Once upon a time Yahoo had a simple formula for making money: Host free e-mail, put ad space at the top or side of the screen, and charge the advertisers money.
People who used Yahoo e-mail, like me, soon learned to look at the bottom of the screen and scroll up to read the e-mail without looking at the ads.
Because, guess what? The Advertising Age is so-o-o over. People my age were taught to analyze and dismiss the sales pitches in ads...in middle school, if we hadn’t learned about this at home even earlier.
It does not pay to advertise products to me. I may remember the product name, or I may not, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever buy it. I may in fact think a commercial jingle is cute; like most Americans of my generation, although I’ve tried to fill my memory with poems and songs rather than commercial jingles, I can sing a few commercial jingles too. “You get three feet for your two legs on Western Airlines,” I learned to sing in primary school, but I’ve never bought an airline ticket. There was a cereal shaped like cartoon characters, who advertised themselves with a little ditty, “We are the Freakies! We are the Freakies! This is the Freakies Tree!”; I liked the Saturday morning cartoon show but didn’t eat the cereal. I learned to chant “Flair! Flair! The super-pen!” , but I’ve never bought a Flair pen.
There is exactly one way an advertisement has ever motivated me to buy something. That’s when what’s advertised is that the exact product I’ve planned to buy—the Apple Cinnamon Chex, not the Chocolate Chex—is on sale this week at this store. And supermarket owners hate me, because when they advertise the big sale on Chex and plan to make up any loss of profits by raising the prices on milk and bananas, I ignore the milk and bananas and buy only the Chex.
If something is made by a corporation, the only way I’m motivated to buy it is that it’s something I need and it’s on sale well below the regular retail price.“Old-school Granola Green” means someone who’s very very good at doing without a lot of products made by corporations. I don’t even own a TV set. I have rented rooms that came with TV sets, and paid rent and used those rooms for six months or more before I found out whether the TV set was working.
I am more likely to buy things from individuals whose work I respect. A new copy of a friend’s book is a higher priority on my list than a new battery for the cell phone; I can use public phones for a week if I have to.
Ads, even discreet, silent ads at the sides of good-quality newspaper reportage, send the message that’s most likely to put me off a product. According to advertising industry folklore, an expensive ad campaign says, “This company deserves respect.” To me, an expensive ad campaign says,“This is a product people wouldn’t buy if they weren’t nagged into it, so it costs more because the manufacturer has paid the naggers...and buying this product encourages nagging!” If you can launch something through classified ads only, or better yet through word-of-mouth only, now that earns my respect.
If you are a corporation, some advertiser is probably trying to tell you at this point,“People say they make rational decisions, but they don’t really. Keep paying us to nag at people, and they’ll buy your product.” No doubt there are people for whom this is true. I’m not one of them.
There are a lot of products I just plain don’t buy. Movies, say, since the company that elicited this post is Netflix. Why don’t I buy movies? Why would I buy movies? If I watch movies, it’s as a social activity, an excuse to curl up on a couch beside someone I care about. Most of the movies I’ve watched in my life were selected by teachers, by men, or in a few cases by children. I’m not wired to sit still and look at pictures for two hours; if I’m knitting and receiving an upper-back-only massage I usually stay awake through a movie, but it’s not guaranteed. If selecting the entertainment is up to me I’d propose a nature walk or a sing-along.
There are also products I might otherwise buy, but have stopped buying because they were advertised in an annoying way. I like M&Ms—who doesn’t?—but as a teenager I boycotted M&Ms because I was disgusted by a commercial jingle’s claim that“M&Ms make friends.” Kids care too much about friends, and are too disappointed by the kind of friends M&Ms make, I said.
This web site has a sponsor who likes to meet for lunch at the Subway in Gate City. A friend likes Duffield, and the Subway is indisputably the best restaurant in Duffield. So I’d eaten a lot of Subway salads before an annoying pop-up ad prompted this post. Ooohhh, nasty! Who wants to encourage a company that uses pop-up ads?! Fortunately Subway recognized its mistake, stopped the pop-ups, and came up with a clever publicity stunt instead, so now I don’t feel guilty about eating there again.
Now, here’s the total amount of information I know about Netflix: pop-up ads. I’ve seen these ads, in spite of pop-up-blocker programs, on computers for at least ten years now. I have about as much respect for Netflix as I have for flies. They pop up in front of you,you have to swat them, you have to clean up a mess. Boo, hiss. No respect. No good will. If a newspaper headline read “Netflix Goes Bankrupt,” or even “Netflix Office Buried by Earthquake,” I’d be delighted.
Somewhere, somebody whispered into some poor sucker’s ear, “If you only nag middle-aged women who use the Internet more, they’ll buy something from Netflix.” Wrong.
“Oh, but it’s just one little pop-up ad, it’s just one little cookie, it’s just...” Wrong. The seconds it takes to get rid of each little advertising nuisance add up to minutes, and each and every one of those seconds counts against the company. If you want my business, you can’t afford one little pop-up ad.
And at Yahoo, somebody who doesn’t really have the company’s best interests in mind has come up with a prize-winning bit of innovation. (Remember, innovation for its own sake is a bad thing.) “Why don’t we invite the web sites that are most frequently blocked as spam to display fake e-mails in a new advertising panel at the bottom of the screen, and open the ads when people try to click on the side of the fake e-mail heading to activate the spam filter!” Who authorized this advertising technique? What was he drinking? Why wasn’t he put straight into rehab when he proposed this idea?
No points for guessing...Netflix, the housefly of American industry, is featured in about half of these fake e-mails.
Prompting me to warn the advertisers of this world: Anything that contains the word “Netflix” is spam. I don’t want to know exactly what they’re pushing. If you push, if you nag, if you distract, if you clutter, if you scream for attention in any way, I already know everything I want to know about your business. It is garbage. You are garbage. And anybody who’s charging you money for the privilege of forcing me to write you off as garbage is not your friend.
Here’s how companies that have not already lost my good will can “inform” me about their products. Don’t pay for electronic scans that try to second-guess my interests (“Ad Choices: Yahoo chooses ads for you to see based on the keywords in the e-mail you read,” bah humburg). You get two options: (1) Pay me to use your product and write an advertorial about it, or (2) Pay one of my e-friends to use your product and write an advertorial about it. Pay a respectable amount, say $50 to $100 for 500 words, plus page-view royalties. Presto! You now have a network of people who are motivated to read about your product. This does not guarantee an actual sale, but does guarantee you a longer moment of more favorable attention than you’d get with a Madison Avenue type ad.
Here’s how companies like Netflix could at least motivate me to find out what it is they’re trying to sell: Stop advertising. Altogether. Forever. Maintain a very quiet, text-only web site, no graphics, no sound effects, no colors¸ on which the headline is something like “This company has grown up. This company is ashamed of itself. This company will never scream for your attention again. Thank you for visiting this 100% cookie-free, plain-text-only web site. Here is a current list of our products and their prices, with buttons you may use to buy our products online via Paypal.”
Like maybe twenty years...if twenty years went by without my seeing the name “Netflix”again, and then somebody casually referred to its still existing in the course of maybe a news report about the city where it’s based, maybe then I’d be interested in finding out why this company is still around.