“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising…kill yourself.”
Those were the immortal words of Bill Hicks as he launched into a tirade about the pernicious influence of advertising on art. You can only imagine how he would feel about the steady creep of advertising in the years since his death.
While technology is an enabler of many new forms of advertising, it’s also a victim. By robbing money from engineering budgets, pushing the wrong devices into consumer hands and making gadgets into billboards, advertising is actually making technology worse.
Advertising budgets are soaring
There are a couple of problems with an increasing reliance on advertising to drive sales. First, all that money is no longer being spent on developing a better product; instead it is being spent on convincing people that this or that is a better product.
Companies outlay small fortunes to build brands that are designed to be aspirational for specific demographics. They raid their coffers in an effort to convince us that their product is best. The idea of the Internet as a great leveler and the possibility of achieving viral success with a minimal outlay are often overstated. Sure, it can work, but what really works is spending lots of money.
In the run up to this Christmas season, the tech giants are battling on multiple fronts. Smartphones, tablets, and other consumer electronics are fighting to grab that must-have gift status. An article in the Guardian on Sunday pulled together opinions from various analysts to suggest that companies like Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, Google, and Amazon are throwing more and more money at marketing departments, and the forthcoming holidays will see the biggest spending yet: $5 billion. These companies will literally spend billions to get their point across. Billions that could have been spent building a better product instead.
That ties neatly in with the second problem, which is that advertising spending has nothing to do with the best product. An inferior device can win out in the market simply because the manufacturer spent a lot more money promoting it.
HTC’s failure in the Android market while Samsung has rocketed to success clearly demonstrates this. The main difference between the two is marketing spending. And that’s just one example. Apple’s brand has obviously been carefully crafted over the years with clever advertising that has fostered a fierce loyalty among disciples. Microsoft has just begun to unleash a flurry of expensive advertising to try and build excitement for Windows 8. Budgets are climbing and product launches are spawning campaigns that are bigger than anything we’ve seen before.
Look down the line at the movie and videogame industry, and you can see piles of expensively marketed garbage. In some cases, companies spent more to advertise a movie or game than they did developing it. That can’t be a good thing, can it?
Devices as personal ad billboards
It’s not just the focus on advertising over quality that is getting out of hand. There’s also the issue of asking consumers to pay for devices that the manufacturers want to sell to advertisers as personalized, demographic-specific, billboards that we carry around and look at voluntarily. It is a long-established principle that people accept some advertising in return for something free of value to them. Content marketing is based on this idea, but the principle is being eroded. We’re now expected to pay for something that is also going to serve us ads. It’s like paying $20 for a cinema ticket and then being forced to sit through 15 minutes of gigantic adverts blasted in your face before the trailers even roll. Oh wait… they already do that.
Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablets are priced close to competitors like the Google Nexus, but subject users to nonstop advertisements as they use the devices. Amazon wasn’t going to offer an opt-out of the ads option until people complained. The company finally relented and allowed users to opt out for $15, but the option was so hard to find, our reviewer couldn’t even find it. No wonder Amazon hasn’t made it easy: How much is that advertising space worth to Amazon over the life of the product? Likely a lot more than $15. It will be interesting to see how many people take that deal, versus paying more to avoid adverts.
Social media is turning us into advertisers
The pernicious practice of passive sharing is seriously damaging social media. The great tech advance of interconnectivity made possible by sites like Facebook and Twitter is being ruined by advertising spam. Our own friends and families are turned into unwitting advertising shills serving us targeted ads thanks to no-effort, automated recommendations that come with small rewards that play to our own sense of self importance.
Is there a corner of the Internet that has yet to be filled with ads? There’s no denying that advertising has seriously impacted negatively on the online user experience. It doesn’t have to be this way. Penny Arcade asked users to pay for an ad-free site and they did.
Developments driven by advertising potential
The saddest thing is that so many people are pouring time and energy, along with money, into finding new ways to serve ads. Tech developments and features are easier to justify and sell if they have an advertising angle. Gathering as much information as possible on users to sell to advertisers seems to be an ambition for many tech companies.
From email spam and SMS marketing, through to location-based ads and augmented-reality billboards that come to life, none of this stuff really serves us. Our own expensive tech devices are selling us out. And while targeted advertising is a step up from blanket bombing, the requisite invasion of privacy to make it happen still isn’t desirable.
Focusing on finding new technology to serve ads is a horrible waste of ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. Imagine that energy turned towards improving the end user experience and creating new devices that actually serve us – the consumers.