Internet Advertising

"I am not a number, I am a free man!" That was the cry of The Prisoner in the 1960's TV show. I grew up in the 60s and 70s. I remember long philosophical discussions on the numbering of people and the changes computers were bringing to society. We were all going to loose our identity by getting assigned numbers. Banks won't know who we really are. The evil Government would track us by numbers and know what we were up to. We would start addressing ourselves by numbers and our names would become irrelevant. "Good morning 4582995, sleep well?" says the morning computer voice. But somehow the fight for selfness seemed at a grass roots level. We were holding off the first wave of a multi generational battle we knew we would lose, or our great grandchildren would lose. But we were wrong and the battle was lost in a few short years. Advance just 30 years, I am never carded, I am "over 30" and definitely not to be trusted. I don't buy my children toy guns. And I am a number.

The worst part is we did it to ourselves. It was not the Government or some all powerful multi national corporation, or some evil aliens brainwashing us to oblivion. I have seen the enemy and he is us! It was us, and the Internet. The Internet opened the world to us and at the same time opened us to the world. So we cruise the web under assumed names as protection. "Good morning Archangel4582995, sleep well?" And with a lack of identity we do more and go places we would never admit in public. No you say? OK, how may of you have visited a web site you never would have visited if anyone actually saw you?

So we travel the world in front of our computer screens as RedDragon2343 and don't worry about who sees us. But we do worry. The privacy battle has moved to the Internet. Even as RedDragon2343 we don't want anyone to know our habits, which sites we visit or what we buy. Why not? Could we not simply check out all the naughty sites and then change to Titaniclover89456 next week? I think the key in our minds we established a feeling of anonymity on the web and fear it may be taken away or worse, being found out. How would our web surfing habits change if we knew we were being watched?

Let me break it to your gently, we are being watched. The nature of the Internet allows people to track our moves and note things about us. The advertising industry didn't let this one slip by nor did your ISP. Information is money and where there is money there are sales. Everybody is watching including your trusted ISP and every site you visit. Those little hit counter thingies pull a lot of info every time you record a hit. I have a small hobby site with a free hit counter. All I really want to know is how many people visit my site. But the report I get shows number of hits, your operating system, country, browser, time of day, host ISP, how you found my site, your screen resolution, and type of ISP (com, net, org). This is the free version. I can't imagine what I get if I pay. This "free" hit counter company is taking your information from me and selling it. At least it is free to me.

I know from personal experience my ISP records a lot of data on me. My brother told me they track every keystroke but I would think that is too much user data to parse. When I first signed up for the service I entered my profile information into a preferences screen. Two days later I was getting 50 e-mails a day soliciting hardcore sex sites. It took me about a month to figure out how I was getting on these lists. I had simply identified myself as "male" on the profile screen. I removed the M/F box and checked "declined". The solicitations went down to about 5 per week. So the ad agencies must have some scanning system to check our profiles. I also know that the last time I cleaned out my "Internet Temporary Files" folder in Windows I found about 150 advertising company cookies (files that track and store info for web sites). So, at least 150 companies have been following me around.

This is becoming a big fight and many people are upset that we are being watched and who is getting what information. I have been thinking about this for a while and have decided I want them to get BETTER information on me. Really! I cannot remember the last time I clicked on any ad or banner. I just never see anything that interests me. Yet I have hobbies and sports and needs just like everyone else. I buy over the Internet regularly. If 150 companies have been tracking my every mouse click to carefully profile me, why do I only get ads for items I don't need: Credit cards, secret cameras, casinos. These people clearly do not know anything about me. The credit cards I can understand as I do buy on the Internet using a credit card. Casinos? Where did that come from? What about those secret cameras? The ad text talks about security and watching your kids, but the picture always shows some scantly clad babe in a cozy position with legs slightly apart. What are we selling here guys?

Another thing I don't understand about Internet advertising is why I would be inclined to click on an ad which forces itself upon me? These are the windows that pop up all over the place when you visit some site. Sometimes a new window comes up as I close the first ad window. I visited one site that opened about ten ad windows and then opened a new window every time I closed the first. It took me about a minute to get it all cleaned up. Whoever thought of this should be forced to drive a Yugo. If I don't want the product in the first ad, why would anyone think I would want it in a second or third. And why would I want to do business with a company that forces me to clean up my computer every time I go to their site? Is someone in an office somewhere really thinking; "let's force the ad ten times just in case they change their mind." Well, I have changed my mind, now I REALLY don't want your product. My guess is that some poor guy promised the advertiser he would get his ad in front of a million or so "eyes" per day. His site is not pulling the million per day so he has to hit the same eyes ten times to make up the difference. Then if we accidentally click on the ad while trying to close it, he advertiser thinks the poor slob is doing his job. is one company who is up front about trying to figure us out. They really want to anticipate our needs and I sometimes head over there when I need a good laugh. "We have recommendations, Mr. Smith." OK, lets see what you came up with this week. Original Star Trek volume 254, Spock loses his virginity. I don't remember that one. Charlotte Church; I will never buy this CD or anything by Ms. Church. Next: Charlotte Church Christmas. And on through the entire Church catalog. This happens again with Chet Baker (whom I like but have enough of his recordings). Thomas the Tank Engine's Christmas - in August! (my kids are in middle school). Then Eva Cassidy; a hit! But I bought it from Amazon two months ago and now have her entire catalog. Then the Three Tenors catalog - never happen. The best of Roy Orbison: is that the guy with the thick shades? I click on the buttons for "I own it" or "not interested" and watch for the next set of choices. They don't seem to understand that if I click "not interested on say, five titles by one artist, I am not interested in any of their work. But at least they are trying. What they need are a couple more buttons; "I like this group but will not be buying more albums" and "I will never buy an album by this person". This would speed things up. It takes time but at some point I do begin to see interesting titles. I can also lie a little and tell them I own some items even if I don't to get them pointed in the right direction. But the next time I logon the computer seems to have forgotten my preferences (but remembers my wish list). I suspect the IT guys had a really good algorithm going and the marketing guys told them they better add the slow sellers and high profit margin items.

The odd thing about Amazon is that they already have a lot of info on me they seem to ignore. They run a movie database called where you can rate film and see the list of films you have rated. So I have a list of about 500 films I have rated from 1 (very poor) to 10 (loved it). Yet Amazon cannot seem to raid this information to help determine my film likes and dislikes. "We have recommendations, Mr. Smith" still seems to be shooting in the dark. The key here is that some day Amazon and a lot of other ad companies will figure out how to interpret this information and even join forces to use it. For now we waddle through the mud. There has to be better options. If ad companies could agree not to misuse it, I would use buttons like Amazon's that say; "I have no interest in this" or "love it". They will have solid information on me of what I don't like. I would even fill out a profile sheet so you can have real information. Not that I want ads all over the place, but I understand America has left their TVs for the computer and advertising companies have to do something with all the McDonalds money.

But then there is the ad presentation. I cannot tell why I don't mind sitting in front of the TV and watching a stupid Sprint or car commercial for the thousandth time but go nuts when Internet ads pop up. Perhaps it has some thing to do with a study a year or so ago where scientist found that our minds "turn off" when we watch TV and "Turn on" when we play video games. I think the same is true of the Internet that our minds are "on". So Internet ads seem offensive while on TV they just roll by. Whatever the problem, clearly the advertising companies are not hitting the mark. They are working with the wrong assumptions and have not caught on to the Internet medium. The model for advertising in the past has been passive in that it is just sort of there and we read it or ignore it. With magazines, we have learned to page through the ads while finding our articles. Both TV and magazine advertising feel passive. But Internet advertising interrupts, and the advertisers have to learn how (or train us) to accept Internet ads as they did with TV and print.

I think the problem lies in the lacuna between the technical and marketing groups. From a technical standpoint the Internet merges the TV and print mediums. Advertisers can do all sorts of animations and pop-up windows like on TV but Internet users are in a magazine state of mind. So advertisers are either not getting the Internet user's attention or in many cases simply annoy. This must be difficult for the marketers and a hard pill for the techies to swallow. We surf the Internet with in a magazine state of mind and the advertisers have a TV delivery mechanism. What tech would not jump at the chance to build cool and tricky ad that moves and changes and animates? Today, many of the site builders are also the marketing managers and the sales managers. So they sell the technical extravaganzas. They don't know how marketing really works and how to deliver ads.

This problem is compounded because the people with the big ad money are mostly still on the sidelines. They have not seen the revenue impact yet. The few that are dabbling on the net have the advantage of low-balling the page providers and forcing them to come up with results. The techs get sunk by their own tracking technology, if they cannot show results they don't get paid and the advertisers know they have the technology to track results. This is a very different model from TV where the ads roll by and TV stations get paid by number of viewers. TV has no mechanism to check if the ad was watched. The Internet does. So the advertisers demand tracking.

The lack of success has kept most mainstream advertisers in the tired and true mediums leaving the Internet with, well, other Internet companies. How often do we see Coke, Pepsi, car, beer, fast food, or TV show ads on the Internet? Almost never. Those companies ran the numbers and know the payback is not there yet. But they must also know there are twenty million American eyes on computer screens every night and those eyes are not seeing Pepsi. So again, once the delivery mechanism is figured out we will see a big jump in ad spending. Until then, Internet companies will continue to struggle with the second tier advertisers.

Once this all comes together we will have a better world. I won't be driven crazy by pop-up ads, I will see ads for things I want and telemarketers will never call my home again. Everyone will understand which new products I may buy and which I will differ until the price comes down. They will know my hobbies and which wines I drink and that I will never buy Zima again. When the advertisers get good information on me and can deliver meaning full ads, I will be happy. And I will help them get there.

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Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2003 Return to