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Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Pleasant Friday Dinner in Academia, vs. the Horrible Sunday Hangover

Friday night I had the pleasure of being dragged (er, accompanying) my wife to dinner at the home of one of her academic colleagues, and his family. And I'm glad I did.

Intellectually, I'm vaguely related to my wife and her colleague, from a past life. Their mandate in life, more often than not, is to analyze and critique the undue role of business in the making of public policy, in whatever jurisdiction you can name. In other cases, though, their mandate is just to engage with important ideas and pass them along to curious students.

In political science and related social sciences, even the most mainstream academics (take Robert Dahl) wound up gravitating away from their "everything's cool" positions (Dahl writing about pluralism in government and reasonably distributed power in the US in the late 1950's and early 1960's) to aforementioned "critique of the undue role of business in the making of public policy."

So that being said, I never expect these cloistered critics to give my line of work the time of day. I fully expect them to be dismissive. But when they hear more about it, they rarely are. That's because they're thoughtful enough to realize there are shades of gray. And to realize that people have to make a living.

So when my host said "ever since I heard about what you do, whenever I come across those little ads I think about you," I was pleased. But I was even more pleased when he trotted out an incredibly insightful point about how much had to be implicit and based on shared understandings between reader and writer, in those tiny little ads. His analysis was drawn right from Aristotle's Rhetoric! Flattering to have someone that well-versed put that much thought put into it!

Unfortunately, there are also lazy critics-of-everything (AdBusters, Naomi Klein in No Logo) who, rather than thinking things through, envision things like "a world without advertising." It's interesting to note that such critics fail to see that their vision is presumptuous about people's willingness to trade attention for some other good, even if you modeled the transaction in the abstract, minus current forms of compulsion. People who critique all advertising are as extreme as the anarchists who are critical about all forms of power, or hedonists who fail to accept that repressing some urges is required in order to work hard enough or calculate probabilities well enough (or do something well enough) to satisfy your need for material survival. In my judgment advertising is free commercial speech that exists in any free society, and its ideal form is "reasonable targeting". Overdo the interruption (I called it "surplus interruption" in Winning Results with Google AdWords, 2nd ed., chapter 1) and it's less than ideal, morally and perhaps practically. (Google has profited greatly from this insight.)

In short, if you disagree with my take that any free society will have advertising, you are a dangerous nut. You are a dangerous nut because you believe people can't be trusted to think for themselves. And you have little concept of what free speech is, and why businesses (not just citizens) also need to be heard.

(If, as a business, you take it too far and practice surplus interruption, you will eventually annoy me so I'll tune out -- which could affect ad rates. In a dystopian future this can cross the line into propaganda that ordinary people can't resist. We need to be vigilant about such coercion, of course. Where's the opt-out?)

So the hangover comes today in the form of a self-important scholar who posts a broad-ranging but spottily-researched analysis of digital advertising. He calls search advertising "misdirection" and lobs a few unfortunate claims out, such as implying that Google threatens companies with invisibility in search rankings if they don't pay for ads. What they are doing is quite far from that, of course. They are running a massive, efficient, and consumer-ok'd advertising auction. Companies are free to ignore it if they wish.

Occasionally, such a thoroughgoing critique of all advertising pops up out of far left field; this one appeared on TechCrunch and spurred this Danny Sullivan rant over on SEL today. As Danny says, it might be nice to have that hour of your life back spent reading, pondering, and responding to this non-starter of an argument.

I find it strangely comforting that critiques of search advertising -- which I take to be a reasonable accommodation between advertisers' interests and consumers' needs and wants -- are the harshest when they are coming from the laziest analysts. Anyone who digs a bit sees there's a bit more to the advertising field than a stain on humanity that needs to be washed away permanently by "helpful" armchair revolutionaries.

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