- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

Today, thoughts on high-tech advertising, and whether it may be getting a tad nutty. Or desperate.

Start with TABANAR (targeted advertising based on audience natural response) being developed by National ICT of Australia. The idea here is to put a liquid-crystal screen on a supermarket shelf selling, let’s say, different brands of laundry soap. Near the screen is a computer-controlled camera.

As you innocently approach, the screen plays an advertisement for a particular brand of soap. The camera and computer then analyze your response. If you keep looking at the ad, the computer assumes interest and continues.

Now, as technology this is cute. Certainly a computer can tell whether you are face-on to the screen, and therefore presumably interested, or looking somewhere else. But I’m not sure I want screens in stores flashing and blinking and watching me when all I want is to grab a box of detergent and be left alone.

TABANAR falls into a category with those online ads that now expand to obscure the story you are reading, forcing you to pay attention.

Then there is AdSense, from Google. The idea is that you paste a snippet of Javascript into the HTML code of your Web site, whatever it might be. Then, when a reader comes to your site, Google analyzes, or tries to analyze, the content of the page, and displays what it hopes are appropriate ads.

For example, if you had a site about technology and posted an article about digital cameras, Google would figure this out and insert ads about digital photography. If your next article were about stereos, the ads would be about stereo equipment. Google then pays you, as the Web master, an amount based on your readers’ clicks on the ads.

Nice idea. In practice it is not obnoxious. The ads are not obtrusive and don’t flash or bounce around. It may work well for sites with a consistent subject.

However, sometimes the choice of ads can be odd.

I run a Web site that amounts to a newspaper column online. My readership is at least 90 percent male and includes a whole lot of technical people — programmers, biophysicists, what have you.

Here are the ad titles placed by Google: Cures for bulimia. Become a strong Christian woman. The secret seen on Oprah. Pagan goddess pictures, Algy team spirit (about cheerleading). Please explain my husband. Spanking children. Women scientists. Earn a degree in animal psychology.

If I had tried to compile a list of subjects of no interest to my readers, I couldn’t have done better.

Maybe the analysis software needs tweaking.

Now, within reason, advertising serves a purpose. On a newspaper page, I can read an ad or not.

But force-fed ads everywhere? Sure, I understand it. In, say, 1850, demand drove the economy. Rates of ownership of washing machines, air-conditioners and IPods were very low. People wanted things. If you could make a good sewing machine at a good price, they would buy it. You didn’t much have to advertise it.

Today, oversupply drives the economy. Factories can produce not just more than enough, but vastly more than enough, of things that we need, might need, or clearly don’t need but might be persuaded to want. Or might not. Thus the need to find a way, any way, to get people to buy one thing instead of another.

Fine. But — and maybe it’s just me — I don’t want to be watched, analyzed in real time, and blinked and flashed at. Enough is enough.

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