The brands I care about are all yelling at me

June 30, 2012 | 12 comments

Update: If you enjoyed this article, you should vote for this SXSW 2013 panel. It should be a thought-provoking conversation.

Skype, a few weeks ago: “You should think of Conversation Ads as a way for Skype to generate fun interactivity between your circle of friends and family and the brands you care about. Ultimately, we believe this will help make Skype a more engaging and useful place to have your conversations each and every day.”

The brands I care about.

Brands that I care about.

Brands. Care. I. About.

I can’t make it make sense. Some thoughts:

  1. Advertisements are placed by the brand. Any advertisement I see isn’t there because it’s a brand I care about; it’s because I’m a consumer the brand cares about. The advertiser wants to reach me, not the other way around. To reverse the relationship and suggest that I’m clamoring to reach a set of brands is perverse.
  2. To the extent that I’m involved in the relationship at all, I’m interested in products, not brands. I use a computer for a living; I decided to switch to Mac because I worked out that the build quality would save me money and improve my productivity, not because I love Apple. I buy organic ketchup from Trader Joe because I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup, and Trader Joe is convenient. If another company came out with a computer that lasted as long, or another ketchup that was made without corn syrup and was equally convenient to buy, I might switch. I’m loyal to values, not brands. The idea that I might stick to Apple or Trader Joe because of an emotional attachment to the brand itself is, again, perverse.
  3. I can see why advertising companies want us to care about brands. The meme has existed for a while now, and the relentless hammering will doubtless have the same propaganda effect that, say, advertising for fast food has over time. After a while your sense of reality shifts and you accept that of course this is food. Of course we should care about product lines. Of course we should define ourselves by what we buy and consume.
  4. It’s bullshit. As an industry, we should be aiming higher. Eyeball-based economics has led us to a situation where everything we create exists to shill ads. The promise of computing is to improve the human experience, and it’s hard to do that when your goal is to bring in as many users as possible so they can click on very special messages, algorithmically delivered just for them.

I believe this strongly: ethical companies charge for their services. Display advertising is a legacy economic model, and the brands that control it are gatekeepers. There are better business models out there, waiting to be found, that allow sites and communities to be sustainable on their own terms.