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July 2, 2016

Corrupting "Earned media"

The Intercept reports on several news media who are selling special services at the national political conventions — meetings, cocktail parties, and more. The services are corrosive. Some are explicitly corrupt, “…they make explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.”making explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.

The less controversial services are corrosive because they let the media take money from the people they cover. Having spent a few decades as a marketing communications guy, I can promise you that in every business considering these offers, the conversation includes someone saying, “It doesn’t matter if no one comes to the cocktail party. It’d still improve our relationship with the publication.” Why? Because it’s a way to pay the journal money. That’s corrosive.

Larry Lessig points out that it’s not much different from news organizations tuning their coverage to their ratings. But such tuning at least caters to perceived piopular interest. These new services let an organization or candidate buy coverage despite a decided lack of public interest. It is worse than buying ads because the news media have traditionally had a “Chinese wall” between the advertising and editorial departments. This has been a fairly effective way of protecting editorial content from the direct influence of the marketing needs of the journal, even though the wall is sometimes breached, and Time Magazine has shamefully torn it down.

Once the media started letting companies pay for phony news coverage, they pretended to honor the breach by distinguishing “earned” and “paid” content. “Earned content” is coverage provided by media of events they think are newsworthy. “Paid content” is, well, paid content. Non-sleazebag companies and their PR reps expect media to mark paid content as paid for. Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, created ethical guidelines that not only say that the paid content must be well marked, but that Edelman will have its own Chinese wall between the processes by which earned content is pitched (“Yo, I have a client who’s invented a time travel machine. Wanna an interview? How’s yesterday for you?”) and the negotiations that result in the placement of paid content. (Disclosure: I had a tiny hand — Trump-sized — in drafting those guidelines.)

That’s better than nothing, but paid content still makes me queasy. Companies are willing to pay for content precisely because it looks like real coverage and thus tends to be taken more seriously than obvious ads. This erodes the phenomenological line between news and ads, which is bad for democracy and culture. Indeed, “the point of paid content is to erode the line. ”the point of paid content is to erode the line.

But letting candidates pay for interviews takes this to a whole new level. This is what The Intercept says:

Sponsors who pay $200,000 are promised convention interviews with The Hill’s editorial staff for “up to three named executives or organization representatives of your choice,” according to a brochure obtained by The Intercept. “These interviews are pieces of earned media,” the brochure says, “and will be hosted on a dedicated page on and promoted across The Hill’s digital and social media channels.”

The Hill says the resulting interviews will be earned media. Suppose the interview is stupid, boring, self-serving and non-newsworthy? If it weren’t, the client wouldn’t be paying for it. But The Hill is promising it’s going to run anyway because the client paid them $200,000. That is the very definition of paid content. So, by calling it “earned content,” The Hill can only mean that the article will not be marked as paid content, even though that is precisely what it is.

This corrupts the already corrosive practice of accepting paid content. It is disgraceful.

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October 6, 2015

Doc Searls’ "The Adblock War" series

Adblocking is, as Doc Searls claims, “the biggest boycott in human history.” Since August 12, Doc’s been posting what I can only call an in-depth, analytical, evidence-based rant. It is not to be missed.

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  6. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  7. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  8. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  9. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)

Doc says (in an email) he is “building the case for what ProjectVRMCustomer Commons and Mozilla (notably its Content Services group) are quietly doing to disable surveillance capitalism.”

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September 18, 2015

Adblockers are not pirates

Mathew Ingram tweeted:

No, it is not. (Of course, talking about the illegal sharing of music as “piracy” is ridiculous, as would be obvious to anyone who’s ever met an actual, non-arrrrr pirate. Which I have not.)

Is turning a page in a magazine without reading the ad piracy? Is going to pee during a commercial piracy? Is keeping your eyes on the road instead of looking at the billboards piracy? Is it piracy when a TV show blurs the name of a product on the tee shirt of a passerby?


There’s only one difference between those acts of non-piracy and what happens when you run an ad blocker such as AdBlock Plus in your browser. When you turn the page on a magazine ad or fix yourself a big bowl of Soylent during a TV commercial, the magazine publishers and the TV station don’t know about it. That’s the only relevant difference. Whether the provider of the ad knows about it or not is not relevant to whether it’s piracy.

It is, of course, relevant to whether the Web page gets paid for the ad. So the suggestion that we turn our ad blockers off to support the content that we appreciate — which on particular pages I in fact do — amounts to urging readers to conspire with websites to pretend that we’re reading the ads, wink wink, so that the website can get its cut…for delivering no value to the advertisers.

A business model based on a conspiracy to maintain a delusion is itself delusional.

In fact, as Doc Searls points out, it’s a delusion based on a falsehood: the belief that we are always shopping. We’re not, even though advertisers would like us to be always-on “consumers.”

And, by the way, here’s a related delusion: The idea that popup ads that obscure the content we’ve come to see are worth the ill-will they generate. That delusion depends upon ignoring the scientifically calculated FYR: the ratio of the Fuck You’s muttered by the recipients of these attentional muggings versus their intentional click-throughs.

I’d tell you what my personal FYR is, but you can’t divide by zero.


February 11, 2015

Church and State merge, resulting in

Time Magazine has erased the line between editorial and advertising. Explicitly. Proudly.

The result? The current issue has a total of three pages of ads.

Plus, the cover story is a paean to Starbucks, making readers suspect that someone bribed a priest.

So, Time fails and journalism is made a little less trustworthy. Nice job, Time!

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August 15, 2014

From Berkman: Zeynep and Ethanz on the Web We Want

This week there were two out-of-the-park posts by Berkman folk: Ethan Zuckerman on advertising as the Net’s original sin, and Zeynep Tufecki on the power of the open Internet as demonstrated by coverage of the riots in Ferguson. Each provides a view on whether the Net is a failed promise. Each is brilliant and brilliantly written.

Zeynep on Ferguson

Zeynep, who has written with wisdom and insight on the role of social media in the Turkish protests (e.g., here and here), looks at how Twitter brought the Ferguson police riots onto the national agenda and how well Twitter “covered” them. But those events didn’t make a dent in Facebook’s presentation of news. Why? she asks.

Twitter is an open platform where anyone can post whatever they want. It therefore reflects our interests — although no medium is a mere reflection. FB, on the other hand, uses algorithms to determine what it thinks our interests are … except that its algorithms are actually tuned to get us to click more so that FB can show us more ads. (Zeynep made that point about an early and errant draft of my commentary on the FB mood experiment. Thanks, Zeynep!) She uses this to make an important point about the Net’s value as a medium the agenda of which is not set by commercial interests. She talks about this as “Net Neutrality,” extending it from its usual application to the access providers (Comcast, Verizon and their small handful of buddies) to those providing important platforms such as Facebook.

She concludes (but please read it all!):

How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.

And despite a lot of dismal developments, this fight is far from over, and its enemy is cynicism and dismissal of this reality.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What happens to #Ferguson affects what happens to Ferguson.

Yup yup yup. This post is required reading for all of the cynics who would impress us with their wake-up-and-smell-the-shitty-coffee pessimism.

Ethan on Ads

Ethan cites a talk by Maciej Ceglowski for the insight that “we’ve ended up with surveillance as the default, if not sole, internet business model.” Says Ethan,

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.

Since Internet ads are more effective as a business model than as an actual business, companies are driven ever more frantically to gather customer data in order to hold out the hope of making their ads more effective. And there went out privacy. (This is a very rough paraphrase of Ethan’s argument.)

Ethan pays more than lip service to the benefits — promised and delivered — of the ad-supported Web. But he points to four rather devastating drawbacks, include the distortions caused by algorithmic filtering that Zeynep warns us about. Then he discusses what we can do about it.

I’m not going to try to summarize any further. You need to read this piece. And you will enjoy it. For example, betcha can’t guess who wrote the code for the world’s first pop-up ads. Answer:   Ethan  .

Also recommended: Jeff Jarvis’ response and Mathew Ingram’s response to both. I myself have little hope that advertising can be made significantly better, where “better” means being unreservedly in the interests of “consumers” and sufficiently valuable to the advertisers. I’m of course not confident about this, and maybe tomorrow someone will come up with the solution, but my thinking is based on the assumption that the open Web is always going to be a better way for us to discover what we care about because the native building material of the Web is in fact what we find mutually interesting.


Read both these articles. They are important contributions to understanding the Web We Want.

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September 4, 2013

Guess who lost the right to complain about Yelp reviews?

Yeah, I’m talking to you Scrub-a-dub.

ScrubADub offering 50% off if you like them on Facebook

Way to corrupt the system.

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April 20, 2013

Subverting ads

I’m a sucker for ads that comment on the dishonesty of ads. For example, I laughed at this one from Newcastle Brown Ale:

I also really liked this one as well:

I do have a duck-rabbit disagreement with Piper Hoffman’s reading of it at BlogHer. I took the ad as a direct comment on the sexism of beer ads: if you’re not an attractive woman, beer companies won’t include you. But Piper raises an interesting point. [SPOILER ALERT] She’s right that if the pronoun had been “she,” the point would have been less ambiguous. But it also would have been a bit crueler, since the ad would have had Newcastle calling their brewmistress unattractive, and it also could have been taken as Newcastle agreeing that only attractive women should ever be shown on in an ad.

While I enjoy a meta-ad like this (at least as I take it), I also feel a bit meta-fooled: What does that have to do with whether their beer is any good? I’m not looking to be friends with a beer.

I get more enjoyment from viewers subverting ads. For example, I saw an ad for KFC about some new boneless chicken product.

I wasn’t paying attention, in part because it was a commercial, and in part because I haven’t eaten anything from KFC since I became a vegetarian 1979 but I have not forgotten the sensation of eating chicken that’s been so close to liquefied that it’s held together only by a layer of deep-fried cholesterol. But I saw the hashtag #iAteTheBones and checked it out on Twitter.

Bunches of the tweets praise the commercial as amusing. (It was directed by David O.Russell, who also directed the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.) But prominent in the list is this:

Well, not as far as I can tell. But the tweet made me look.

And a heavily-favorited tweet is quite savage:

Someone in the KFC Marketing Department has already written an email to senior management explaining why this is a good thing for KFC. But, um, it’s not.

Neither is this:

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May 6, 2010

Google’s videoadprmeme

Google’s video showing how quickly Chrome paints the screen is a good example of the lines blurring between advertisements, memes, and PR. It’s informative (including a making-of video), convincing, and totally geeky in the MythBusters blowing-sh_t-up way. And beneath its shambling nerdiness, there’s some damn fine direction and production values.

It’s an ad I watched voluntarily, which makes it hardly like an ad at all.


[A few minutes later] If I’m going to tout that Google vid, then I definitely need to push this amazing, non-commercial piece of footage about nature, numbers, and geometry.


January 19, 2010

Flash cookies know where you’ve been

I had not heard of Flash cookies until Fernando Bermejo’s Berkman talk last week. Now he’s inaugurated his new blog (well, it’s his second post) with a posting about a new study. Fernando writes:

the white paper concludes “that companies making inappropriate or irresponsible use of the Flash technology are very likely asking for trouble (and potentially putting the rest of the online industry at risk of additional government regulation)”. As for [end users], flash cookies are characterized as “super-cookies which are dramatically more resilient than cookies due to their implementation and a general lack of knowledge about their existence among consumer”.

To remove Flash cookies – which have some peacetime uses – go here.


January 12, 2010

[berkman] Fernando Bermejo on measuring advertising

Fernando Bermejo is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk titled “Mapping Online Advertising: From Anxiety to Method.” He says that people sometimes hear that he researches advertising and assume t)hat he works for advertisers and wants to improve advertising. In fact, his interests are scholarly. He’s going to talk about the dynamics and logic of online advertising. (The subtitle of his talk is a reference to Devereaux.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He begins with the John Wanamaker (1838-1922) quote: “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wastsed. The trougle is, I don’t know which half.”: It’s the most repeated sentence in advertising, although FB notes that it might be apocryphal. It manifests anxiety. In 1923, people were urging advertising to become a science. From anxiety to method. And that repeats online where there’s anxiety about online ads failing, and a growing desire for a reliable method.

FB explains that anxiety is a free-floating fear with no particular trigger. In this case, anxiety arises from the growth of the gift economy (= peer production) and the pay model. The traditional ad model is advertisers <> media <> audiences, but that doesn’t capture all the complexity. We need to insert “products and services,” since the aim of the ad is to get people to purchase those products and services. Audiences may see the ad but not make the purchase. Hence anxiety.

The method, FB says, is: Collect info. Metrics. Targeting. Have the right context. Price. Funnel.

Collecting info: Online, every interaction can be recorded, but those are discrete events. Advertisers need to figure out ID or profile. Cookies are one approach. FB points out that most people don’t know that Flash sets cookies also. 54 of the top 100 sites use Flash cookies, but only 4 mention it in their privacy policy — Soltani et al, 2009. When you opt out of cookies on a set, your Flash cookies generally are preserved. Another study (Kryshnamurthy & Willis 2009): “Our results show increasing aggregation of user-related data by a steadily decrteasing number of entities.”

Metrics: It takes an idea from the press (page) and broadcast (time) and calls it a “visit.” This seems to FB not to be very apt since you’re not on a site continuously necessarily. People also measure “engagement,” but that’s very hard to measure. He shows a complex mathematical function that seems somewhat silly.

Targeting: It has gone from audiences to highly granular “targets.” Advertisers have used demographics for a long time, as well as looking at the content consumed. But ther’s also content produced (e.g., search keywords) and behavior.

Having the right context: Previously, an advertiser was confident the context of the ad wouldn’t be weird because the TV station of magazine was professional, etc. . Now, online advertisers produce content specifically for advertising (e.g., Demand Media), and want to control user-generated content.

Pricing: It used to be CPM (cost per million). Online, CPM is 38%, but performance-based pricing is 58%, including cost per click or cost per lead/purchase. Obviously, the content producers don’t like this because you can produce audiences to sell, and then it’s up to the advertiser to do an appealing ad.

Funneling: You can show people your ads, but you can’t make them take action. There are ways to funnel people toward a purchase. Branding is important because the worst result of an ad is that it stimulates a purchase but of a competitor’s product. There’s also tracking and re-targeting: If a visitor sees your ad but goes to another site, they’re shown an ad reminding them to buy. Another movement: Funneling used to be just about impossible: After showing you the ad, the advertiser had no idea what you went and did. Now customers can be put into more controllable environments, especially the mobile Net. (Google and Apple have both bost companies in the “mobile intelligence” area, FB says.)

The consequences of these are diffuse. Collecting info means that companies want to collect more and more info. Metrics: Advertisers are uncomfortable with that which cannot be precisely measured, so they prefer search engines to social media. Generating the context means that the advertisers prefers certain environments and shapes context. PRice: Adverteiser tries to reduce risk by asking others to assume it. Funneling: Adverister tires to be more intensive and extended. [Missed one. Sorry.]

Broader consequences: Privacy issues makes advertisers play a cat and mouse game. Search engine advertising disintermediates the content producers, and to generate behavioral info the content producers need to provide their info to cross-company entities. [I missed his point about structure.]

The online content layer can only be explained through the logic of gift, of pay, and of advertising. We need to learn more about advertising

Q: [doc] Is advertising a bubble? Are we too dependent on Google which is 100% dependent on advertising?
A: So long as we think advertising has an effect, it has consequences.

Q: [carolina] Are we back to anxiety?
A: Yes. After all the method, we’re back to anxiety. There’s always a source of anxiety because the final goal is perfect control, and that’s not possible. [Note: FB is not advocating perfect control!]

Q: There are networks of ads, with many hops between the site and the advertiser. That makes tracking even harder. Why do we demand less anxiety online? Why not just put your message out there?
A: Because there’s the possibility of having more accountability. The audience measurement industry is somewhere between making it up and measuring it exactly. We have a need to believe there’s something tangible and real there.

Q: The old way of measuring success was just to put your ad on TV and see if sales increase. Does that still work?
A: There was never proof that advertising works. It may shift people from one brand to another but not increase consumption. The online evidence isn’t very clear or reliable.

Q: E.g., affiliate marketing offloads the risk onto the affiliates. Not everyone who embraces risk is anxious.

Q: Ads are not under the announced privacy policy of the site they’re on.

Q: [me] Couldn’t we say that the new models are the end of anxiety about advertising? You know what you’re paying for (pay per click, etc.) and there’s a market mechanism (auctions) that leads toward semi-rational pricing.
A: You still have to worry that people would have bought it anyway.

Q: [salil] If there’s a fixed budget for advertising, and if they optimize for, say, the number of clicks, then everything’s a science. But there are still two choices that are anxiety making: How much of the budget should be spent on ads? And how does that final metric translate into increase in revenue.
A: Yes. If people click on the ad mean that they’re more interested, does it mean you’ll get more purchases, etc.
Q: Long tail advertisers maybe should have less anxiety because they can more easily correlate ads and sales.
Q: [rob] And there are short term blips that can be tied to advertisements.
A: Yes. It can be very different for different types of products.

Q: [jason] Death of brands?
A: Context-dependent. Brands will continue to be important.
Q: [judith] Efficiency is great for consumers — we’ll just buy what we want to buy. But it seems like a huge part of the ad industry is aimed at creating desires. Is there a way of giving people a measure of how free the Web is not? How much are we paying for our content through unnecessary consumption?
A: These are core issues. Is advertising just about informing people or about stimulating desire? Those two things can co-exist.
Q: [judith] You can pay for content by getting people to buy stuff, but they won’t pay for the content they’re there to read.
A: I’ve tried to stay away from the culture impact of advertising in this talk. Perhaps another talk …

[Posted without re-reading.]


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