Your Dot-Com Ad Here

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake in California – and ten years and two months since Greg moved to the San Francisco area as an unsuspecting Red Cross disaster volunteer trained for East Coast hurricanes.

In remembrance of the disaster, we thumbed through Greg’s 1989 copies of Time, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Just as strange as seeing collapsed sections of freeway that have long since been removed, we couldn’t help but notice the glaring absence of dot-com advertisements.

This raised an interesting question: Before all the billboards, bus stops, bus wraps, magazines, radio spots, and TV commercials hawked a circus parade of forgettable dot-coms, who or what existed before in their place?

Today’s media are so saturated with Internet companies (“Madge, you’re soaking in it”) that remembering the answers has become a particularly difficult task.

I Love The Smell Of Dot-Com Advertising In The Morning

There are few corners left in the US that need convincing of dot-com ad ubiquity.

Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., recently wrote a Digitrends article about a surreal experience at a local health club. His description of watching dot-com ads come up on banks of TV monitors suggested an evening of steady jackpots at the Vegas slots.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the smell of web site ads is particularly pungent. Here Internet industry insiders, groaning over their toxic engorgement with dot-com ads, often wonder how those not employed by the industry are able to tolerate it.

All of this leaves the impression that there are more online stores than there are products you can buy from them.

It wasn’t long before we lost count of the number of online music stores, health portals, auto brokers, and stock trading sites. Today it seems there are dozens of competing sites for everything from cosmetics to lawn furniture to gardening to needlepoint.

We recently saw a TV spot featuring a reclining cat participating in a mock interview. It wasn’t until we saw the URL for Furniture.com that we both realized it wasn’t yet another entrant in the saturated online pet food/toy wars.

Sakfsgd.com, Because Pets Can’t Type

As we alluded to in a previous ClickZ article, who really needs 17 online superstores for buying Sparky’s squeaky toys? The fact is that we don’t need them, which is precisely why we’re seeing so many of their advertisements.

However, it’s worth noting that this year Forrester Research projected that seven percent of all retail sales will be online by 2004. By comparison, as noted in our ClickZ article last year, mail-order catalogs currently make up about six percent of all retail sales.

Given these revenues, why didn’t we witness a level of ad insanity for the mail-order cataloguers of the 1980s that we have for today’s dot-coms? Where was all the hype over the Lillian Vernon IPO? Where were the Fingerhut bus wraps? None of these names could be found in Greg’s 1989 newsmagazines.

And The Revenue Winner Is: Traditional Media

The big difference, of course, is the stock market. With the lay public shoveling money into Internet stocks, many dot-coms are spending their newfound money on advertising campaigns like drunken sailors on shore leave.

Greg’s former employer, CNET.com, managed to be one of the very few profitable Internet companies before it dropped $100 million on a six-month marketing campaign. (Meanwhile, CNET’s traditional offline rival, Ziff-Davis, made only $63 million in revenues all of last year.) Amazon.com is spending $100 million on advertising this Christmas and isn’t close enough to even joke about a profit.

It’s not just public companies, either. Wall Street has induced labor for more and more dot-com preemies with congenital business strategy defects. Mergers and acquisitions now outnumber IPOs by eight-to-one, and increased brand recognition through advertising may play a significant role in their profitable exit strategies.

Vice.com

Regarding our original question – i.e., who bought all the advertising space before the dot-coms? – we performed a little informal research and discovered two things.

First, there are a lot more places to advertise today than there were ten years ago. From the placard on the gas pump nozzle to the drone of video monitors at the grocery checkout, we are being bombarded from all sides at all times.

Second, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that alcohol and tobacco companies created the Internet. The city billboards, bus stops, and magazine pages that once beckoned us to lives of smoking and drinking are now goading us into vicarious lives at the end of keyboards and mouse pads.

We’re not yet sure if this means our society has replaced one set of vices (the un-PC, as in politically correct) with another (the PC, as in Personal Computer). But in the meantime, we’ll be watching the likes of C-Tribe, Eve.com, and LuckySurf.com as curious fodder for a sort of “where are they now?” six months hence.

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