As advertisers battle noise to get their messages across, have they gone too far?
Engineers use the term "signal-to-noise ratio" (SNR) to quantify how much a signal (containing information that somebody wants) has been degraded by noise (an unwanted signal that may or may not convey information). It's a useful way of quantifying the "clarity" of a signal and has entered everyday language, even if only as a way of differentiating "good stuff" (stuff we want to read, watch, or listen to) in media versus "bad stuff" (stuff we don't).
As advertisers we wage a constant battle against noise in an effort to get our messages across…even though "noise" is often in the eye or ear of the beholder. While we naturally think our ads are great, consumers often see them as "noise" getting in the way of the content ("signal") they're trying to experience.
Many weapons have been deployed in the battle of signal vs. noise. Ad blockers, spam filters, and fast-forwarding past ads with DVRs are just some of the weapons deployed by consumers. Media outlets and advertisers have countered with their own technological tricks deployed against attempts to block advertising (pop-ups, pop-unders, audio-only ads, wacky screen "take-over" technologies, etc.), though these days they're more likely to turn to legislation, contracts, copyright law, and outright bans (see the latest attempts by the major TV networks to block their content from being seen on Google TV) in order to maintain their hold on their version of the appropriate SNR in order to keep ad revenues rolling in.
But when you get down to it, none of this is new. Consumers have always groused about advertising and media outlets/advertisers have always resisted attempts by consumers to use technology to avoid ads ever since the remote control was invented in the 1930s for the radio.
For the most part, however, advertising has always been fairly obvious…consumers knew ads when they saw them. Over time, the lines between "advertising" and "editorial" have been blurring (to the great consternation of many journalists) as advertisers continue to fight to be heard. Last week, AdAge.com raised that question in the article, "Does Forbes' First Sponsored Blog Look Too Much Like Editorial?"
Today, there are four new "advances" in advertising tech poised to up the ante - some in pretty wacky ways.
Manipulating Google News
The first is a new way of "gaming" Google News to insert story-like objects that appear on the Google News home page. First reported last week , it appears that an organization called Red Label News, reportedly owned by 70 Holdings, has discovered a way to use "a cleverly designed collection of links and headlines meant to game Google News rankings," according to CNET. By manipulating Google's news algorithm they can essentially insert ads disguised as (bogus) news items into Google's highly-trusted service.
Creating Fake Facebook Profiles
Unscrupulous parties are manipulating our signal-to-noise ratio through the use of fake Facebook profiles. Security firm AVG first alerted the blogosphere in early October about malware organizations using automatically-generated Facebook pages to spread malicious software. As AVG pointed out on its blog, "[we're] sure Facebook will deactivate all these accounts as quickly as they find them, but it can't be an easy thing for them to find." And that's the crux of the issue: if these accounts can be created automatically and easily, "friending" is going to become a much more dangerous activity.
Inserting Ads Into Information Streams
It's not just shady companies that are starting to insert advertising into our information streams: Twitter started inserting advertising directly into Twitter streams for people using HooteSuite. Rather than appearing in sidebars or other more "traditional" advertising areas, these ads appear in-line with tweets, a practice previously prohibited by Twitter. Reactions have been mixed, but experts such as Marianne Richmond worry that they add an unwelcome element to an already noisy Twitter experience, causing "confusion and resentment and so much more," among users. I agree.
Inserting 'False' Memories Into Our Heads
Finally, if technologies like these worry you, hold on to your hats…soon, not even your brain may be safe from intrusion. Recently InventorSpot.com (a large online community and blog for innovators and inventors) reported that researchers at Northwestern University may have discovered a way to insert false memories into our heads by using newly-developed photo manipulation techniques. Ron Callari of InventorSpot cites a CBS News report that suggests that these new technologies could insert product placements or ads directly into our memories using social networks and other photo-sharing services. These "memories" would trick our brains into thinking that we'd already used (and presumably enjoyed) the advertised product, making us much more likely to purchase it.
Get out your tinfoil hats!
So why worry? Aren't these techniques simply a continuation of the war for consumer attention? At a base level, yes, they are. But considered in terms of the consumer signal-to-noise ratio metaphor, they raise some troubling issues. In our efforts to get our brands noticed, we might just run the risk of creating so much noise that nothing gets noticed, especially when consumers can't tell what's "real" content and what's ad content. And when that happens, it all becomes noise.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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September 23, 2014