We’re Becoming Intellectually “Obese”

Humans are defined by scarcity. All our evolutionary adaptations tend to be built to ensure survival in harsh environments. This can sometimes backfire on us in times of abundance.

For example, humans are great at foraging. We have built-in algorithms that tell us which patches are most promising and when we should give up on the patch we’re in and move to another patch.

We’re also good at borrowing strategies that evolution designed for one purpose and applying them for another purpose. This is called exaptation. For example, we’ve exapted our food foraging strategies and applied them to searching for information in an online environment. We use these skills when we look at a website, conduct an online search or scan our email inbox. But as we forage for information – or food – we have to remember, this same strategy assumes scarcity, not abundance.

Take food for example. Nutritionally we have been hardwired by evolution to prefer high fat, high calorie foods. That’s because this wiring took place in an environment of scarcity, where you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. High fat, high calorie and high salt foods were all “jackpots” if food was scarce. Eating these foods could mean the difference between life and death. So our brains evolved to send us a reward signal when we ate these foods. Subsequently, we naturally started to forage for these things.

This was all good when our home was the African savannah. Not so good when it’s Redondo Beach, there’s a fast food joint on every corner and the local Wal-Mart’s shelves are filled to overflowing with highly processed pre-made meals. We have “refined” food production to continually push our evolutionary buttons, gorging ourselves to the point of obesity. Foraging isn’t a problem here. Limiting ourselves is.

So, evolution has made humans good at foraging when things are scarce, but not so good at filtering in an environment of abundance. I suspect the same thing that happened with food is today happening with information.

Just like we are predisposed to look for food that is high in fats, salt and calories, we are drawn to information that:

  1. Leads to us having sex
  2. Leads to us having more than our neighbors
  3. Leads to us improving our position in the social hierarchy

All those things make sense in an evolutionary environment where there’s not enough to go around. But, in a society of abundance, they can cause big problems.

Just like food, for most of our history information was in short supply. We had to make decisions based on too little information, rather than too much. So most of our cognitive biases were developed to allow us to function in a setting where knowledge was in short supply and decisions had to be made quickly. In such an environment, these heuristic short cuts would usually end up working in our favor, giving us a higher probability of survival.

These evolutionary biases become dangerous as our information environment becomes more abundant. We weren’t built to rationally seek out and judiciously evaluate information. We were built to make decisions based on little or no knowledge. There is an override switch we can use if we wish, but it’s important to know that just like we’re inherently drawn to crappy food, we’re also subconsciously drawn to crappy information.

Whether or not you agree with the mainstream news sources, the fact is that there was a thoughtful editorial process, which was intended to improve the quality of information we were provided. Entire teams of people were employed to spend their days rationally thinking about gathering, presenting and validating the information that would be passed along to the public. In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, they were “thinking slow” about it. And because the transactional costs of getting that information to us was so high, there was a relatively strong signal to noise ratio.

That is no longer the case. Transactional costs have dropped to the point that it costs almost nothing to get information to us. This allows information providers to completely bypass any editorial loop and get it in front of us. Foraging for that information is not the problem. Filtering it is. As we forage through potential information “patches” – whether they be on Google, Facebook or Twitter – we tend to “think fast” – clicking on the links that are most tantalizing.

I would have never dreamed that having too much information could be a bad thing. But most of the cautionary columns that I’ve written about in the last few years all seem to have the same root cause – we’re becoming intellectually “obese.” We’ve developed an insatiable appetite for fast, fried, sugar-frosted information.

 

Searching for Leaders

I was planning on writing a very erudite column on how our consumption of news has drastically changed when I decided to do a research check on Google Trends and found something interesting. It should come as no surprise to learn that Donald Trump is dominating news searches on Google. But what was surprising was that the number one audience with an appetite for “Trumpie Tidbits” is Canadians. That’s right, my fellow countrymen can’t get enough of the guy. We, as a nation, search more for news on Donald Trump than any other place on earth, even the U.S. We out search you Americans on Google by margin of almost 25% (mind you, that margin reverses for web searches for Trump, but we’re still number 2 in the world).

Why?

I could offer some psychologically plausible reasons having to do with morbid curiosity, voyeurism, schadenfreude or even the Stockholm Syndrome, but honestly I have no idea why we’re submitting ourselves to this. Maybe it’s giving us something to do during our abnormally long winters and seeing as we’re already miserable as hell, we feel we have nothing to lose?

This is somewhat ironic, given that according to several highly reputable online polls, we have the hottest leader in the world right now – one Monsieur Trudeau. But even as photogenic as Justin is, when it comes to launching a Google search, our vote still goes to Trump. When you compare searches for Trump during his election to searches for Trudeau during his election – in Canada, no less – Trump wins by a margin of 2 to 1.

But it’s not just us. Trump’s domination of the search zeitgeist is historic. Google shows relative volumes – with 100 representing the peak popularity. For Trump, this peak corresponded with his election, in November. A second peak, at 65, came with his inauguration. Never in the entire length of Barack Obama’s presidency did he ever come close to this. The nearest was during his first election in 2008, when he peaked at 55. So, in one category at least, Trump would be accurate in claiming a historic win.

I thought I’d see if this pattern holds up globally. Angela Merkel is barely a blip on Google’s search radar. Worldwide she has never peaked above 1 compared to Trump’s peak score of 100. Perhaps that’s why he refused to shake her hand. Even in Deutschland itself, she peaked at a paltry 17 in the last 5 years against the Trump standard of 100.

Poor Theresa May, the new leader of the United Kingdom, can’t catch a break either. Even on the week she assumed power Donald Trump gained more searches worldwide by a solid 3 to 1 margin.

So let’s put this to the acid test. Trump vs Putin. Worldwide over the past 5 years it was no contest. Trump: 100, Putin: 3 (scored the week of March 2 – 8, 2014, when Putin was making noises about reclaiming Crimea). And yes, even if we restrict the searches to those coming only from Russia, Trump’s best outscored Putin’s best (in June of 2013) by a margin of 2 to 1.

This probably shouldn’t surprise me. According to Google, Donald Trump outscored everyone when it came to searches in 2016. In fact, he came third on Google’s list of most popular searches of any kind, just after Pokémon Go and iPhone 7. The world is locked in a morbid fascination with all that is Trump.

I’d love to wrap up this column with something philosophical and enlightened. It would be good to pass on some tidbit of behavioral wisdom that would put all this search activity into perspective. But that’s not going to happen. All I know is that I’m as guilty as anyone. Since November 8, I search almost daily for ‘Trump” just to see what the last 24 hours hath wrought. I call it my Daily WTF Round Up.

Apparently I’m not alone.

Back to the Coffee House: Has Journalism Gone Full Circle?

First, let’s consider two facts about Facebook that ran in Mediapost in the last two weeks. The first:

“A full 65% of people find their next destination through friends and family on Facebook.”

Let’s take this out of the context of just looking for your next travel destination. Let’s think about it in terms of a risky decision. Choosing somewhere to go on a vacation is a big decision. There’s a lot riding on it. Other than the expense, there’s also your personal experience. The fact that 2 out of 3 people chose Facebook as the platform upon which to make that decision is rather amazing when you think about it. It shows just how pervasive and influential Facebook as become.

Now, the next fact:

“Facebook users are two-and-a-half times more likely to read fake news fed through the social network than news from reputable news publishers.”

There’s really no reason to elaborate on the above – ‘nuff said. It’s pretty clear that Facebook has emerged at the dominant public space in our lives. It is perhaps the most important platform in our culture today for forming beliefs and opinions.

Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, but not matter what you may have said in the past about not being a media outlet, you can’t duck this responsibility. If our public opinions are formed on your private property that is a unimaginably powerful platform then – as Spidey’s Uncle Ben said (or the French National Convention of 1793; depending on whom you’re prefer to quote as a source) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you provide a platform and an audience to news providers – fake or real, you are, ipso facto, a media outlet.

But Facebook is more than just an outlet. It is also the forum where news is digested and shared. It is both a gristmill and a cauldron where beliefs are formed and opinions expressed. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, although the previous occurrence was in a different time and a very different place. It actually contributed directly to the birth of modern journalism – which is, ironically – under threat from this latest evolution of news.

If you were an average citizen London in 1700 your sources for news were limited. First of all, there was a very good chance that you were illiterate, so reading the news wasn’t an option. The official channel for the news of the realm was royal proclamations read out by town criers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t so much news as whatever the ruling monarch felt like proclaiming.

There was another reality of life in London – if you drank the water it could possibly kill you. You could drink beer in a pub – which most did – or if you preferred to stay sober you could drink coffee. Starting in the mid 1600’s coffee houses started to pop up all over London. It wasn’t the quality of the coffee that made these public spaces all the rage. It was the forum they provided for the sharing of news. Each new arrival was greeted with, “Your servant, sir. What news have you?” Pamphlets, journals, broadsheets and newsletters from independent (a.k.a “non-royal”) publishers were read aloud, digested and debated. Given the class-bound society of London, coffee houses were remarkably democratic. “Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,” proclaimed the Rules and Orders of the Coffee-House (1674), “but take the next fit seat he can find.” Lords, fishmongers, baronets, barristers, butchers and shoe-blacks could and did all share the same table. The coffee houses of London made a huge contribution to our current notion of media as a public trust, with all that entails.

In a 2011 article the Economist made the same parallel between coffee houses and digitally mediated news. In it, they foreshadowed a dramatic shift in our concept of news:

“The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.”

The last line was prescient. Seismic disruption has fundamentally torn the political and societal landscape asunder. But I have a different take on the “discursive ethos” of news consumption. I assume the Economist used this phrase to mean a verbal interchange of thought related to the news. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. There is no thought and there is little discourse. The share button is hit before there is any chance to digest the news, let alone vet it for accuracy. This is a much different atmosphere of the coffee house. There is a dynamic that happens when our beliefs are called on the mat in a public forum. It is here where beliefs may be altered but they can never change in a vacuum. The coffee house provided the ideal forum for the challenging of beliefs. As mentioned, it was perhaps the most heterogeneous forum in all of England at the time. Most of all it was an atmosphere infused with physicality and human interaction – a melting pot of somatic feedback. Debate was civil but passionate. There was a dynamic totally missing from it’s online equivalent. The rules and realities of the 18th century coffee house forced thoughtfulness and diverse perspectives upon the discourse. Facebook allows you to do an end run around it as you hit your share button.

The Mindful Democracy Manifesto

 

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

Call it the Frog in Boiling Water Syndrome. It happens when creeping changes in our environment reach a disruptive tipping point that triggers massive change – or – sometimes – a dead frog. I think we’re going through one such scenario now. In this case, the boiling water may be technology and the frog may be democracy.

As I said in Online Spin last week, the network effects of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory may be yet another unintended consequence of technology.

I walked through the dynamics I believe lay behind the election last week in some detail. This week, I want to focus more on the impact of technology on democratic elections in general. In particular, I wanted to explore the network effects of technology, the spread of information and sweeping populist movements like we saw on November 8th.

In an ideal world, access to information should be the bedrock of effective democracy. Ironically, however, now that we have more access than ever that bedrock is being chipped away. There has been a lot of finger pointing at the dissemination of fake news on Facebook, but that’s just symptomatic of a bigger ill. The real problem is the filter bubbles and echo chambers that formed on social networks. And they formed because friction has been eliminated. The way we were informed in this election looked very different from that in elections past.

Information is now spread more through emergent social networks than through editorially controlled media channels. That makes it subject to unintended network effects. Because the friction of central control has been largely eliminated, the spread of information relies on the rules of emergence: the aggregated and amplified behaviors of the individual agents.

When it comes to predicting behaviors of individual human agents, our best bet is placed on the innate behaviors that lie below the threshold of rational thought. Up to now, social conformity was a huge factor. And that rallying point of that social conformity was largely formed and defined by information coming from the mainstream media. The trend of that information over the past several decades has been to the left end of the ideological spectrum. Political correctness is one clear example of this evolving trend.

But in this past election, there was a shift in individual behavior thanks to the elimination of friction in the spread of information – away from social conformity and towards other primal behaviors. Xenophobia is one such behavior. Much as some of us hate to admit it, we’re all xenophobic to some degree. Humans naturally choose familiar over foreign. It’s an evolved survival trait. And, as American economist Thomas Schelling showed in 1971, it doesn’t take a very high degree of xenophobia to lead to significant segregation. He showed that even people who only have a mild preference to be with people like themselves (about 33%) would, given the ability to move wherever they wished, lead to highly segregated neighborhoods. Imagine then the segregation that happens when friction is essentially removed from social networks. You don’t have to be a racist to want to be with people who agree with you. Liberals are definitely guilty of the same bias.

What happened in the election of 2016 were the final death throes of the mythical Homo Politicus – the fiction of the rational voter. Just like Homo Economicus – who predeceased him/her thanks to the ground breaking work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – much as we might believe we make rational voting choices, we are all a primal basket of cognitive biases. And these biases were fed a steady stream of misinformation and questionable factoids thanks to our homogenized social connections.

This was not just a right wing trend. The left was equally guilty. Emergent networks formed and headed in diametrically opposed directions. In the middle, unfortunately, was the future of the country and – perhaps – democracy. Because, with the elimination of information distributional friction, we have to ask the question, “What will democracy become?” I have an idea, but I’ll warn you, it’s not a particularly attractive one.

If we look at democracy in the context of an emergent network, we can reasonably predict a few things. If the behaviors of the individual agents are not uniform – if half always turn left and half always turn right – that dynamic tension will set up an oscillation. The network will go through opposing phases. The higher the tension, the bigger the amplitude and the more rapid the frequency of those oscillations. The country will continually veer right and then veer left.

Because those voting decisions are driven more by primal reactions than rational thought, votes will become less about the optimal future of the country and more about revenge on the winner of the previous election. As the elimination of friction in information distribution accelerates, we will increasingly be subject to the threshold mob effect I described in my last column.

So, is democracy dead? Perhaps. At a minimum, it is debilitated. At the beginning of the column, I quoted Winston Churchill. Here is another quote from Churchill:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

We are incredibly reluctant to toy with the idea of democracy. It is perhaps the most cherished ideal we cling to in the Western World. But if democracy is the mechanism for a never-ending oscillation of retribution, perhaps we should be brave enough to consider alternatives. In that spirit, I put forward the following:

Mindful Democracy.

The best antidote to irrationality is mindfulness – forcing our Prefrontal cortex to kick in and lift us above our primal urges. But how do we encourage mindfulness in a democratic context? How do we break out of our social filter bubbles and echo chambers?

What if we made the right to vote contingent on awareness? What if you had to take a test before you cast your vote? The objective of the test is simple: how aware were you not only of your candidate’s position and policies but – more importantly – that of the other side? You don’t have to agree with the other side’s position; you just have to be aware of it. Your awareness score would then be assigned as a weight to your vote. The higher your level of awareness, the more your vote would count.

I know I’m tiptoeing on the edge of sacrilege here, but consider it a straw man. I’ve been hesitating in going public with this, but I’ve been thinking about it for some time and I’m not so sure it’s worse than the increasingly shaky democratic status quo we currently have. It’s equally fair to the right and left. It encourages mindfulness. It breaks down echo chambers.

It’s worth thinking about.

Why Millennials are so Fascinating

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Generation Gap. This referred to the ideological gap between my generation – the Baby Boomers, and our parent’s generation – The Silent Generation (1923 – 1944).

But in terms of behavior, there was a significant gap even amongst early Baby Boomers and those that came at the tail end of the boom – like myself. Generations are products of their environment and there was a significant change in our environment in the 20-year run of the Baby Boomers – from 1945 to 1964. During that time, TV came into most of our homes. For the later boomers, like myself, we were raised with TV. And I believe the adoption of that one technology created an unbridgeable ideological gap that is still impacting our society.

The adoption of ubiquitous technologies – like TV and, more recently, connective platforms like mobile phones and the Internet – inevitable trigger massive environmental shifts. This is especially true for generations that grow up with this technology. Our brain goes through two phases where it literally rewires itself to adapt to its environment. One of those phases happens from birth to about 2 to 3 years of age and the other happens during puberty – from 14 to 20 years of age. A generation that goes through both of those phases while exposed to a new technology will inevitably be quite different from the generation that preceded it.

The two phases of our brain’s restructuring – also called neuroplasticity – are quite different in their goals. The first period – right after birth – rewires the brain to adapt to its physical environment. We learn to adapt to external stimuli and to interact with our surroundings. The second phase is perhaps even more influential in terms of who we will eventually be. This is when our brain creates its social connections. It’s also when we set our ideological compasses. Technologies we spend a huge amount of time with will inevitably impact both those processes.

That’s what makes Millennials so fascinating. It’s probably the first generation since my own that bridges that adoption of a massively influential technological change. Most definitions of this generation have it starting in the early 80’s and extend it to 1996 or 97.   This means the early Millennials grew up in an environment that was not all that different than the generation that preceded it. The technologies that were undergoing massive adoption in the early 80’s were VCRs and microwaves – hardly earth shaking in terms of environmental change. But late Millennials, like my daughters, grew up during the rapid adoption of three massively disruptive technologies: mobile phones, computers and the Internet. So we have a completely different environment for which the brain must adapt not only from generation to generation, but within the generation itself. This makes Millennials a very complex generation to pin down.

In terms of trying to understand this, let’s go back to my generation – the Baby Boomers – to see how environment adaptation can alter the face of society. Boomers that grew up in the late 40’s and early 50’s were much different than boomers that grew up just a few years later. Early boomers probably didn’t have a TV. Only the wealthiest families would have been able to afford them. In 1951, only 24% of American homes had a TV. But by 1960, almost 90% of Americans had a TV.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the values of my generation where shaped by TV. But this was not a universal process. The impact of TV was dependent on household income, which would have been correlated with education. So TV impacted the societal elite first and then trickled down. This elite segment would have also been those most likely to attend college. So, in the mid-60’s, you had a segment of a generation who’s values and world view were at least partially shaped by TV – and it’s creation of a “global village” – and who suddenly came together during a time and place (college) when we build the persona foundations we will inhabit for the rest of our lives. You had another segment of a generation that didn’t have this same exposure and who didn’t pursue a post-secondary education. The Vietnam War didn’t create the Counter-Cultural revolution. It just gave it a handy focal point that highlighted the ideological rift not only between two generations but also within the Baby Boomers themselves. At that point in history, part of our society turned right and part turned left.

Is the same thing happening with Millennials now? Certainly the worldview of at least the younger Millennials has been shaped through exposure to connected media. When polled, they inevitably have dramatically different opinions about things like religion, politics, science – well – pretty much everything. But even within the Millennial camp, their views often seem incoherent and confusing. Perhaps another intra-generational divide is forming. The fact is it’s probably too early to tell. These things take time to play out. But if it plays out like it did last time this happened, the impact will still be felt a half century from now.

The Bermuda Triangle of Advertising

In the past few weeks, via the comments I’ve received on my two (1,2) columns looking at the possible future of media selection and targeting, it’s become apparent to me that we’re at a crisis point when it comes to advertising. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of the brightest minds and sharpest commentators in the industry contributing their thoughts on the topic. In the middle of all these comments lies a massive gap. This gap can be triangulated by looking at three comments in particular:

Esther Dyson: “Ultimately, what the advertisers want is sales…  attention, engagement…all these are merely indicators for attribution and waypoints on the path to sales.”

Doc Searls: “Please do what you do best (and wins the most awards): make ads that clearly sponsor the content they accompany (we can actually appreciate that), and are sufficiently creative to induce positive regard in our hearts and minds.”

Ken Fadner: “I don’t want to live in a world like this one” (speaking of the hyper targeted advertising scenario I described in my last column).

These three comments are all absolutely right (with the possible exception of Searls, which I’ll come back to in a minute) and they draw a path around the gaping hole that is the future of advertising.

So let’s strip this back to the basics to try to find solid ground from which to move forward again.

Advertising depends on a triangular value exchange: We want entertainment and information – which is delivered via various media. These media need funding – which comes from advertising. Advertising wants exposure to the media audience. So, if we boil that down – we put up with advertising in return for access to entertainment and information. This is the balance that is deemed “OK” by Doc Searls and other commenters

The problem is that this is no longer the world we live in – if we ever did. The value exchange requires all three sides to agree that the value is sufficient for us to keep participating. The relatively benign and balanced model of advertising laid out by Searls just doesn’t exist anymore.

The problem is the value exchange triangle is breaking down on two sides – for advertisers and the audience.

As I explained in an earlier Online Spin, value exchanges depend on scarcity and for the audience, there is no longer a scarcity of information and entertainment. Also, there are now new models for information and entertainment delivery that disrupt our assessment of this value exchange. The cognitive context that made us accepting of commercials has been broken. Where once we sat passively and consumed advertising, we now have subscription contexts that are entirely commercial free. That makes the appearance of advertising all the more frustrating. Our brain has been trained to no longer be accepting of ads. The other issue is that ads only appeared in contexts where we were passively engaged. Now, ads appear when we’re actively engaged. That’s an entirely different mental model with different expectations of acceptability.

This traditional value exchange is also breaking down for advertisers. The inefficiencies of the previous model have been exposed and more accountable and effective models have emerged. Dyson’s point was probably the most constant bearing point we can navigate to – companies want sales. They also want more effective advertising. And much as we may hate the clutter and crap that litters the current digital landscape, when it works well it does promise to deliver a higher degree of efficiency.

So, we have the previous three sided value exchange collapsing on two of the sides, bringing the third side – media- down with it.

Look, we can bitch about digital all we want. I share Searls frustration with digital in general and Fadner’s misgivings about creepy and ineffective execution of digital targeting in particular. But this horse has already left the barn. Digital is more than just the flavor of the month. It’s the thin edge of a massive wedge of change in content distribution and consumption. For reasons far too numerous to name, we’ll never return to the benign world of clearly sponsored content and creative ads. First of all, that benign world never worked that well. Secondly, two sides of the value-exchange triangle have gotten a taste of something better- virtually unlimited content delivered without advertising strings attached and a much more effective way to deliver advertising.

Is digital working very well now? Absolutely not. Fadner and Searls are right about that, It’s creepy, poorly targeted, intrusive and annoying. And it’s all these things for the very same reason that Esther Dyson identified – companies want sales and they’ll try anything that promises to deliver it. But we’re at the very beginning of a huge disruptive wave. Stuff isn’t supposed to work very well at this point. That comes with maturity and an inevitable rebalancing. Searls may rail against digital, just like people railed against television, the telephone and horseless carriages. But it’s just too early to tell what a more mature model will look like. Corporate greed will dictate the trying of everything. We will fight back by blocking the hi-jacking of our attention. A sustainable balance will emerge somewhere in between. But we can’t see it yet from our vantage point.

Sorry Folks – Blame it on Ed

Just when you thought it was safe to assume I’d be moving on to another topic, I’m back. Blame it on Ed Papazian, who commented on last week’s column about the Rise of the Audience marketplace. I’ll respond to his comment in multiple parts. First, he said:

“I think it’s fine to speculate on “audience” based advertising, by which you actually mean using digital, not traditional media, as the basis for the advertising of the future.”

All media is going to be digital. Our concept of “traditional” media is well down its death spiral. We’re less then a decade away from all media being delivered through a digital platform that would allow for real time targeting of advertising. True, we have to move beyond the current paradigm of mass distributed, channel restricted advertising we seem stuck in, but the technology is already there. We (by which I mean the ad industry) just have to catch up. Ed continues in this vein:

“However, in a practical sense, not only is this, as yet, merely a dream for TV, radio and print media, but it is also an oversimplification.”

Is it an oversimplification? Let’s remember that more and more of our media consumption is becoming trackable from both ends. We no longer have to track from the point of distribution. Tracking is also possible at the point of consumption. We are living with devices that increasingly have insight into what we’re doing at any moment of the day. It’s just a matter of us giving permission to be served relevant, well targeted ads based on the context of our lives.

But what would entice us to give this permission? Ed goes on to say that…

“Even if a digital advertiser could actually identify every consumer in the U.S. who is interested—or “in the market” for what his ads are trying to sell and also how they are pitching the product/service—and send only these people “audience targeted ads”, many of the ads will still not be of interest…”

Papazian proposed an acid test of sorts (or, more appropriately – an antacid test):

“Why? Because they are for unpleasant or mundane products—toilet bowel cleansers, upset stomach remedies, etc.—-or because the ads are pitching a brand the consumer doesn’t like or has had a bad experience with.”

Okay, let me take up the challenge that Ed has thrown down (or up?). Are ads for stomach remedies always unwanted? Not if I have a history of heartburn, especially when my willpower drops and my diet changes as I’m travelling. Let’s take it one step further. I’ve made a dinner reservation for 7 pm at my favorite Indian food restaurant while I’m in San Francisco. It’s 2 pm. I’ve just polished off a Molinari’s sandwich and I’m heading back to my hotel. As I turn the corner at O’Farrell and Powell, an instant coupon is delivered to my phone with 50% off a new antacid tablet at the Walgreen’s ahead, together with the message: “Prosciutto, pepperoncinis and pakoras in the same day? Look at you go! But just in case…”

The world Ed talks about does have a lot of unwanted advertising. But in the world I’m envisioning, where audiences are precisely targeted, we will hopefully eliminate most of those unwanted ads. Those ads are the by-product of the huge inefficiencies in the current advertising marketplace. And it’s this inefficiency that is rapidly destroying advertising as we know it from both ends. The current market is built on showing largely ineffective ads to mainly disinterested prospects – hoping there is an anomaly in there somewhere – and charging the advertiser to do so. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a sustainable plan to me.

When I talk about selecting audiences in a market, it’s this level of specificity that I’m talking about. There is nothing in the above scenario that’s beyond the reach of current Mar-Tech. Perhaps it’s oversimplified. But I did that to make a point. In paid search, we used to have a saying, “buy your best clicks first”. It meant starting with the obviously relevant keywords – the people who were definitely looking for you. The problem was that there just wasn’t enough volume on these “sure-bet” keywords alone. But as digital has matured, the amount of “sure-bet” inventory has increased. We’re still not all the way there – where we can rely on sure-bet inventory alone – but we’re getting closer. The audience marketplace I’m envisioning gets us much of the way there. When technology and data allow us to assemble carefully segmented audiences with a high likelihood of successful engagement on the fly, we eliminate the inefficiencies in the market.

I truly believe that it’s time to discard the jury-rigged, heavily bandaged and limping behemoth that advertising has become and start thinking about this in an entirely new way. Papazian’s last sentence in his comment was…

“You just can’t get around the fact that many ads are going to be unwanted, no matter how they are targeted….”

Do we have to accept that as our future? It’s certainly the present, but I would hate to think we can’t reach any higher. The first step is to stop accepting advertising the way we know it as the status quo. We’ll be unable to imagine tomorrow if we’re still bound by the limitations of today.