Back in the day, advertising had a terrible reputation.
There was the “insults my intelligence” accusation, which was true or false depending on which half of the bell curve your IQ resided. There was the “lies and deception” charge, fueled by a few high-profile scandals (marbles in the bottom of Campbell’s Soup bowls, to make the soup in the ads look chunkier), but mainly overstated. Before the 1980s, the FTC actually regulated, and thereafter competitors kept you honest in federal court. The only chronically deceitful advertising was and is for political candidates and issues, where truth takes a holiday every other year, 30 seconds at a time.
Some people thought advertising used sophisticated psychological techniques and subliminal messaging to brainwash you. Hahahaha. Brands have all the Svengali power of a fortune cookie; historically they struggle even to keep existing customers in the fold.
Sure, advertising has always been thematically dishonest, I suppose. It depicts a world of smiling people, made grinningly content by consumer goods -- which in the long run is the opposite of true. And behind the scenes, ad agencies did often get screwed by corrupt employees and vendors even as they were themselves screwing clients.
Ah, for the good old days. Compared to now, they were 99 44/100ths pure.
Proposal for a new AMC series: Bad Men.
Last week I wrote about Dose.ca, a business that steals content from others without linkbacks or attribution and sells ads against the views. A few weeks back, nobody was remotely surprised when research revealed that half of online buys are never seen by human eyes, thanks to sharp dealing and outright fraud: white on white ads being charged as views, bot-driven fake clicks and so on.
I myself have been a journalistic witness, in an experiment with a banking brand, to ad “views” contracted through Giant Media being delivered by “incentivizing” -- i.e., paying -- gamers to click on them. Without so disclosing, of course.
Shall we mention clickbait? The headlines disguised as feature stories taking you down a rabbit hole of advertising pitches, or launching so many ad units on the page at once that your screen freezes. Not to mention “mainstream” native advertising, which is brand marketing disguised as editorial matter in order to trick readers into clicking through. Organized deception, in other words.
And now we learn about Turn, a company that figured out a way to serve targeted ads to mobile users who had disabled cookies precisely so they would not be targeted with advertising. When Stanford University lawyer/computer scientist/blogger Jonathan Mayer and ProPublica simultaneously broke the story last week, Turn replied as follows:
“Clearing cookies is not a reliable way for a user to express their desire not to receive tailored advertising.” Boldface theirs.
This is like posting a No Trespassing sign on your fence only to discover intruders parachuting into your yard. “Placing signs on fences is not a reliable way to keep flying men off of your premises.”
The particular parachute in Turn’s case is a means of retrieving cookie code associated with a phone’s UIDH identifier, whatever the hell that is. Turn gets that UIDH data from Verizon…surprise, surprise. But the provenance of the information and the technique are not the point. Furthermore, no matter what Turn’s Chief Privacy Officer Max Ochoa asserted in his initial reaction to the bad publicity, the argument that there are more “reliable” ways to opt out of ads, um, insults one’s intelligence. If someone closes the front door on you and asks to be left alone, when you go around and knock on the back door, you are what we call an “asshole.”
This eventually dawned on Turn, which within two days had suspended its so-called “Zombie Cookie” activity (as of next month.) First the Turn worms, and now vice versa.
As I was saying….oh, for simpler times, when "digital" was an agency producer dipping his finger into the mound of cocaine he’d scored as a kickback from the editing house. A few wayward Mad Men we could live with. What has become of the advertising industry today makes me want to puke.
Bob, if you find our business so despicable, why not find something nobler to write about? You probably don't like profiting from such an evil industry anyway.
Come on, Margaret, he's performing a public service.
C'mon, Hart, he regularly doesn't distinguish the bad guys from the mostly good guys in the biz. It's all kvetching or complaining about the cable company. (
The real losers in this whole scenario are the boneheaded marketers who are paying Turn to shove ads at people who have gone out of their way not to see them. This is not what I'd think of as a high-quality target. But it's another example of the "If we can just yell loud enough they're bound to love us eventually" school of thought that pervades so much contemporary advertising. Wow, I've now officially stepped across the line into old-ad-fartdom. I'm a big fan of Lexicon Valley, Bob. Y'all keep up the snideness.
Hmmm. Campbells's marbles, Dose.ca, Turn. Which ones are the mostly good guys?
Hart, almost all the people I know in the business are good guys. It's not good to generalize from a few examples, which I'm sure you know. As Dan Kahneman pointed out, people do tend to generalize from small amounts of data.
I couldn't agree more. (I'm one of those guys!) All the more reason to call out the bad apples. (I'm even willing to admit that Garfield is a pretty cranky guy. But I find that that makes reading him even more enjoyable.)
Can I move to your world, Bob? In mine the political lying takes place every year. Twice every year, actually. 45 days before every primary election and 60 days before every general election. And they pay practically nothing for it!
To me the biggest problem is that "mainstream" websites like Weather Channel and ESPN just to name two, allow grossly deceptive ads on their pages.
It's no excuse to say, "Those portions of the page are beyond our control".
In the 80s Volvo and its agency, Scali McCabe Sloves, came under fire for rigging a commercial showing a Volvo able to withstand a monster truck driving over it (other cars' roofs caved in but the Volvo's did not). The blatant fraud led to much bashing of the ad biz, in the press and in the world in general. When asked by a reporter what the ad industry should do about its sullied image, my Marschalk Company boss, Andy Langer, said, "First, I recommend we worry more about the work and less about our own image. And second, at parties, always stand next to lawyers."
Re bad advertising: Let's not forget all those robo calls, and hyped circulation. I made the mistake of using Publisher's Clearing House to subscribe to National Review. I, a 60+ year-old male, am now getting "Seventeen" magazine and "Latina," not to mention "ESPN" and a couple of other rags I routinely toss away. As a former Adman and B2B magazine publisher, I find this despicable. Neil Mahoney
Kvetching and complaining are synonyms.
Also, I've done 125 columns for MediaPost. Maybe 6 have been about the cable company. Which, considering its place in the media ecosystem, is probably not enough.
Also, we are not speaking of a few bad apples. We are speaking of entire companies, entire segments of the business built on dishonesty and outright fraud.
Gotta go. I'm kvetching again. And retching again.
There are not nearly enough people who cover advertising and cast a jaded eye, and fewer still who write with Garfield's wit and incisiveness. Good work deserves to be trumpeted, and is often on MediaPost and elsewhere. The people not doing good work, or are being outright rotten by stealing content and/or SPAM-ming frustrated citizens, deserve to be called out.
Until the industry cuts ties with the fraud and lies, it will continue to be viewed in this manner. It's not one or two people, it's systemic. More people need to be called out, not less.