants to get a conversation going with customers of Lancôme, Giorgio Armani or The Body Shop, they should do it by those customers’ grace, not because the robots they’ve hired guess those customers might be interested, based on surveillance-gathered personal data.
Adtech starts with spying on people. This isn’t the elephant in the middle of adtech’s room. It’s the volcano about to erupt from under adtech’s floor. In that volcano are pissed off people who will soon get their own ways to kill off adtech. The rumbling under the floor right now is ad blocking. The lava that will pave over adtech is full tracking protection.
Adtech’s rationalizations are all around putting the “right message in front of the right people at the right time,” and aiming those messages with spyware-harvested Big Data. Both of those are direct marketing purposes, not those of brand advertising. The difference is stark, absolute, and essential for everyone to understand.
The only reason publishers go along with adtech is that they don’t know any other way to make money from advertising online — and no developers have provided them one. (But that will happen soon. Trust me on this. I know things I can’t yet talk about.)
What Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” is going to be illegal a year from now in the EU anyway, thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation, aka GDPR. Mark your calendars: on 25 May 2018 will come an extinction event for adtech, because here are the fines the GDPR will impose for unpermitted harvesting of personal data: 1) “a fine up to 10,000,000 EUR or up to 2% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year in case of an enterprise, whichever is greater (Article 83, Paragraph 4)”‘; and 2) “a fine up to 20,000,000 EUR or up to 4% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year in case of an enterprise, whichever is greater (Article 83, Paragraph 5 & 6).”
Ad choices won’t do the job. That’s adtech’s way to “give you control” over “how information about your interests is used for relevant advertising.” The link into that system is this little symbol you see in the corner of many ads:
While clicking on it does provide a way for you to opt out of surveillance, you have to do it over and over again for every ad you see with the damn thing, like playing a slo-mo game of whack-a-mole, and it still relies on the adtech industry keeping cookies in your browsers.
If there is a market on the receiving end for “interest based advertising,” let’s have a standard system that puts full control in the hands of individuals, and speaks through open code and protocols to any and all publishers and broadcasters. Anything less will just be another top-down adtech industry paint-job on the same old shit.
An open question is if agencies can be programmatic online without spying on people. I think they can, if they start by admitting that spying is where the problem lies.
It should be clear that spying is why Do Not Track became a thing, and whyad blocking hockey-sticked when the adtech industry and publishers together gave the middle finger to people’s polite request not to be tracked. (Which is all Do Not Track provides.) It should also be clear that ad blocking and tracking protection are not “threats” and “costs” to publishers and agencies. They are clear and legitimate market responses by human beings to having adtech’s digital hands up their skirts.
It also won’t be easy for the big platforms to fix their adtech systems. Consider, for example, the egg that was splattered on Mark Zuckerberg’s face by Facebook’s own adtech when he posted his insistence that “99% of what people see is authentic” and “only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes,” and fraudulent ads ran right next to his post:
These ads are fraudulent in at least three ways: 1) the headlines are lies; 2) espn.com is not the advertiser; 3) if you click on them, you find they’re bait for switches to something else. (One I clicked on was for a diet supplement.)
Facebook is going to have a hard time fixing this, because it is entirely in the chaff business. With Google, even though it’s hard to tell whether any given ad placed in a Google property is wheat or chaff, at least some of it really is wheat. (I would guess most search ads are, for example.) It should be just as easy for Google to disclose those ads’ nature as wheat as it is for the company to use Ad Choices to disclose adn ad’s nature as chaff. (I suggest one possible approach to this in A way to peace in the adblock war.)
But fixing the mess needs to start with advertisers. They can do it by firing adtech and its agents and going back to sponsoring reputable broadcasters and publishers. Simple as that.
Journalism is in a world of hurt because it has been marginalized by a new business model that requires maximizing “content” instead. That model is called adtech.
We can see adtech’s effects in The New York Times’ In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen. His prime example is the Newark Star-Ledger, “which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago,” and “has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.”
That quota is to attract adtech placements.
While adtech is called advertising and looks like advertising, it’s actually a breed of direct marketing, which is a cousin of spam and descended from what we still call junk mail.
Like junk mail, adtech is driven by data, intrusively personal, looking for success in tiny-percentage responses, and oblivious to harms it causes, which include wanton and unwelcome surveillance, annoying the shit out of people and filling the world with crap.
But adtech is far worse, because it also funds hyper-partisan news flows, including vast rivers of fake news, much of it from pop-up publishers that are as fake as the clickbait they maxiize. Without adtech, fake news would be marginalized to the digital equivalent of supermarket tabloids.
Here’s one way to tell the difference between real advertising and adtech:
Real advertising wants to be in a publication because it values the publication’s journalism and readership.
Adtech wants to push ads at readers anywhere it can find them.
Here’s one way to tell the difference between journalism and content:
Journalism has ethics.
Content has volume.
Journalism is supported by advertising and subscriptions.
Content is supported by adtech.
Companies advertising in the old publishing world were flattered to appear in publications like the Star-Ledger. They were also considered sponsors of those publications.
As I wrote in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, in the new publishing world “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”
That’s also why, to operate in publishing’s new alien-built economy, journalists need to meet that “ever-increasing quota of page views.” Better to “generate content” than to do the best journalism we can, the proposition goes. It’s still a losing one.
See, adtech doesn’t care about journalism, because its economy incentives maximizing the sum of content in the world, so it has as many places as possible to chase followed eyeballs with ads. Case in point, from @WaltMossberg:
About a week after our launch, I was seated at a dinner next to a major advertising executive. He complimented me on our new site’s quality and on that of a predecessor site we had created and run, AllThingsD.com. I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.
If Recode insisted on real ads, rather than coming to depend on surveillance-based adtech, its advertisers would have valued the publication, and not just the eyeballs of its readers, wherever it could find them.
It’s no easy task to either make money online as a publisher or to advertise your product in a world where attention is so fleeting and divided. But the current system of ad-supported web content isn’t working for readers and viewers. It needs to be reset.
The ad business is too brain-snatched to do that reset alone. It needs help from readers and brave publishers willing to stop participating in the adtech game.
While the GDPR will blow up adtech as we’ve known it, #NoStalking will save real advertising, and the best of ad-supported publishing along with it, because it will bring economic incentives back into alignment with journalism. We had that in the old ad-and-subscription supported world of offline journalism, and we can get it back in the new world of online journalism. As I explain in Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers,
Individuals issuing the offer get guilt-free use of the goods they come to the publisher for, and the publisher gets to stay in business — and improve that business by running advertising that is actually valued by its recipients.
So, if you want to save journalism, the best of publishing and civil discourse that depends on both, bring back real advertising and cure the cancer of adtech.