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Focal Plane: The Age of Overadvertising

This is the twentieth instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Use the Whine Control, left, to view other instalments.

“I’m angry,” says Rashad Counteer.

“That’s not much of a surprise,” replies Jack Nostree.

Last week, Microsoft demonstrated a number of technological advances that will permit more advertising on the Internet. This includes software that will help clients avoid putting their adverts in distasteful places, such as competitors’ sites, kids’ sites, or Britney Spears’s clothing.

But some on the Internet, like Counteer, are already running in fear, claiming that advertising will ruin everything that they have worked so hard to create.

Who is right? Is the survival of the Internet – and independent thought – at stake? Or is this just another in a long list of novel ways to get a message out to the people?

Advertisements versus content

Counteer and Nostree operate a website that discusses a broad range of topics, from bowling to online shopping. But the topic that most seems to irritate Counteer is adverts on the Internet.

The very first advert on the Internet was an E-mail signature belonging to a graduate student at Princeton University in the late 1980s; this signature encouraged readers to contact him about his side business in which he customised automobiles and motorcycles. Since then, Internet advertising has expanded by leaps and bounds, reaching as much as US$20,000,000,000 in 2007, according to some estimates. GoobNet Enterprises, Inc [which doesn’t actually exist however] neither buys nor sells Internet advertising.

On their site, Counteer repeatedly argues that advertising has ruined the Internet. Nostree, on the other hand, believes that advertising is exactly what enables small sites to gain attention and become larger sites.

One recent post on their site was a lengthy discussion between the two on the topic. Counteer stated, “So much attention has been paid to advertisements on the Internet that everyone is forgetting about its original purpose: content. The typical corporate Web site contains glossy, cheery talk about how great the company’s products are, but very little information that would really help a potential buyer.”

“Sure, plenty of companies have crappy sites,” Nostree replied. “That’s not the fault of advertising. That’s their own damn fault. Used correctly, advertising on the Internet can help people find other sources for similar products or similar information. It enhances consumer choice. What could be better than that?”

Comments posted by readers generally favour Counteer’s antiadvertising stance, but it is by no means a runaway.

Footballers’ asse$

Curiously, the same debate is taking place in real life. In European football, many countries have such lax regulations about kit adverts that teams are required to generate completely new uniforms if they qualify for the UEFA Champions League or the UEFA Cup, since these tournaments have strict uniform limitations.

Is the British approach, in which each team has one advert on the jersey’s front plus the kit manufacturer’s logo, the best way to go? Or should the footballing world follow the model preferred in much of central Europe, in which seemingly every square centimetre of kit surface is covered with adverts, even the ass?

“I think we’re headed toward more and more adverts in football, especially as it becomes a more and more lucrative industry,” says Catie Backhailier, analyst for the sporting industry. “Some make the argument that FIFA and UEFA are trying not to overwhelm fans with adverts, based on their uniform rules. However, each signs up a number of advertising partners for their major tournaments, and so their uniform rules are quite possibly more due to a desire to avoid teams wearing the logos of competitors to the tournament partners.”

The question then arises: If British clubs were permitted more adverts, would they use them? The answer was a resounding yes last season when England’s Football League began to allow additional sponsorship on the backs of shirts and shorts.

Backhailier admits that the English Premiership is presently resisting this trend but predicts, “In no more than five years, Premiership clubs will be permitted more than one sponsorship plate.”

The Evil Commercial Beam

To Ranata Parker, more insidious is the trend of directed advertising, such as in shopping districts in places like Tokyo and Singapore. In these places, individuals can have adverts sent to their mobile telephones as they pass the appropriate stores.

“That is an inexcusable infringement into people’s personal space,” Parker says. “Text messages are intended for communication between two individuals, not between an individual and a computer that’s programmed to try to sell you stuff that you don’t even want.”

Jana Demorshkhai has heard about Parker’s campaign to stamp out the “Evil Commercial Beam”, as Parker calls it. “I was in Tokyo a few months ago, and I thought it was great,” Demorshkhai, a San Francisco-based hotel examiner, says. “It wasn’t compatible with my phone, but they had readers that you could carry around. When I walked in front of a store, it would give me a list of sale items they had. I could browse through it without even having to go into the store.”

So far, it appears that directed adverts in shopping areas are on a strictly voluntary basis: one must sign up for them or carry the appropriate reader. But in the near future, it is reasonable to assume that this will no longer be the case, Parker argues.

“They’re already working on displays that will talk to you as you walk past,” Parker says. “That is definitely not opt-in advertising. That’s more like the guy who sprays perfume at everybody.”

Hyperskeptics

Back in Redmond, WA, USA, Microsoft demonstrated unusual types of advertising last week. For instance, one would find backgrounds in videos and then insert commercial logos into them. One would display ads next to a video that changed as the topics spoken in the video changed.

These schemes were the ones that prompted Counteer to declare himself angry. He announced that this forced individuals to become “hyperskeptical”, having to analyse not only what is being said but who is saying it.

Nostree countered that the Internet’s nature, in which everyone has a voice, makes this a necessity anyway.

And in New York City, Parker has a simple question.

“Where can I go to be sure that I won’t be barraged with adverts?”

In the Age of Overadvertising, seemingly nowhere.

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