Reading the Wall Street Journal's sensationalist account of online consumer "privacy" the past few days it is hard not to feel that as traditional media lies sick in bed, its wrath against the internet smolders with intensity. Everything about the internet is hateful to it: the abuse of language, the contempt for news-making authority, the fact that it is free and popular; the fact that it is commercial and rich and reeks of new money; the fact that it is young; the fact that it delights more in science than art and ascribes a value to an audience apart from content. It is a hateful thing, and as Henry II wailed about St. Thomas Beckett 1000 years ago, one senses the voice of traditional media wailing also, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome internet?!"
Apparently, they're working on it. Conjuring Cold War images with words such as "intensive surveillance," "spying," and "secrets," the Journal paints a picture of an industry that "has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry." Suddenly, per the Journal, the Internet is a shadowy agency ... secretive ... with a Politburo.
Except that shadows and secrets are not especially useful to the business of advertising, which is pretty much dedicated to making things less secret and more obvious, especially things such as price and product attributes. A good case in point appears in Ad Age thanks to Michael Learmonth who writes an engaging piece about the pair of pants (short pants) that followed him around the internet until he couldn't take it anymore. In need of shorts, he says, he went online to Zappos, rummaged around, found nothing he liked, and exited. The pants, however, were not easily spurned. Writes Michael,
"In the five days since, those [short pant] recommendations have been appearing just about everywhere I've been on the web, including MSNBC, Salon, CNN.com and The Guardian. The ad scrolls through my Zappos recommendations: Hurley, Converse by John Varvatos, Quicksilver, Rip Curl, Volcom. Whatever. At this point I've started to actually think I never really have to go back to Zappos to buy the shorts -- no need, they're following me."
The moral of the story is that Michael lost his taste for Zappos, which is called brand destruction, which is the result of advertising overkill. Hardly secret and hardly new, I feel the same about half the advertisers on television, especially the local ones that drench commercial breaks in between Red Sox baseball innings. Advertising is about amplification. It lives in the open. Indeed, it forces its way into the open and what it does it frequently overdoes, as did Zappos.
Which means advertising is not in the clandestine business and it does not think clandestine thoughts when it comes to reaching prospects. To the contrary, it is a relentless over-communicator, and for years media outlets -- newspapers, magazines, cable television and, of course, the internet -- have sought to channel the din of messaging in ways that reduce the waste and lessen the noise. Online -- and soon, perhaps, on television - that means using the observed media and shopping preferences of users to target advertising messages that would otherwise be out of context (i.e., right place). At the same time, it means using those same techniques to curb the number of irrelevant messages going to the uninterested, which would be spam.
The sub-text of the "privacy" question always sounds like a game of cat and mouse, advertiser against consumer. It is a pointless question. After all, who is for advertising? But if it is impossible to live without it -- as it is -- who is against great advertising?
This is the commercial opportunity online: great advertising. Relevant and timely and - we always hope -- creative. The consumer opportunity online is largely the same: relevant and timely and, we surely know, abundant. Who could be against that?
The King, perhaps?
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