Sunday, June 24, 2012

Vague & Vacuous

I was out running errands the other day and while on the way back to my car I noticed a political bumper sticker. It was for some candidate for Congress, but what grabbed my attention was the tagline.

"Less Government. More Prosperity."

My first thought was that it was obviously a Republican. My second was that this was just the kind of stupid drivel that we've come to expect from our elections. Fourth grade level, useless bullet points that grab voters' attention, yet are absolutely without substance.

"Less Government" is one of those lines that is a conservative staple. It fits the narrative that the government, especially the federal government, is only good at wasting money. Like most catchy political phrases, it strikes its target audience as clear and concise, yet is actually uselessly vague. What the hell does that phrase even mean, anyway? What do you want less of? It's real easy to moan about the evils of government and how bad it is, but when you start to really pin things down, it becomes surprisingly complicated. Well, we can't get rid of the military. If nothing else, it's one of the few categories where America still holds the top spot! Not to mention that it's undeniable that we all "support the troops." Not enough to take care of them when they come home, sometimes badly wounded, or to stop sending them off for deployment after deployment in locations most Americans couldn't care less about, but we'll elbow each other in the ribs to buy them a beer! And, of course, politicians can't call for a reduction without risking being labeled as weak. So the Pentagon is safe.

How about those fascists at the EPA or FDA, with their fixation on keeping our food, air and water at least reasonably safe? I think we can all agree that we need less testing of new drugs or regulations on what chemicals can be dumped in our rivers, right? Anyone? Okay, hmmm. I got it, Medicare! Do we really want to waste money on healthcare for the elderly? They've been here a while, isn't it time to spend on ourselves instead? Okay, maybe not. National Park Service, maybe? They're all just tree hugging socialists, anyway. Then again, it might be nice to have a few areas that can't be used for mining, shopping malls or another Marriott. I guess "less government" isn't so clear a dictate when looked at in detail.

What about "More Prosperity"? Now that is something we can agree on, eh? Hell, yes! I demand more prosperity! It's time we marched out there and let our politicians know that we won't stand for the current level of prosperity any longer. They just need to fix that. You know, just . . . you know, get out there and . . .  fix it! How? Uh, well . . . (crickets chirp happily in the distance). To be blunt, "more prosperity" is about as ignorant as McCain's "Country First" slogan from '08. As if anyone ever called for country second or less prosperity! Slogans like this should be taken almost as seriously as those ads for magic diet pills that melt the fat right off while you watch TV. And yet, there they are, plastered everywhere as if they were universal truths.

But what is so infuriating is that empty platitudes like these actually seem to work! Come on people, wake up. Our political system has degenerated to the point where our politicians are beginning to feel comfortable uttering easily disprovable, bald faced lies on national television. Not just exaggerating or stretching things, but actually declaring in bold language the political equivalent of 2+2=5! And they get uproarious applause. Why? Because they are telling their supporters exactly what they want to hear. And politicians have learned that reinforcing our own prejudices, misconceptions and fears is way easier and more effective than telling the truth.  The truth can be inconvenient and data has an annoying habit of not fitting a canned narrative, but lies fit every single time.

Much of the blame for this state of affairs lays at the feet of the media. In the olden days of TV news, it was just the three major networks and their news departments were not there to make money. Actually they weren't expected to be profitable. They were more in the way of a public service. Now we have news and comment oozing out of every TV, newspaper, computer, tablet and phone without end, but it's all about selling ad space. It's all about entertainment and making the viewers feel better about themselves so they'll buy more product. Each political party picks their preferred outlets and pundits, then ignores everyone else. A grand echo chamber, where nobody is asked tough questions because everyone involved is on the same team. If not politically so, then at least they are teamed up in feeding their viewers acceptable ideas that won't upset them. Instead of pointing out the facts, allowing us to decide based on objective data, it's about keeping the viewers happy and thus the sponsors happy. We can't even agree on the basic facts any more, so I can't imagine how we can ever work together to solve the very real and pressing problems we face.

The bottom line is that we aren't really as far apart as it usually seems. If we could dispense with the easy slogans and let go of our reflexive hatred, I think Americans of all views could make this work. But we are not just fighting our own habitual responses. It's also a struggle against all the forces out there that benefit from the conflict. The media that is trying to sell ad space. Those in positions of influence who are more focused on their own personal or business success rather than the overall success of the nation. And also the politicians whose overriding concern is reelection and keeping their donors happy. What's the solution? Question those you support as well as those you oppose. Listen to both sides, even when you don't want to. If someone you like says something that seems at all odd, look into it. Even if you generally trust a certain source of information, that doesn't mean they are always right or that they don't have an agenda. The one way we can pull out of this partisan nose-dive is for people on both sides to call out the lunacy in their own party. Stupid is still stupid, no matter who says it or what channel it's on.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Too Much Ad'ing

I've just about had it with online ads. I realize that it's the only way for a lot of websites to make money and it's certainly the only reason a social networking site like Facebook is supposedly worth enough to create an IPO feeding frenzy. I'm not complaining about ads in general as they are necessary and, once in a blue moon, even useful. But the madness has to stop! There are only so many places to post, staple, tape or bury ads while still maintaining a page's basic usefulness. I think we've now passed that point of sanity and moved into the land of marketing chaos.

I remember the first moment things were getting out of control. I'm sitting there, reading a post somewhere about something and, like everyone who spends a lot of time online, I'm quick to notice hyperlinks. So, there I am, reading along and I notice a blue, underlined word and out of reflex I hover the pointer over it, intending to see what the link points to. Before I can even think about actually clicking it, a big window pops up with some advertisement that vaguely relates to the highlighted word! Only afterwards did I notice the double-underline that seems to denote these 'ad mines' that are deployed all over the place nowadays.  Next came the 'mouse trap' ads that lurk innocently along the margins just waiting for an unwary mouse pointer to wander close and then they pounce, opening up a big, expanded ad across a third of the web page. These also took me by surprise the first time. It only takes a little sloppy mouse work in the wrong place to yank you out of whatever you were doing. Sometimes you're lucky and the ad will snap back when you drag your pointer back to neutral ground, but often you have to find the ghostly little 'X' in one corner or the other of the ad to make it go away. So now, not only do I have to avoid passing the pointer over double underlined words scattered throughout most of the articles I read, but I also have to carefully circumnavigate the entire ad section to avoid accidentally tripping one of them as well. Makes for a pleasant reading experience, as you can imagine.

But that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg! It's no longer unusual for a page to contain ads with embedded movies. And not just movies you can choose to play if you happen to be interested in the product. I'm talking movies that just autostart as soon as the page loads. At least so far, most run without sound unless you click on it. Thank Gaia for small favors! But some just start blaring away at whatever volume your computer happens to be set to. Or maybe, as I've run into recently, the page loads normally, but after a second it darkens and a movie will open in the middle of the page and start playing.  In some cases you can't even close the ad till it plays a certain length of time, thus holding the contents of the page hostage. Once you get to the page though, it's still not clear sailing. Huffington Post, for example, has a really annoying ad strategy. Sporadically they will have a huge banner across the very top of the page, usually for something like a big movie opening. So far so good, as you can just scroll down and go about your business. But not so fast!  Just about the time you see an article you might want to read . . . presto, the ad retracts and the entire page slides upwards, taking what you were reading with it. That one is particularly infuriating and I've gotten so I just let the page load and wait 30 seconds or so till all the shifting is done before actually looking at anything. It's a stupid way to do it, as it just annoys people which is not generally a good marketing tool.

Even if you avoid the movies, mouse traps, ad mines and timed animations, the advertisers have still more tricks for you. In recent years I've seen more of the in-line, stealth ads sneaking in. As odd as it may sound to combine 'stealth' and 'ad' in the same description, it fits. These ads are carefully placed throughout the text of the article and sometimes even look, at a glance anyway, like they are part of it.  There will be an extra line or two and a very low key 'sponsor' note, but usually not enough to be obvious till you start to read it and wonder why the article on Greece's money troubles seems to now be advising you on mortgage opportunities! Imagine reading Moby Dick only to stumble over ads for Holland America cruises and you get the idea.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of marketing tricks to be found in the wild, but they are some of the most invasive. And with the rise of Google and Facebook, among others, the ads we see are eerily targeted. I did some searches six months ago or so, for a laptop bag and I still see ads from one of the companies I visited popping up on all sorts of pages now. Sure I could clear all the browser cookies and probably give my stalkers the slip, briefly at least, but I find it annoying that I have to. I also find it annoying how long page load times have gotten for some sites due to the dozens of highly visual ads that frame, and sometimes infiltrate, the articles themselves. Some of these pages are, graphically speaking, 95% ads or more!

One other thing the online ad onslaught has brought us is 'click bait'. Articles that either exist almost entirely as a lure for readers or pages that are crafted so the article takes up the maximum amount of pages. The most obvious form of the lure strategy is to use an title that is usually somewhat, if not wildly misleading. We've all seen a title that grabbed us only to find out that it had little bearing on the actual story. But it got you to click on it, so the advertising god was appeased. The other appeasement trick is to create slide show 'articles' where you usually have a picture and maybe a short paragraph of text on each page. This often manifests in things like 'The Top 10 . . .' or '5 Ways to a better . . .' and other similar variations. More often than not you'll find these lists to be generally brainless. Filled with either obvious or highly subjective and inflammatory information. In any case, you are unlikely to get anything of substance from them. The web site itself however, will rack up huge number of page hits and thus, making itself look like a great place to advertise!

As I said, I know we can't get away from relying on ad revenues to fund our online world, but is it too much to ask to back it down to sane levels? I keep trying to imagine what things would be like if we applied the current online marketing strategies to our everyday lives. Imagine sidewalks, where every square was an advertising tile that lit up with targeted ads as you stepped on them. Imagine phone calls with brief pauses in conversation so we could hear a word from our sponsors based on the current topic of discussion. Imagine TV shows where the characters turn to the camera unexpectedly to extol the virtues of the new Subaru WRX they just bought. Wait a sec! That one I've already seen. The SciFi, er . . . I mean SyFy channel tried that a few years ago with their original series Eureka. It was a horrible thing to see, and they seemed to realize that quickly as the practice ceased after a few episodes. The point is that I think we've already hit the saturation point with online ads. I regularly find myself thinking, "I will NEVER buy anything from this company", after encountering some of the more egregious marketing traps. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is reticent to click ads at all. I mean, who wants to be stalked by some company you were vaguely curious about for ten seconds one day? Who wants to encourage strategies that annoy the hell out of you? The marketing brain trust needs to remember that there is a fine line between enticing us with products and just generally pissing us off.