We are not fish and advertising is not food

This is how the Internet looks to the advertising business today:

This is how they approach it:

And this is the result:

Fred Wilson calls that result “data pollution.” (See here, starting at about 23 minutes in.)

What’s wrong with this view, and this approach, is the architectural assumption that:

  1. We are consumers and nothing more. Fish in a bowl.
  2. The Net — and the Web especially — is a container.
  3. Advertisers have a right to target us in that container. And to track us so we can be targeted.
  4. Negative externalities, such as the miseries we suffer as a consequence, hardly matter.
  5. This can all be rationalized as an economic necessity.

Yet here is what remains true, regardless of the prevailing assumptions of the marketing world:

  1. We are not fish. Rather, as Cluetrain put it (in 1999!), we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.
  2. The Net was designed as a wide open space where all the intelligence that matters is at its ends, and each of us sits (stands, walks, drives) at one.
  3. Even if advertisers have a legal right to target us, their manners are terrible and doomed for correction.
  4. Negative externalities matter. A lot. As Fred said in his talk, we eventually dealt with the pollution caused by industry, and we’ll deal with it in the virutal world as well.
  5. The larger economic necessity is for a well-functioning marketplace. We’ll get that online once free customers prove more valuable than captive ones.
  6. The ad industry is bullshitting itself if it thinks it alone can solve the “problem” of ad blocking, which is a clear solution for the humans they treat like fish.

How do we re-align marketing with the human realities of the marketplace? Easy: by replicating online the experience of operating as free and independent customers in the physical world.

For example, when you go into a store, your default state is anonymous. Unless you are already known by name to the people at the store, you are nameless by default. This is a civic grace. There is no need to know everybody by name, and doing so might actually slow things down and make the world strange and creepy. (Ask anybody who has lived in a surveillance state, such as East Germany before it fell, what it is like to be followed, or to know you might be followed, all the time.) We haven’t yet invented ways to be anonymous online, or to control one’s anonymity. But that’s a challenge, isn’t it? Meaning it is also a market opportunity.

We’ve lived in a fishbowl long enough. Time to get human. I guarantee there’s a lot more money coming from human beings than from fish whose only utterances are clicks.


The original version of this post was published at customercommons.org on January 23, 2014.

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