Sunday 22 September 2013

Death of a Madman

The modern age of Google-based advertising promises to be a very dreary affair. Google has spent so long farming our online habits with analysts pouring over their every nuance that they know more about what makes us tick than we do ourselves. Let’s not just demonise Google, everyone is in the business of data mining now, Facebook, linkedin, Amazon anyone who has a click to be clicked, a date to be marked, a friend to be made is interested in your choices. Kinda makes cookies lose their sweetness, eh?  Those who track our online trawling have such a well-rounded profile of all our habits and weaknesses they only need to produce a handful of clickable images to trap all of us to such a high degree of accuracy. This is the science of conversion rates.

Advertising is not just about getting product off the supermarket shelves, it has become an art form in itself. This is a fact that was never lost on Andy Warhol who embraced its pop aesthetic. It amazes and delights in equal measure and all our childhoods are punctuated by its jingles and characters. Advertisers used every trick they could to become our friends then sell us a chocolate bar. We all remember the Jolly green giant, Ronald McDonald, The Michelin man, Tony the tiger the list goes on and on but they all have one thing in common; they entertained. It was almost a fair exchange, they taught us to sing and we bought their fizz. 

Goodbye orange head man
  • roller skating tampon ads
  • “Where’s the beef?”
  • The Marlboro man
  • Coke at Christmas

But, like art, great is random.

Great buildings were built with vision and arrogance but not much efficiency. The pyramids took years and thousands of slaves, Gaudi died in abject poverty building the Sagrada Família. 

Great movies were made with arrogance and passion; blockbusters, on the other hand, were made with Tom Cruise.

Advertising, despite being focus-grouped, demographically adjusted with broad spectrum appeal has often managed to be shocking, catchy, sexy and funny and even socially pertinent.

In the beginning online advertising was much the same as offline, ubiquitous banners, unending spam and even TV-style video adverts on some sites. Now, however, the advertisers have a more insidious tool at their disposal; personal online data. Your web surfing behaviour is being monitored, not by the NSA, well maybe them as well, but the marketeers are profiling you. They know the probabilities of you clicking on a cute kitten or a pair of boobs, they know which words are likely to get a reaction and the technology can do this autonomously, morphing into the most effective bait. Peer pressure is one of their methods. Facebook tells you when your 'friend' 'likes' something, 4square tells you when a 'friend' goes somewhere, Amazon tells you what other people are buying.

This is just the beginning, now technology exists that allows offline surveillance to work with mobile technology to give you the messages you need just at the right time. Just imagine, you are near a certain supermarket when your android shopping list reminds you that you need milk and fish fingers and sends you suggestions of the brands that are on offer at the time. Very effective but hardly art, hardly memorable. 
The pioneering madmen of the twentieth century have had their day and with them goes their art. The big web players are working on such economies of scale that traditional advertising cannot compete. Newspapers are slowly going behind paywalls because they can't make it on advertising revenues and the glossy magazines will follow. The game is quantity over quality and the price will be dear and I, for one, will miss them.  

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