will dance for food

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Wed 30

Advertising Next

What Max Reckons Surely advertising is the world’s most inefficient industry. Here are people who will plaster a bus with a ten-foot-high pop-out poster of a giant on the off chance it will encourage you to have your carpets cleaned.

Let’s walk through this process. For the ad to work, you must (a) notice it, (b) pay sufficient attention to absorb its message, (c) attach sufficient credibility to not immediately dismiss it, (d) retain that message until you enter a purchasing situation relevant to that product, and (e) find the message so persuasive that it alters the purchasing decision you would otherwise have made.

The chances of this are infinitesimal. And so advertising spams. It makes five hundred uninterested TV viewers sit through a 30-second spot in case one of them is in the market for a new SUV. The amazing part is that this is actually cost-effective. Advertising is a half-trillion-dollar industry that makes commercial sense even though most of its output is wasted.

Far more sensible would be if advertisers could restrict their ads to people likely to respond to them. They’d save bucketloads of money; we wouldn’t have to sit through ads for products we wouldn’t buy in a million years.

This yawning gap between the present state of the advertising industry and one that isn’t completely freaking insane means there will be change. Market segmentation has always been a big deal in marketing, but it’s getting huge. Marketers are ravenous for information about you, and they’re building immense data stores. These will enable them to tailor their messages to you—or, at least, to your market segment. In the short-term, it’ll mean more relevant ads, Google-style. Next, I think, comes more persuasive ads. That’s when they change not the product being advertised, but the message: playing up its green credentials if you’re environmentally conscious, its patriotism if you’re nationally minded, and so on.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my ideal state of advertising. And I don’t think it’s no ads at all. I would prefer no ads to the tidal wave of irrelevant ads I get currently, but in a perfect world, I do want information about products. Specifically, I want unbiased recommendations from people I respect and admire. That basically means friends and select celebrities. I want this to be “pull” information: I don’t want anyone randomly coming up and yakking about their amazing new phone. But if I’m thinking about a new phone, I’d like to be able to see what people with whom I identify think. I would like to browse through a list and see that Wild Pete has a Nokia but it sucks, Wil is wedded to his Motorola, and Stephen King knows where you can get a good deal on an iPhone.

The closest thing I’ve seen is Facebook. It’s all push—I get recommendations and links thrown at me whether they’re relevant or not, and almost entirely they’re not. But still, it’s socially-based purchasing advice. I think if Facebook had been smarter—if they’d remembered their success comes from giving people complete control over their own information, and hadn’t tried to wrest it back—they could have built the most effective, highly-targeted advertising platform in the world. Maybe they still will.

Until then, I’m skipping TV ads on my PVR, blocking them on the web with my browser, and listening to commercial-free internet radio.


This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Lora (#3425)

Location: UK
Posted: 4130 days ago

Yes, I do want to leave a comment. This is totally irrelevant, but.. I LOVE YOU, MAX.
There we go.

shabooty (#637)

Location: D.C./V.A/M.D.
Quote: "I will shake your foundation. I will shake the f**cking rafters. Nobody'll be the same -Danny Bonaduce ....& go visit my blog @:"
Posted: 4130 days ago

i am def sure peeps saw that I mentioned jen govnt in my fav books section of my facebook profile, and then picked it up.
i told em to friend whore you like i did.

Mike (#3559)

Posted: 4130 days ago

Max, I'd be happy just not to have Madonna's nether parts waved in my face when catching the Paris metro. Any way we can put a stop to that?

Machine Man subscriber gStein (#585)

Quote: "That's not change! That's more of the same!"
Posted: 4129 days ago

there are still ads on the interweb?

Phill Sacre (#1822)

Location: London, UK
Quote: "Computers are like air conditioners. Both stop working, if you open windows."
Posted: 4129 days ago

Interesting thought, Max. I think I agree with you - I would always trust a recommendation from a friend over an ad.

But yeah, with the exception of blocking internet ads (I don't think it's completely ethical to block ads on a site which is only paid for by advertising revenue, at least not if you use the site regularly) I'm skipping them! I can only recount about two occasions since I've been on the internet where I've found an ad useful... so much for contextual ads!

Yubi Shines (#1664)

Location: Canada
Posted: 4129 days ago

Adblock is your special friend.

That reminds me of a minor rant I've been building up for a while. There's an ad I've been seeing in subways a lot for something called "Alesse". I hadn't heard of it before, and the ad was telling me nothing about what it was, except that it's something medical/medicinal, it's marketed to women, and it's liberating (but 99% of ads say that, so whatever).

I've spent several train rides mulling over it, since I rarely have a book with me or it's too shaky to read properly: What the crap is it? Tampons? Skin lotion? Diet pills?

I only just looked it up, and it's a birth control. But damn it, I can't tell if that's the worst ad ever because it didn't tell me what it was (me being its target audience more or less), or the best ad ever because it made me go look it up.

Hobbie (#1359)

Location: Cornwall, England
Quote: "There was a little man in his hair!"
Posted: 4129 days ago

They are starting to target adverts more. A lot of video games with online play have adverts specific to you based on scans of what you have installed on your PC. And Cable TV-on-demand does it based on what shows and films you watch.

What concerns me more is the matter of privacy. There's already a big legal fuss here in the UK because BT's internet service was scanning computers to target ads without specifically telling people it was doing it. It was a footnote, very small, at the bottom of a very long and boring user agreement, and when people found out they didn't like it.

I don't want adverts at all. I definitely don't want my privacy invaded over it. I'd rather they keep churning out the inefficient crap they do now, because I can ignore it or block it. And I absolutely disagree that you even need adverts. When I want to buy anything that constitutes a serious investment, or something where I've had problems in the past, I look up an impartial review on the internet off my own back, without someone specifically hawking it shoving it in my face. And everyone reading this can do the same, because to read this you have to be online.

The internet is a wonderful tool. Adverts are just another way of abusing it, because frankly you don't need them.

Douglas Bushong (#44)

Location: America (Virginia)
Quote: "When you are trying to teach someone a new job, it's best to just throw them into the fire and beat them. They'll get sharp or they'll break. Either way, you won't waste precious time teaching them a job that they aren't meant to do."
Posted: 4129 days ago

Two years ago I clicked on my first banner add in over 11 years. I'm a bit of a board game fan, and I was on boardgamegeek. The owner of the site was advertising for various board game companies and distributors, and I saw an ad for the upcoming release of a new game that I had long been interested in. I clicked on it.

The second I did it I was shocked. Before that moment, I avoided banner ads like the plague, but I didn't give this one a second thought.

I guess the point to this story is that I agree with you: I enjoy tightly focused marketing, but I can't stand the spamming.

Traveller (#1939)

Location: Amphetamemeia
Quote: ""Surely you didn't mean select THAT button. That button is for serious people.""
Posted: 4129 days ago

Heh... Max, you need to have a look at this:

Great clip on Subliminal advertising and it's effect on actual advertising geniuses.

Linnea1928 (#2654)

Location: Rosemount, MN
Posted: 4129 days ago

Interesting, Max. I do agree because honestly the last thing I need to see when watching tv with friends/family is an ad for erectile dysfunction treatment. Seriously.

Charlotte Ryberg (#3498)

Location: Funen
Quote: "We're old chuffers in the very alien world!"
Posted: 4129 days ago

If you're talking about NationStates 2 having ads, just hold it a bit until we get the core bits set up, then we talk about how it will be run.

Machine Man subscriber Ivan (#2404)

Location: Arizona
Quote: "Huh?"
Posted: 4129 days ago

As a marketer, I fully agree with you. Ads are glossed over in print, online, on radio and tv. However, they are fully necessary. They buy room in the editorial sections of newspapers, get your news stories on the local channel and allow you to make it into the "trusted" sections of magazines. Buying ads is simply an excuse for someone to make money off your product and then discuss it in a trustworthy fashion.
It's the American way! At least the old American way. The new targeted ads online change the way everything works.

Emily (#609)

Location: New York
Quote: "When in doubt, fuck it. When not in doubt, get in doubt!"
Posted: 4129 days ago

God yes. It was kind of cathartic to read this. Now if only it would be put into practice!

Ralf Heinrich (#1441)

Location: Buehl, Germany
Quote: "What does this button do?"
Posted: 4128 days ago

Max, write a novel about this!
Just a thought...

- an advertiser

Mats (#1057)

Location: Turku, Finland, Europe, Earth
Quote: ""The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist knows it." James Branch Cabell via Robert Oppenheimer"
Posted: 4128 days ago

You have ads by google on nationstates now??
What the hay is up with that???
You won't have any ads on nationstates 2, will you????

I still love you though, yours is the only blog I can be bothered to read, and you're one out of two contemporary novelists whose books I read, the other being Terry Pratchett (he's great, go buy all of his books now, but leave some for me!)

Yenzo (#829)

Location: Secret underwater pyramid base in the Pacific
Quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe (Carl Sagan)"
Posted: 4128 days ago

Hey Max, what do you think about GTA IV characters running around in licensed clothing?

I think that's kind of a cool idea regarding contextual advertising. On the other hand, by doing the ads the companies admit that their target audience consists of people that want to blow up a whole metropolis on their way to become a top-shelf violence-crazed gangster.

Man, I wish my PC could handle that game...

Machine Man subscriber M.I.Minter (#347)

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Quote: "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading."
Posted: 4128 days ago
this is a great article that talks about the next big things in advertising, and it's got Joss in it.

M. Ian Minter

Neil (#943)

Location: Manchester, UK
Quote: ""Democracy is the worst system, apart from all the others." - Churchill"
Posted: 4128 days ago

Very interesting analysis, thank you, Max. I hadn't realised how arrogant Facebook were being (although I hardly ever use it anyway). With so many issues raised, I find myself wondering which to comment on... I think I'll go with this one:

Is advertising really inefficient given that, once each advert is produced, the marginal cost of distributing it to more people is negligible for most media?

Also, though they might like us to think so, surely advertising isn't really trying to alter the purchasing decisions we would otherwise have made, as you put it, but rather to prompt us to make purchasing decisions in the first place: they are cumulatively trying to wear us down so that we buy something else we fundamentally don't need...

Mark Tran (#3249)

Location: Canada
Quote: "If you lived here, You'd be home."
Posted: 4128 days ago

Eh... The whole personalized ad. thing is effective I guess. But it creeps me out. Not gonna lie. Also.. I've never been comfortable with facebook telling all my friends exactly what I'm doing all the time. Well.. I mean, I guess it is the purpose of a social networking site, and if you don't want that info revealed, then why are you there. But still, there are some things I wish to keep to myself y'know? Yeah.

Brenng (#3235)

Location: UK (sitting down)
Quote: "Laugh when all the world cries and they'll lock you up for being an antisocial freak. - there's a laugh in there somewhere!"
Posted: 4122 days ago

Like the notion of internet radio being advert free but... I've been listening to podcasts for a year or so but lately I've begun noticing creeping adverts (that's adverts creeping in, not adverts for 'creeping').

Is nothing sacred?

Jeffrey (#2286)

Location: Right here
Quote: "Mathematics is a powerful language. Just look at how mathematicians destroyed the housing market."
Posted: 4120 days ago

hey Max. I heard the CIA is one of the biggest investors of Facebook. I'm not sure if that's true but it would be interesting if it was.

Sophie (#891)

Location: Devon
Posted: 4116 days ago

Awesome blog! But I think mass advertising to everybody isn't all bad - it works if you have a product, like a cola drink or a chocolate bar, that you think will appeal to a broad range of people rather than just a few people in a specific demographic.

It's probably also good if you're wanting to set up a brand's reputation - you don't normally buy a branded product if you feel like you're the only one that knows it's supposed to be cool. People might be more likely to buy brand-name clothes if they feel that everybody has been told that they're cool, rather than just themselves and a few friends.

It probably all depends on what type of product you're trying to sell - some people and subcultures like to feel that they're the only ones who know about a brand's reputation, but maybe the person buying the new SUV wants to know that everyone on the street has been told that their brand of SUV is the most stylish and expensive.

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