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For Sale: My Opinion (And…That's Not All)

Back about ten or fifteen years ago, when I suffered an irrational fear that the forces of corporate marketing were trying to subvert my mind, I proposed the creation of a new marketing service called "Integrity for Sale." Our slogan would be, "We Don't Sell Out To Just Anybody—You Gotta Meet Our Price." How was that for sardonic sarcastic satire, eh?

We all know, of course, how far we've come in ten or fifteen years. The fear I suffer is no longer irrational. Worse, for anyone with a product to sell, I no longer suffer it in isolation.

Family togetherness on a bus-stop bench-how could they be closer to an advertiser's message? (Photos by Don Sutherland) "A product is judged by the company it keeps, best seen accompanying glamour"- Jack Gilbert, I think.

Practically every surface large enough to hang a broadsheet is today covered with persuasion. The traditional rooftop billboard and car-card in the urban landscape has expanded —place your ad on the bench in the bus stop, in a frame on the enclosure, on the doors of taxis, anywhere you want to be seen. Some cabs even have commercials on TV monitors facing the back seat.

I've just returned from New Orleans, where a poster headlined "Find your Niche" appears on the side of a municipal trashbin. It exhorts the passerby to advertise on trashbins too (and at least one restaurant, depicting a big plate of fried eggs sunny side up, already does). Las Vegas has offered your-name-on-a-can services for years, and in New York they're discussing it.

Anyone who pays good money to link his or her name with garbage just so they can get your attention, must really want your attention.

With the physical world filling up, the overflow has turned virtual. Has there ever been such a pastiche of promotion as the internet? Those who pay AOL for e-mail service find paid advertising on their e-mailboxes, anyway. Log-on to the Symantic website to confirm if they really sent you this Redirect Patch as part of your subscription, you'll find a hundred new products to buy and no way to answer your question. Interspersed among articles on The New York Times website describing how the public deplores pop-up and animated advertising, the site itself presents a volcano of pop-up and animated advertising.

And Now a Word From…

"Thank you for writing to us about the animated ads," states an e-mail received by a New York Times reader, bearing the name of Martin Nisenholtz CEO, New York Times Digital. "The position we are in is one of drawing a balance between the advertiser's need to gain attention and our readers' desires to get to our news articles and features quickly and efficiently (and at no charge, I might add.)."

The reader wrote in reply, "The advertiser's need to gain attention should not be so hard to fulfill on a page otherwise covered in the stark, motionless typography of The New York Times. Gaining attention does not require annoying and disruptive commotion. A good-looking layout, a captivating headline and to-the-point text are hardly lost on a web page, and they obviate the need to weary the eye with pointless motion that makes reading the article difficult." To PTN he commented, "Mr. Nisenholtz seems to have missed my point. I wrote to complain not about their running ads, but about ads in a form that made me hate the advertisers for inflicting them on me."

"Additionally," continued the e-mail bearing Mr. Nisenholtz's name, "while you might be amenable to paying directly for our Web site, not all Internet readers are willing to pay for content online."

"At first I thought he was being sarcastic," writes the reader, "as I am clearly not amenable to paying for the Web site. The advertising already pays for it, whether Flash, Pop-up, or a good old-fashioned static display. That was his second reference to the site being free, and I thought he was being plain snotty—‘You're not paying for it,' he seemed to be saying ‘so we can poke you in the eye with a stick and who are you to complain?' But I read the rest of the e-mail, and figured it's just that his autoresponder needs work."

Autoresponders have been big business in the communications age. Most of us first encountered them on the telephone, as the automated answering system that begins, "If you know your party's extension… "whose company directory is seldom correct, and whose music, while you hold for a live operator, is awful. From those humble beginnings, systems for the internet now give canned answers whenever you click the FAQs button and, sometimes, when you send a complaint.

Old Jack Gilbert would have said, "be sure to associate the product with something the customer finds memorable."

"The system can auto-respond to certain types of mail if they use certain trigger words," according to a ZDNet review of one autoresponder. "Eventually a human operator will receive the mail and provide an answer, which will then be added to the knowledge base. The knowledge base will grow organically as more questions are answered and solved, and hopefully reduce the workload of the customer support staff, allowing them to pursue more proactive tasks."

Some employers might read "more proactive tasks" as filling-out applications at the unemployment office, if the autoresponder knowledge base grows organically enough and renders staff redundant. Until then, the organic growth proceeds by beta-testing on an inquiring public.

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PTN Dailes HERE