Dave Allen

Thoughts about mobile advertising

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Black Friday 2012

I was thinking about the proliferation of Tablets this morning after reading an article about ‘Tablet clutter.’ In short the market has become so packed with product choices that consumers are confronted with a product technology version of the Paradox of Choice, where too much choice comes very close to creating stasis in the consumer. For example the article notes that there are currently 14 iPad models to choose from and also includes a telling couple of sentences: Tablets were supposed to be a simple alternative to the bloated personal computer market. And when “tablet” was synonymous with “iPad,” that was true.

I have an iPad 2, that as you may know is the version that arrived after the original iPad and was then followed by iPad the Third aka the Retina display version. Now there’s the iPad Mini but no longer any sign of iPad 1. Are you still with me? You can compare them all here. A quick aside: at the beginning of the year I wrote about switching to using the iPad exclusively for all of my work needs. Let’s just say it went OK for a while but I am writing this post on my MacBook Pro.

In the Tablet world there are iPads and then the rest. Some of the rest are focussed on doing one thing – reading – so we have the Kindle and the NOOK Tablet. And then there’s a whole plethora of Tablets that seem to want to emulate computers – the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Microsoft Surface Tablet and Google’s Nexus 7 are just some examples. There are also Tablets built more for entertainment such as the Kindle Fire.

I’m going to buy the iPad Mini soon, for a few reasons – form and function, portability and an upgrade, (for me anyway,) to LTE. Bigger than iPhone, smaller than iPad, not a computer. All of which makes me consider what people use Tablets for and what I will be using the iPad Mini for. For me it’s mainly entertainment; web surfing, music, video and reading – plus the more utilitarian actions of researching and writing. I suspect that many other users would fall into the same buckets of use as me. And that brings me to the implausibility of interruption. That’s a twist on the definition of implausible but, to put it another way, I hate being bugged by intrusive advertising when I’m using my mobile devices. And there are not many ways to put a stop to it.

On the iPad I use the Safari app to access NewYorkTimes.com – a far superior way I say – to read the news than the NY Times apps. Unfortunately I have to suffer the indignity of ads that often take over roughly one third of the screen, ads that can only be relegated into digital remission by tapping the close button, forcing them to scuttle off like a herpes virus to the safety of the digital spine only to blossom later in full force. Waiting for slow-loading ads before getting on with what I had intended to do, read the news, is frustrating to say the least. (I know that I could use the NY Times apps but they too are not ad free and I dislike their usability. I could also turn off JavaScript in the app settings but, again, it’s a convenience issue. The ‘Block Pop-ups’ option works yet you still get a screen message saying “this site is attempting to open a pop-up” which is rather redundant is it not?)

In the Chrome browser AdBlock works really well across my iMac and MacBook Pro but there are hardly any options for blocking ads on the iPad. There is an AdBlock app which acts as a proxy server that parses your requested page free of ads and then delivers it back to you, but that action makes the page slow to load [video.] It also renders sites like Hulu unwatchable which of course isn’t very convenient. There’s also the iCabMobile browser app for iOS but I’ve found it difficult to set filters that effectively block ads.

If there is agreement that most people use the iPad for entertainment, with a small percentage of that use set aside for utility – search, email, banking, e-commerce etc – then marketers and app developers need to consider the disruption that mobile advertising causes. (Having written that sentence I realize the tautology prevalent within it – disrupting our attention is at the root of marketing.) I note on my iPhone 5 that those pesky iAds in the footer are bigger now. Bigger screen, bigger iAd, right? My favorite music app is from Mixcloud, a similar service to Soundcloud, and of course Mixcloud’s business plan includes mobile advertising. Fair enough. But here’s the rub – I use it most on my four hour roundtrip to the University of Oregon each week. I hook up the iPhone to my car stereo with Bluetooth, hit play, drop the device in the center console and never look at it again until I arrive at my destination. Those iAds go unnoticed. Lots of impressions served. Although the lights are on no one’s home.

Context then, is still an issue.

I asked my friend Justin Spohn to write some thoughts about an essay of mine about two years ago, an essay on David Foster Wallace, reality TV, brands, media and the Web. His response was relevant then and remains relevant today.

More than imparting the ability for everyone to become a broadcaster, the internet has enabled people to connect, and to organize, and to understand things in a way never before possible. It allows us to have multiple, simultaneous modes of ourselves: me the worker, me the photographer, me the Facebook friend, me the Twitter account about 80ʼs sitcoms; and have each of these modes come in and out of play asynchronously to my physical reality. [My emphasis D.A.]

The multiple digital personality in other words. In my digital strategy classes at the University of Oregon and at PNCA, I stress context regularly: Who, Why, When, Where, What?

Justin goes on:

Mobile takes this a step further by bringing the relationship of both time and space into this equation. I use this Tobaccowala quote in my mobile deck, and I think it applies here: “Where you are will increasingly define who you are.” [My emphasis D.A.] I think this is relevant to your piece in that it acknowledges the notion of the shifting persona. Previously, the most progressive of agencies would develop a series of personas and create programs targeting them. Going forward I think these personas will need to be informed by the notion that any individual may hold a number of personas at any given time: creator, customer, conversationalist, and so on; and create systems that target not just who, but who plus when and where.

It’s only mildly hyperbolic to say that the greatest medium for the entertainment moment is still the television (as measured by scale of use.) Collapsing on the sofa, while the LED’s or LCD’s illuminate the room is a surrender to the platform, an experience that we have long embraced generation after generation. Within that experience is an implicit understanding that we will withstand advertising whether we like it or not. TV viewers have embraced the contract, or covenant: You like buying stuff, we will show you stuff to buy, provided in 30 or 60 second clips by our brand partners. The context is clear: we know that the majority of TV viewers are watching from home. With time-shifting, when they are watching is a more problematic metric but a minor issue all the same. With the rising use of what’s termed the ‘second-screen,’ aka tablets, mobile devices, handhelds etc, Shazam, the company behind the music discovery app of the same name, is forging a strong lead with its “advertising listening” technology. Open the Shazam app in your mobile device while watching TV and it “listens” to the ads. It then surfaces further information about the brand’s product for the user.

The entertainment moment just became more “entertaining” if you’re up for it.

Personally I’ve been searching for less interactivity online, not more. I wrote about searching for passivity in an interactive world. It’s a form of being left alone. Not monastic by any degree, just simple and uninterrupted. There’s a movement called Voluntary Simplicity. It’s not a Luddite movement by any means, more of a philosophical idea of how one should create a life well lived. As it is described on Wikipedia, it’s about people who “… are skeptical about how humanity will use new technology, citing destructive inventions such as nuclear weapons. Although simple living is often a secular pursuit, it may still involve reconsidering personal definitions of appropriate technology, as Anabaptist groups such as the Amish or Mennonites have done.” It’s worth considering here that the buggies that the Amish travel in, while eschewing the automobile, are technological devices too. As are we. The buggy is more appropriate to the Amish and their lifestyle though.

Finally, serendipity. I find that what most often happens when reading and researching for an article, is that I stumble across a fitting coda to my thoughts. The bow that wraps things up. In this instance I came across a book review in the New York Times by my friend John Jeremiah Sullivan. He had reviewed Nicholson Baker’s The Way the World Works: Essays. Here’s an excerpt from Sullivan’s review:

Baker is a natural essayist, in the sense that the form hews to his habit of mind. He’s a guy who’ll happily, or at least helplessly, sit and think for 20 pages about, say, the Kindle (in “Kindle 2”) and what it means. He procures one of the things. He reads De Quincey’s “Confessions” on it. He calls its name “cute and sinister at the same time” — a nice little nested bon mot that forces you to think about burning libraries to figure out what he means. But Baker defied my expectation of a reassuringly crypto-Luddite ending by at last, after many attempts, enjoying a novel on the machine (Michael Connelly’s “Lincoln Lawyer”). The matter of the text — the story itself and the sound of it in his head — emerged through the medium, as they always will, through infinite technological changes. “Poof, the Kindle disappeared,” Baker writes, “just as Jeff Bezos had promised it would.”

“The matter of the text — the story itself and the sound of it in his head — emerged through the medium, as they always will, through infinite technological changes.”

Nicholson finds himself in a simple place, at peace with a machine that had “disappeared.” A place without advertising – if you pay $20 to Amazon to have the ads removed..

Today is Black Friday. Monday is Cyber Monday. Do not click those links.