Ads by awful people ruining the world

I've started a new Tumblr, because I have trouble weighing the investment of time against the quality of the idea.  It's a catalogue of the kinds of ads that make me feel a little bit of a worse person, just for having read them.  It's called "They Don't Want You To Know."

Texas woman has two sets of identical twins at once; CNN covers

I started watching CNN while I was having breakfast today, because there wasn't anything good saved on my DVR and I didn't want to watch Kitchen Nightmares.  I don't see much non-fictional-script based TV apart from Fox, which is what my parents watch, so I didn't realize how disappointing the institutions Fox imitates are.

The story

It was actually a pretty cool story, so I want to start with that.  A woman in Texas had a set of fraternal twins who both divided into identical twins, resulting in four children.  They named the kids alphabetically by birth order, Ace, Blaine, Cash and Dylan, and thematically after Las Vegas, in keeping with their two year old son, Memphis.

The birth-order naming scheme sounds to me like a recipe for insecurity and conflict, but I can't reasoonably claim to be sure about that.

About CNN's coverage of the story

My major criticism of this story comes from this section, similarly expressed in the video clip:

Identical twins result when a fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Twins occur in about 2% of all pregnancies, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Of those, 30% are identical twins.

The odds of having two sets of twins at once is about 1 in 70 million, Dr. Alan Penzias, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News. Attempts by CNN to reach Penzias on Tuesday were not immediately successful.

I think there might be some sort of selection bias in the kinds of doctors who talk to the press.

Obviously, 1 in 70 million is a number that guy pulled out of his ass, unless ABC just did some back-of-an-envelope math based on the true things he said.  If we take the numbers he listed, and assume that the events: having fraternal twins, one twin splitting, and the other twin splitting, are all entirely separate events, with no related causes at all, then you do get odds close to 1 in 70 million.

If, for one obvious example, the event that caused one zygote to split was the same event that caused the other zygote to split, the odds are closer to 1 in 10 thousand.

Here are those numbers next to each other, in monospace, so you can see how big a difference there is:


The actual odds, insofar as they could possibly be established, is probably somewhere between those two.  Those odds are also kind of a pointless thing to report on, but if they must, they could at least aim for a more critical approach to statistics.

That story was followed up with a blatantly prejudicial teaser titled "Michael Jackson's Son Gets a Job," then a commercial by a mother who said her kids hated her before she got her teeth whitened.

About CNN

News organizations set the standard for the quality of discussion in the community they serve.  That's why it pisses me off that CNN is failing this badly.  It shouldn't be easy to spot obviously misleading or false information in any given story I'm not an expert in, but it is.  I was writing more than I was paying attention in the next few stories, but it was clear I didn't just get lucky -- CNN clearly sets a very low standard, to the point that I think they're actually stigmatizing critical thought and complex evaluation.

I hear the argument that TV-based informational content is inherently reductionistic and trivializing, but there are hundreds of examples to the contrary -- examples where creators make it clear when they're simplifying,  examples where they clearly, fully explain the relevant context, examples where humor is used sensibly in relation to the content, so it doesn't obscure the points.  Those examples are all from the last week, and they're all from YouTube channels that get these poitns right consistently.

Granted, those are all on YouTube.  But I don't think you can seriously argue that there's anything inherent about network news that makes it impossible to do what people on YouTube do, some of them in their free time.  What you can argue is that there are economic forces preventing them from moving on past their decade or two of mistakes.

I think the appropriate response to that is for good journalists to abandon the industry.  Maybe we can talk Google into offering more grants for professional journalism on YouTube?

Youtube, ads, and national inventor's day

I didn't know there was a national Inventor's Day.  It turns out it was a couple days ago, February 11. I found out about this because I just watched a two-and-a-half minute ad before a video on YouTube.  The reason I watched it was because I was incredibly surprised to hear Ze Frank's voice on the ad, and I figured whatever Ze Frank is going to advertise for has to be at least worth listening through.

The ad was about inventors.  It's called Why Inventors Are Awesome.  It was for national Inventor's Day.  It was sponsored by GE.  I'm not sure it's changed my opinion about GE (they make a lot of stuff that I really like existing, but they're a very big company and that gives me an uncomfortable sense of 'what am I not hearing'...)

I just wanted to take this moment to talk about the fact that there are, it seems rarely but actually pretty often, occasions when ads benefit everyone involved.  This video, Life by the Numbers, and YouTube, both got money for serving that ad to me.  GE got my eyeballs for a little bit, and made me think about looking into them with a charitable attitude.  And I got a two and a half minute video that made me feel good about the world, about humans, and about the past and the future.

Playing for Keeps

You know something that's really frustrating?  Seeing ads on YouTube, every day, for a crappy romantic comedy[1. I have no reason to think the movie Playing for Keeps is actually going to be bad, but it annoys me enough to assume it is.] that shares a name with a book you really like.  Playing For Keeps, by Mur Lafferty, is a novel about a world in which a huge number of people have super powers.  Specifically, it's about the lives of the people with the crappier powers, and how the people with the good powers push them around.  It's an excellent novel, and it would make an awesome movie.

Playing for Keeps, the 2012 film starring Gerard Butler, seems, based on its Wikipedia description, like it will make a terrible film.  But it comes out in like a week, and it features a bunch of stars and promoted by people with huge advertising budgets, so ads for it are all over YouTube.

Which is annoying.

Here's the Amazon link to the good Playing For Keeps, again.

Reason #65 I'm not voting for Romney

His ads. Specifically, his ads on individual blog posts on Boing Boing[1. Also: what the hell, Boing Boing?] that start playing an audio track that you can only shut off by clicking on it. I don't want to click on Romney ads.  I don't want to hunt through my open tabs to find the one where an ad just started playing.  And I will not support a candidate whose comprehension of the basic principles of web communities is so poor that he think, or his campaign thinks, that it's okay to create ads that invasive.

There are a lot of broad principles flavored reasons I don't support Romney.  But the terrible decisions conservative campaigns so frequently make also speak to their basic lack of interest in the quality of life of the people who vote for them.  Romney's ads aren't just dishonest, needlessly combative, and emotionally exploitative.  They're also annoying, and they make the parts of the internet on which they show up a worse place.

Something that needs to stop

I've complained about ads a lot here -- we need to have some kind of policy reform on advertising, or at least some kind of advisory board, that gives advertisers a seal of approval, like registering plumbers. One of the big things that needs to be on that list is ads that look like the content the site is offering.

This picture is from the BBC's US and Canada news page:

Here are some of the problems I see with this ad:

  • The only indications that it's an ad are in small print, off to the side.
  • They're in an image/text format similar to the format of the actual articles on the BBC page
  • Many people skim headlines, and come to conclusions about reality based on those.  That's the problem with articles titled things like "Is Obama a communist?" -- even if the bulk of the article is saying "No, absolutely not, what are you even talking about," you're still misinforming people scanning the page.
  • The ad company's logo looks similar at a glance to AP's logo.

You see this kind of treatment all over the internet.  Google's ads look like search results.  Ads on filesharing sites have huge "CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD" buttons.

Ads aren't intrinsically bad.  It's possible to have advertising that's about connecting interested customers with worthy products, and that's a mutually beneficial arrangement.  But this kind of advertising isn't about helping out the customers.  It's about harvesting the potential monetary residue of lazy browsing habits, at the cost of net trust in the world.

I don't want my internet to be a collection of pit traps.  I don't want there to not be ads -- I've found some stuff I really like that I heard about because it was advertised.  But I don't want every webpage to have links that look like they're going to give me cool new content, and are actually just going to deliver me to a sales staff.

Facebook founder's family member announces via Twitter that she works for Google

(via Ana Ulin on Google+) Randi Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg's sister, tweeted yesterday that she's working for Google now, after the company she works for, Wildfire, was acquired by Google.

Wildfire is an advertising app that helps organize companies' social presence or a more successful, targeted marketing campaign.  My main focus for this story is that the tweet was funny, but I also want to talk about the existence of third-party marketing organizations, especially backed by Google.

Unlike a lot of people on the internet, I don't think advertising is outright evil.  It needs way more ethical oversight than it has now, but there's a gem of value in there.  If you assume the basic goal of advertising is to connect a customer with a product they would benefit from, then advertising is a mutually beneficial relationship.  With more ethical guidance, the better the targeting, the more valuable the ads are to both the advertiser and the consumer.

We're not moving in this direction now, and even if Google wanted to, their obligation to their shareholders would probably prevent them pushing towards more ethics in advertising.  But I think it's a direction worth pursuing -- even more now that there are companies who specialize in organizing ad campaigns, so the advertiser companies can focus on the quality of their product.

Penny Arcade Sells Out

I had thought I blogged about this when it first came out, but it appears I didn't.  Anyone who follows comics on the internet has by now probably heard of Penny Arcade's Kickstarter campaign, "Penny Arcade sells out," in which they're trying to raise $1 million so that they can take down advertising on their site, entirely. The campaign's basic goal was $250 thousand, and they made that very quickly.  For that, the leaderboard ad on the home page will be removed.  I checked back today, and it's currently at $364,461, which is enough to unlock the first stretch goal at $325 thousand, a 6 page comic strip.  I don't know why that one's in there, but it's nice that they put a bunch of other cool stuff around all the goals for ad removal.

I checked back today honestly expecting for them to be at or close to the $1 million goal.  I figured if anyone was going to raise that much on Kickstarter in the first week or so, it would be Penny Arcade.  They're not even close yet, but there are still 22 days to go.

Lacking money, I won't be contributing, but I do think this is a good idea.  For a long time now, the model for financing online content has been "We can't think of anything better than ads," and I'm happy to see people who have the power to overcome that issue reaching out to try and change things.

If this works, I can honestly imagine an artistic future in which the culture of art is that people voluntarily contribute to the art they love.  Eventually we might even be able to finance the kind of blockbusters that Hollywood pumps out -- though I expect we'd only get the Nolan style films, and lose out on the Transformers franchise.  But I'm not complaining.

Ethics and the Advertising Model for Web Financing

The Vlogbrothers have had a lot to say on YouTube in the past few days about the relationship between advertising and content on the internet -- the tricky ethical terrain, the financial needs of creators, and the fact that we all want this whole internet thing to stay free. I haven't known what I wanted to say about this, until I watched Hank's song today, and more specifically, the rant afterwards:

The American eyeball -- more generally, the affluent eyeball, and yes, you are affluent if you have an internet connection fast enough to watch YouTube videos -- is one of the most valuable commodities in existence on Earth right now.So valuable, in fact, that many amazing services can be offered, for free, in exchange for nothing more than those eyeballs.

I don't like advertisement. [...]  But the internet is built on the idea that this stuff should be free, so that's problematic, because advertising is then the only model.  And if you want YouTube to be free, and yet continue employing thousands of people, you're gonna have to look at ads.  But if you don't want YouTube videos to be supported by ads, and you don't want them to be free, then we should talk about that.

If there's a way to make an online company that doesn't rely on users providing their psyche and their behavioral habits to be put into a collective commons that is then auctioned off literally to the highest bidder, then let's have that conversation.

(Emphasis mine)

For the most part, I'm okay with advertising.  I feel conflicted about the fact that advertisers get to practice psychological manipulation on us, but I don't mind getting to watch YouTube for free in exchange for occasionally being annoyed by having to click another button before I watch my video after waiting a whole five seconds.

For a lot of people right now, it seems like the solution is just to feel conflicted.  Some people (like, recently, Tom Milsom) decide to forsake advertising revenue altogether, but a lot of people choose to go with the ads, hope they do relatively minimal cultural damage, and try to create art that's good enough that it's worth passing ads to see it.

I think we can do better than that, and I think we should -- and there are three levels on which I would like to see change.

Individual creators' control

Artists should have the right to decide what kind of ads they want on their content.  I imagine an interface in which creators would be able to select particular ads to put on their content, specify categories to let through, specify particular categories to exclude, or just automatically take the highest-paying ads that they have access to.  Advertisers, too, would have the option to make their ads available to everyone, or blacklist or whitelist particular users.

Institution-level ad curation

At an organization-level, websites that rely on artists to create the content that makes their site valuable should do some amount of broad filtration.  The parameters by which they filter should be explicitly stated in an easy-to-understand format so content creators know what they can expect in terms of advertising.

Case:  Project Wonderful

The poster-child example for these first two levels is Project Wonderful, an ad company designed for artists by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics.

From their website's about page:

They use a mechanism called 'infinite auction,' where advertisers bid on how much they're willing to pay for ad display time, and the highest bidder is automatically charged the lowest amount of money that will beat all the other bids.  Advertisers are only ever charged for the time their ads spend up on the site, and creators get the most anyone's willing to pay for their ad space at the moment.

I don't think that the Project Wonderful system could be directly transposed onto YouTube, but if they were to renovate their advertising system, this would be a good place to get inspiration.

Government-level advertising standards

This category is pretty self-explanatory:  we need better legislation protecting us from misleading and exploitative ads.  I wrote on Wednesday about the DSHEA, a bill passed in 1994 that makes it easier for companies to lie about the medicinal value of their products, and harder for the FDA to catch them doing it.  Food and medicine aren't the only areas where we're not very well protected against false or misleading claims.

This isn't something that individual artists or companies can do anything about directly, but if we adopt more proactive control over what we advertise, we might be able to start breaking down this cultural assumption that ads are entirely good or entirely bad, opening the way for popular political support of legislation that helps to manage false advertising effectively.

Economic drawbacks

Of course, if all my suggestions are implemented, it will necessarily decrease ad revenue for creators and networks.  The more selection creators have, the more the market gets divided and the more intelligently individual advertisers can direct their money.  When networks and governments impose quality control, the effectiveness of manipulative and dishonest ads are severely crippled, so the ads that make their owners the most money, and therefore are worth spending the most money airing, aren't legal anymore.  As John Green explains in his video on ads, You ARE The Product,

Corporations actually have a really good idea of how advertisements affect your behavior.  In fact, there are many thousands of people who are working full time to make sure that the ads you see are worth more than they cost.  To put it succinctly, almost by definition, advertisers buy you for less than you're worth.

I would argue, though, that the dip in revenue would be worth the gains, because in the long term, the more we, as a nation and as a world community, make our information standards, the more thoughtful and responsible we will become.  People are at least in part a reflection of their media landscape, and a more intelligent media landscape means a more intelligent citizenry, a better-run country, and ultimately, a positive-sum world community that will increase value for everyone.