Go from hell

Why do we continue, in 2007, to believe that markets are all about What Big Companies Do? Worse, why do we continue to take advertising for granted as the primary source of the the Bux DeLuxe required to fund technical, social and personal progress?

For example, take this BusinessWeek story, which begins,

  Imagine your cellphone as a mini marketing machine. As you head into your car after dinner, a text alert pops onto the screen of your handset announcing the 9 p.m. lineup at a nearby cineplex. You choose the Jodi Foster flick The Brave One and a promo video for the next Warner Bros. (TWX ) release, a George Clooney movie, starts running. Afterward, more text appears, prompting you to launch the phone’s Web browser so that you can click through to buy the movie’s ringtones and wallpaper.
  That kind of 24/7 advertising engagement–on a phone, no less–may sound like a nightmare. But what if you could determine the kinds of products you get pitched? Or, when your flight gets canceled in a faraway airport, text messages pop up for the best hotel deals in town? No random insurance ads or airline deals for trips to places you never visit. Best of all: Watch or read the custom ads, and your phone minutes are free.

It’s about a potential Google phone. Google isn’t talking, but others are. Later in the story we read,

  …once you combine Google’s financial heft with its ultra-sophisticated ability to target ads to specific customers. “The day is coming when wireless users will experience nirvana scenarios–mobile ads tied to your individual behavior, what you are doing, and where you are,” says Linda Barrabee, wireless analyst at researcher Yankee Group.

Here’s my nirvana scenario, Linda:

  1. No damn advertising at all. I don’t care how warm and fuzzy Google is, I don’t want to be tracked like an animal and “targeted” with anything, least of all guesswork about what I want, no matter how educated that guesswork is.
  2. Tools on my phone that let me tell sellers what I want, and on my terms — and not just on theirs. Whether that’s a latte two exits up the highway, next restaurant that serves seared ahi, or where I can buy an original metal slinky.
  3. I want to be able to notify the market of my shopping or buying intentions without revealing who I am, unless it’s on mutually agreed-upon terms.

Quick: Who wants their cell phone to be a “mini marketing machine”? And why would a BusinessWeek reporter even begin to think anybody would want that?

One huge reason we get these endless rah-rah stories framed by Advertising Goodness is that advertising pays the salaries of the writers. There is no “Chinese wall” between advertising and editorial. It may seem like there is, but there isn’t. Follow the money. (I know this is a controversial thing to say, but bear with me.)

Stories about money fighting money are also much more interesting than stories about ordinary programmers building whole new worlds for little or no money at all — so the rest of us (including the programmers) can all make more money in that world. Without the free tools and building materials provided by those programmers, we would have no Google, no Facebook, no Amazon, no eBay. Because there would be no Apache, no RSS, no memecached, no Lucene. No Internet.

It’s unfair to pick on journalists, because we’re all in the same boat. More to the point, we’re all in the same Matrix. All of us live a business world framed by the controlling ambitions of companies, rather than by the actual wants and needs of customers. Even when we study customer wants and needs, our perspective is anchored on the sell side. We ask “Which company (or product, or service) will serve them best?”, rather than “How can we as customers best express our wants and needs so that any seller can fill them?” The ironic distance between these two perspectives is deep and immense.

Alvin Toffler explored this irony in The Third Wave, published in 1980, where he said:

  (The Industrial Age) violently split apart two aspects of our lives that had always been one… production and consumption… In so doing, it drove a giant invisible wedge into our economy, our psyches … it ripped apart the underlying unity of society, creating a way of life filled with economic tension.

I wrote about that split, that tension, in Listen up, back in 1998 — eighteen years after The Third Wave and nine years before now.

David Weinberger and I also wrote about it a year later, in this chapter of Cluetrain. We called it “The Axe in Our Heads”:

  Ironically, many of us spend our days wielding axes ourselves. In our private lives we defend ourselves from the marketing messages out to get us, our defenses made stronger for having spent the day at work trying to drive axes into our customers’ heads. We do both because the axe is already there, the metaphorical embodiment of that wedge Toffler wrote about — the one that divides our jobs from our lives. On the supply side is the producer; on the demand side is the consumer. In the caste system of industry, it is bad form for the two to exchange more than pleasantries.
  Thus the system is quietly maintained, and our silence goes unnoticed beneath the noise of marketing-as-usual. No exchange between seller and buyer, no banter, no conversation. And hold the handshakes.
  When you have the combined weight of two hundred years of history and a trillion-dollar tide of marketing pressing down on the axe in your head, you can bet it’s wedged in there pretty good. What’s remarkable is that now there’s a force potent enough to actually start loosening it.
  Here’s the voice of a spokesperson from the world of TV itself, Howard Beale, the anchorman in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network who announced that he would commit suicide because “I just ran out of bullshit.” Of course, he had to go insane before he could at last utter this truth and pull the axe from his own head.

We’re all still Howard Beales today. We haven’t run out of bullshit, and there’s no less cause for anger than there was when Network, The Third Wave and Cluetrain each came out. The Information Age is here, but its future is not just (as William Gibson put it) unevenly distributed. Large parts of it aren’t here at all. The largest of those is actual empowerment of customers — in ways that are native to customers, rather than privileges granted by vendors. The difference is huge.

That’s why yelling doesn’t work. What we need instead is to make tools that work for us, and not just for them. We need to invent tools that give each of us independence from vendor control, and better ways of telling vendors what we want, when we want it, and how we want to relate — on our terms and not just on theirs. As Neo said to the Architect, “The problem is choice”. That problem will be with us as long as that axe is in our heads.

The axe is marketing. Marketing is what The Matrix does.

As a verb market is not merely about selling. It is about convincing. Its ideal is control. This may not be what enlightened marketers want the verb to mean, but marketing comes from the sell side, not the buy side. Thus in practice has become a tool of control by the industrial machine. Yes, some good people in marketing actually do talk to customers, actually do advocate them. But this is still the exception, not the rule. Marketing still comes from the side of the axe that’s buried in all of our heads — no less deeply than the electric spikes on which the heads of the human batteries that power The Matrix are impaled.

It’s a waste of time to revolt against the marketing machine. The job at hand is to build the Real World again, from the humans out to the companies that serve them. Real markets — the noun, not the verb — are what we need to strike a Neo’s bargain with the machinery of marketing. Unless we build tools for ourselves, we’ll just be talking the talk.

By the way, when I want to talk to somebody about what a real market is, my first source is Stephen Lewis. Like me, he has in his life labored far too long in the mines of marketing. Unlike me, he has lived in, and studied deeply, real markets in the real world. We need more of that.

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52 responses to “Go from hell”

  1. I’d be happy if my phone actually worked indoors.

  2. I don’t want my cellphone to do anything but make and receive calls and texts from people i invite, and take pictures and videos.

    Skip the music: I have an iPod. Skip the email: I have a computer. Just make and receive calls and texts.

    So what’s the answer? It seems like this nightmare is already upon us.

    What do we do to stop this dreadful turn of events?

  3. Doc,

    I respect your opinions but I guess I don’t see the potential of a Google phone the same way you do. I actually really like the idea of marketing that speaks to me, as opposed to marketing that does not. If it is relevant, I can tolerate it – unlike being bombarded by advertising that has no interest to me.

    If we as consumers can help advertisers get us content that we already are predisposed to want more of, how are you losing?

    Either way you slice it, you’re going to have to suffer through advertising. You can’t drive down the street without seeing a billboard, hearing an ad on the radio or hell, even seeing planes flying banners. It is the world we live in – at least make the advertising relevant.

  4. Agreed. For years, I’ve been asking (idly, apparently) when companies will stop guessing what we want and start asking us.

    I don’t understand why, if I’m going to have to watch a commercial or see an ad, I can’t tell the source of the commercial / ad what information I’m currently interested in, and therefore spend those next valuable 10 seconds of my life seeing something I want / need to see, rather than being the guinea pig of some semantic website’s “educated guess” as to what I REALLY want…

    Or, put simply, if I’ve spent the past hour researching baby clothes and now I want to unwind on YouTube, why would Ad Company X deliver me an ad about cribs when what I REALLY want is an ad about beer? (Answer: because they’re afraid to ask…)

  5. […] Doc Searls: As a verb market is not merely about selling. It is about convincing. Its ideal is control. This may not be what enlightened marketers want the verb to mean, but marketing comes from the sell side, not the buy side. Thus in practice has become a tool of control by the industrial machine. Yes, some good people in marketing actually do talk to customers, actually do advocate them. But this is still the exception, not the rule. Marketing still comes from the side of the axe that’s buried in all of our heads — no less deeply than the electric spikes on which the heads of the human batteries that power The Matrix are impaled. […]

  6. Doc,
    Why not try an experiment… blog about something you want to buy… and see what happens.

    The kind of responses you get will be of the same kind that will happen in the future… but at a different speed.

    For instance… you might really want a Canon 5d with an f1.4 50mm lens… or just a cheapie pocket camera, or whatever.

    Someone might read your blog, and be able to point you in the right direction. Odds are that someone will be an intermediary… not the producer of the good (or retailer, or whatever the opposite of consumer is)

    Go ahead… try it a few times… let’s see what happens.


  7. @BL – Oh, but why not listen to music on your phone and save some space in your pocket? Do we really need to tote around a mp3 player, a phone, a pda all at the same time?

  8. Somebody should make the distinction between evangelizing new ideas and marketing products in the way that Doc is talking about marketing. What to do when you innovate (legitimately) and create something “new”? Obviously there is room to get the idea out there. That requires effort and, in some cases, effort to convince. How does one do that without it being “marketing”? “Real”, demand-driven markets in the way Doc describes are easy for commodities — food, cars, etc. but what about the (admittedly few) great things that haven’t become wide-spread yet?

    There are plenty of things that we all expect/depend on today that wouldn’t exist in their current form if the supply-side hadn’t done a fair bit of pushing — the jumbo jet, the automobile, RSS, etc. What’s the best way to push such innovations forward without crossing the line?

  9. […] Doc Searls posted his thoughts questioning the role of advertising in the 21st century Web. He asks, “Why do we continue to take advertising for granted as the primary source of the the Bux DeLuxe required to fund technical, social and personal progress?” […]

  10. […] by smoothspan on September 28th, 2007 Searles asks, “Why do we continue to take advertising for granted as the primary source of the the Bux DeLuxe […]

  11. […] the companies what we want instead of the companies telling us what we are supposed to want? Read the rest of Doc’s post to see how he thinks we can get there. It’s a waste of time to revolt against the marketing […]

  12. Cameron, I’m not knocking, or excluding, the role of invention and innovation on the supply side. Nor am I saying that advertising is unnecessary. I am saying that the demand side’s role has largely been passive and dependent. I want us to make it active and independent. If we do that, I think it will make life easier for the inventors and innovators out there. And I think it will make advertising better too.

  13. Mike, I’ve done that, many times. It’s fun.

    It’s also not what I’m proposing here, but your point is a good one.

  14. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  15. Wow what a thought provoking post and I like would like to see advertising replaced by something better for us. I have a couple of thoughts:

    Ironically advertising is a really big ‘because effect’, I am sure that hasn’t escaped you. Not that every because effect is of course a ‘good’ one 😉

    Also thinking about VRM as coming from the reciprocal of CRM, maybe thats the wrong approach. Maybe we should be looking for the reciprocal of advertising ? i.e. something more aggressive and direct in the same way that advertising rudely interrupts our attention, maybe we can rudely interrupt the producers attention.

    Just a thought, there is probably a lot more.


  16. Doc,
    I agree with your spirit, but I’m struggling with the notion of “creating the tools to serve me versus them and on my terms.” I think I would like some of those tools! But I wonder if there’s a paradox. When those tools are created, and then achieve success with real scale and impact, don’t they assume high propensity to become what you’re arguing against in the first place — big companies trying to serve many, with a desire to grow bigger? Every big, evil company started as an ambition, an idea, then became a small business, then a mid-size business, then a big business. Regarding tools, what about the all-important individualist tool of voting with your wallet, or voting with your attention? Is there not an ongoing erosion of the monopolies that big companies once had on information, essentially empowering individuals to vote with their wallets and attention more effectively — at least for the subset of society which chooses to?
    – Max Kalehoff

  17. […] La razón fundamental por la que no dejamos de recibir estas entusiastas e interminables historias preparadas por los Dioses de la Publicidad es que la publicidad paga el salario de los escritores. No hay una “Muralla China” entre la publicidad y los editores. Podría parecer que existe, pero no. Persigue el dinero. — Doc Searls en Go from hell […]

  18. Doc, Mike,

    Blog systems and blog search engines are very close to being able to do a system for publishing what you want to buy in a way that vendors can search it and inform you about it: upside-down buyers’ guide.

    The remaining problem is the signaling value of advertising. But the good news here is that targeting advertising doesn’t increase its ability to signal the vendor’s willingness to back it up, and just plain spending money on advertising, whether by high production values in the ad itself or by attaching it to expensive content, does.

  19. I was challenged by, and loved reading, your post here, Doc. I’ll tread on some different ground here, but I think the issue is a spiritual one. And here’s why.

    What you’re talking about is what happens when the ego is out of control. Many spiritual traditions talk about the need to control, polish, even annihilate the ego. Kinda strong language, but unfettered, our fears and ambitions run us into building bigger and bigger edifices, grabbing more and more, falling into greed and losing all sense of that incredibly healing concept of ‘sufficiency.’

    How much is enough? WalMart may have started with the idea of bringing the good life to the average midwesterner, but they became so tunnel-visioned about the good life being “more stuff for less money” that they completely lost sight of the incredible havoc they’ve wreaked in their path. “Heedless” is a word I’d use- a dangerous lack of attention to the larger picture.

    I’m hoping, praying really, that the efforts of good-hearted and aware small business people are actually changing the landscape in profound but not-yet-noticeable ways. The fact that a small company like ours can have a global presence, where before it would’ve cost millions to have the kind of impact we have now… well, I’m regaining some faith that these small conversations are weaving together some strength and resilience in us.

    But, without the spiritual concept of ‘sufficiency’- of each of us as average, ordinary humans to be able to reject the consumerist model of buy more, buy now or you won’t be okay… well, that’s where the real problem is. Until each person can hold against that urge, I fear that we’re hurtling even further down a painful path…

    By the way, if you don’t know already, the day after US Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, has been declared “Buy Nothing Day.”

  20. Doc, I enjoy your way of thinking very much. I’m trying to think how it can be done in a better way than it is already.

    For example, PriceLine tries to give you a deal based on your requirements and budget. Expedia gives you offers for your car rentals from different companies based on your requirements.

    We can compare prices on Price Grabber or other price-comparison sites or find coupons (e.g. Fat Valet). For local stuff, we can use ‘wanted’ on the Craigslist… and so on.

    Many sites now include reviews and feedbacks from previous customers.

    So in many cases we can find our way already and ignore annoying ads. What can be fundamentally improved without opening ourselves to spam?

  21. Or, just ignore the markets and ads.

    I’m pretty much immune to advertising, and only pay attention when I see attractive graphics or catchy phrases, and then just to admire the creation, oblivious to the product.

    Stuff, stuff, who needs more stuff all the time anyway?

    On the off occasions when I want something like a new camera, I’ll go research it on dpreview or cnet, which I first found out about via online suggestions from other people who posted on a message board somewhere with a link. Then I’ll go find the best price through a search, or visit the local store. I’ve probably clicked on 5-10 online ads at most in 10 years of surfing. Ads get ignored on my radar screen, and telemarketers get screened out (works quite effectively, and friends calling know to start talking and we’ll pick up).

    Thanks for all the free internet content, all you chumps thinking we all actually care about your ads that “pay for” these sites !!!! Luckily, enough of you out there do care, so I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth!

  22. Doc,

    We’ve built some tools that allow you to be in control of your not only your privacy on mobile, but also what you want to share with the sellar.

    We took Mod_Gzip which we invented in 2000 and turned it into Mod_Mobile. It supports it’s own ultra thin client which integrates into the mobile browser. It allows you to control the data you share with the content provider and for those who want to develop to it we include a set of API’s.

    More on our web site at 5o9inc.com



  23. Peter, thanks. That’s exactly the kind of help we’ve been looking for. We’ll check into Mod_Mobile and 5o9inc.com. And feel free to weigh in at http://projectvrm.org.

  24. The key point Doc is making is that for the first time since mass marketing began, learning enough about each consumer for suppliers to tailor a message and deliver that message just-in-time to effect a transaction is both technologically and economically possible. This can be a game-changing dynamic that will reshape the way consumers and vendors communicate.

    Furthermore, this dynamic will start with the consumer — it already has — as several posts above write, the internet is a way to do comparison shopping, get opinions from others, choose our purchase channel, etc. But this is just the start. Sure, mass market advertising will continue to sell gigantic mainstream desires — beer, cars, etc. And local mass market advertising will do the same on a smaller scale. But the ability for each of us as consumers to have a richer, more trusted dialog with the vendors we choose to do business with will have a powerful effect on how and where marketing is targeted. Today I have this relationship with United Air Lines — I can usually pick my favorite seat on the plane and get it — (no it’s not 34E 😉 online at a fraction of the cost of talking at the right time to the right ticket agent.

    And iRobot will soon learn that I am the perfect customer for their gutter cleaning robot and be able to market it to me without a printed hand delivered flyer. Not because they know every homeowner with gutters who live in leaf country, but because I chose to share with one of their sales channels my needs.

    At first this trend will be small, but organic. As more purchases are made that way, businesses will notice, and respond accordingly. Catalysts for growing this trend include user-selected trusted marketing channels with vendors who earn that trust. Probably for a 10% discount.

  25. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  26. Doc, excellent post. Ads on mobile phones will be pretty annoying, it is an invention based upon technology and advertisement pressure. There isn’t any user need here that gets solved. If I want something, I will taken action, no need for an ad to signal (harass) me. There is also a lot of talk and releases of ad supported free phones (MySpace, Fox). Personally I don’t believe ad supported phones will ever penetrate the mass market in any numbers. Why? Because our mobile phone has become an extension of our personality. It is the remote control to our lives. I doubt many people would allow ads to invade that private space. And I am trying to imagine a 16 year old going to school and showing off his new “MySpace”phone with ads, that is not cool is it? I have written some more on it if interested (sorry for the somewhat shameless plug):

  27. […] behind most conversational marketing is that it’s still marketing, and as Doc Searls says in a fascinating post this […]

  28. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  29. I actively work to remove refuse from my visual/aural field. 99% of the time advertising is nothing more than junk (in that it’s a message not meant for me), so I work to clean it from my inbox, TV screen, browser etc.
    I know that there may be 1% of stuff that would actively interest me and generate demand, or fulfil a demand that I currently have, but because the of the burden required to filter it, it is a lot easer to get rid of the lot. Most advertising companies work actively to increase the volume on the junk, and thus make me more indiscriminate in my blocking.

    Google is one of the few advertising companies has actually lowered the volume and worked to increase the quality, they have achieved this by watching my actions and trying to predict what I want, which is a good sight better than all the Flash/TV/print ad companies. I imagine that they are working away furiously to add the next step, which is dialogue.

    I believe that marketing on the other hand are infectious pond slime. It appears that their ethos is make the customer unhappy with their lot and you can sell them sh1t. They are not about informing people of new things that may fulfil a need, rather about generating a need for something the world could do without. Who actually needs a 5 bladed titanium razor, no-one, but it will kill the planet that little bit faster.

    Unfortunately for all of us I suspect that Google may one day make the transition from signal processing algorithm providers (get the message through the noise to the intended recipient with the minimum power) to marketing scum bags.

  30. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell Go directly to marketing hell, do not pass go, do not control your life, you will buy the crap we shove in your face. Not a pretty future and why Google can expect significant pushback on the upcoming gPhone. (tags: microISV docsearls) […]

  31. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell It’s a waste of time to revolt against the marketing machine. The job at hand is to build the Real World again […]

  32. Doc is Mad as Hell, and He’s not going to take it anymore…

    Wow, Doc Searls is fired up about the potential Google phone, based on the Business Week story. Bweek talks about targeted ads popping up on your mobile as you go through the world, but based on your preferences and actual behaviors.
    Doc’s take: …

  33. […] consumers will go from hell to create the markets THEY want. The businesses with passionate communities will grow while the […]

  34. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  35. […] behind most conversational marketing is that it’s still marketing, and as Doc Searls says in a fascinating post this […]

  36. […] Oh My My — how the process has accelerated in just 7 short years. As Doc Searles said just a few days ago, the split in all of us between producer and consumer required each of us to do a number on […]

  37. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  38. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  39. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  40. […] consumers will go from hell to create the markets THEY want. The businesses with passionate communities will grow while the […]

  41. […] Doc Searls Weblog · Go from hell […]

  42. […] consumers will go from hell to create the markets THEY want. The businesses with passionate communities will grow while the […]

  43. New rumours about the improvement of the “quality score” for Yahoo PPC make me believe Search Engines are still fighting to preserve ADS quality. Marketers are still fighting to preserve mental energies, though (they call it entropy)…

  44. […] In a September 28 posting to his weblog, Doc Searls delved into the dichotomy between individuals’ and society’s passive acceptance of manipulative “marketing” vs. the possibility of “consumers” raising their voices and marshaling technology to turn the tables on corporations and “marketeers” by articulating, broadcasting, and demanding responsiveness to their needs needs and desires. Doc ended his post by pointing to our conversations and collaborations over the past four decades. In Doc’s words: […]

  45. Who are the Internet Elite?…

    Without taking physical action all the knowledge in the world is virtually worthless — especially when one is trying to make money. Nobody understands this better than the Internet Elite. Marketers looking to leverage the digital realm have h…

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  47. Unfortunately, the marketing wizards have gotten so good at their practices that people don’t even notice when the axe gets buried even deeper.

    The Google phone will come out, when the time is right: Once all the technological requirements are in place and once there is a big enough base of sure customers.

    The axe is invisible because so much hype is already created around the Google phone (or any similar product) that people will want to buy it. That’s exactly what the marketing wizards’ final goal is: To make the buyer believe it is he or she who wanted their product in the first place.

    Just look at the iPhone madness: People were camping in front of stores to be able to buy it as soon as possible. This is insanity.

    How can we expect to build the Real World again – just look at this discussion here: What fraction of population can even begin to think for themselves, let alone decide to do something about their lives? People want to be led, and a lot just don’t have the mental/intellectual capacity to think for themselves.

    The marketing wizards have become the new de facto leaders of masses.

  48. You can’t stop progress if there is a demand for it, and the market will decide what products win. That is the great thing about capitalism, if we just leave it to its own devices rather than intervening. If no one wants a cellphone that is also a mini-marketing machine, then it will be a flop. But there are a lot of information junkies who might eagerly embrace it. And those who want a plain vanilla phone can just opt for that model (until it becomes extinct, of course)

  49. Again everyone need to read up on Customer Relationship Management to get their business back on track in these hard economic times.

  50. Just wait for the new G-phone, and you’ll know what it really means to be tracked like crazy 🙂

  51. Mobile marketing will be as normal as commercials on tv. As the demand for new free mobile applications grow so will the desire for corporate advertising. They go hand in hand (no pun intended) and so we should embrace it and if you’re troubled by an ad, ignore it>

  52. Yea look doc I’m inclined to agree with you at drawing the line at mobile marketing… TV is brain dead time, so yea okay I don’t mind some witty ads. Banners are pretty unobtrusive on websites so I don’t really care, but Bluetooth spam, and mobile ads are just damn annoying. They take up precious space on a very limited screen realestate and really don;t like the idea of being location tracked either. Too much personal information, its gotta stop somewhere.

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