We interrupt this mission to Mars for a word from our sponsors…

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Via Slashdot, here’s a paper at the Journal Of Cosmology (who need to hire a web designer, like, yesterday) that suggests such well-worn corporate PR strategies as sponsorship, “naming rights” and other licensing angles as a great way to finance a manned mission to Mars.

Sound familiar? So it should – Jason Stoddard did something very similar when he made a Mars mission into a reality TV challenge in his story-that-became-a-novel “Winning Mars” (free online versions are available; the book is in the production pipeline at Prime Books at the moment).

In a way, it’s a sad indictment of the post-modern nation state that the only viable funding methods for space exploration are corporate; a mars mission would be a terrible waste of taxes that could be used for more important matters, right?

  • The predicted cost of going to Mars: ~$145 Billion.
  • The cost of the Iraq war thus far: ~$739 Billion. [via MyElvesAreDifferent]

Kinect: the Big Brother peripheral?

Paul Raven @ 22-11-2010

Concerns begin to arise around the capabilities of Microsoft’s Kinect controller – what exactly are you allowing into your front room [via MonkeyFilter]?

On Thursday, Microsoft Vice President Dennis Durkin told the BMO Digital Entertainment Investor Conference in New York that Kinect offers “a really interesting opportunity” to target content and ads based on who is playing, and to send data back to advertisers.

“When you stand in front of it,” he said, according to news reports, “it has face recognition, voice recognition,” and “we can cater what content gets presented to you based on who you are.” Your wife, Durkin added, could see a different set of content choices than you do, and this can include advertising.

The advertiser will also know, he said, “how many people are in a room when an advertisement is shown,” or when a game is played. He said the system, and therefore advertisers, can also know how many people are engaged with a game or a sporting event, if they are standing up and excited — even if they are wearing Seahawks or Giants jerseys.

We’ve heard about these sorts of capability before, but not in such affordable and desirable household consumer electronics items as the Kinect. Microsoft would like to assuage any concerns, however:

Apparently as a result of Durkin’s remarks, Microsoft issued a statement Thursday that neither its Xbox 360 video-game controller nor Xbox Live “use any information captured by Kinect for advertising targeting purposes.”

The instinctively paranoid and mistrustful might find themselves appending a “… yet!” onto the end of that statement. And long-time Microsoft haterz will get a wry chuckle out of this follow-up:

The company added that it has a strong track record “for implementing some of the best privacy-protection measures in the industry.”

Erm, right.

Anyway, the Kinect (much like the similar devices which will doubtless follow hot on its heels) isn’t inherently nasty… but it does have the capability to be misused in Orwellian ways. Which is why I’m always glad to see clever hacker types reverse-engineering drivers for proprietary hardware; knowledge is power.


Neuromarketing advances

Paul Raven @ 16-11-2010

Via George Dvorsky, the NYT reports on further developments in the increasingly-technologized voodoo psychology of making you want to buy sh*t you don’t need:

Neuromarketing is simply the latest incarnation, says Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “There has always been a holy grail in advertising to try to reach people in a hypodermic way,” he says.

[ A “hypodermic way”? Interesting choice of language, there; am I the only one who instantly thought of junkies slumped in dark rooms after reading that sentence? ]

Major corporations and research firms, he says, are jumping on the neuromarketing bandwagon because they are desperate for any novel technique to help them break through all the marketing clutter. “It’s as much about the nature of the industry and the anxiety roiling through the system as it is about anything else,” he says.

Personally, I harbour a (totally irrational and unfounded) hope that persuasion marketing will turn out to be a relic of the pre-networked world; when there are infinite channels through which to market, then all marketing is noise, and hence doomed to failure (or at least to being avoided) unless it has a tangible value for the audience independent of the product or service it is trying to sell.

But opinions are divided as to whether neuromarketing might be anything more than the next rung on the ladder up from the focus group:

Mr. Chester says the government traditionally hasn’t restricted advertising for adults because adults have defense mechanisms that can distinguish between truth and untruth.

[ I rather suspect that those “defence mechanisms” are not innate, but learned… and even then only with varying degrees of effectiveness, as a glance at contemporary political debate makes patently clear. ]

“But if the advertising is now purposely designed to bypass those rational defenses, then the traditional legal defenses protecting advertising speech in the marketplace have to be questioned.”

Proponents of the technique, however, say neuromarketing is simply a more accurate barometer of consumer response than traditional focus groups.

Dr. Pradeep of NeuroFocus, for one, says his company will never use subliminal techniques — like embedding stimuli that last 30 milliseconds or less — that people can’t consciously register. And while other neuromarketing firms have been involved in political campaigns, testing candidate speeches and ad scripts, NeuroFocus has not.

“If I persuaded you to choose Toothpaste A or Toothpaste B, you haven’t really lost much, but if I persuaded you to choose President A or President B, the consequences could be much more profound,” Dr. Pradeep says. “The fact that we can use this technology to do this doesn’t mean we should.”

Moreover, at this point, neuromarketing probably isn’t sophisticated enough to realize some of its critics’ worst fears.

Like any technology, neuromarketing is effectively morally neutral; it’s the hand that holds the gun that commits the murder, so to speak. And while I have some concerns about technologized marketing reaching into our brains, I also have the utmost confidence that someone somewhere will be building a spamblocker for it. Everything can and will be hacked.


An open letter to Scott Messick, president of the Media Mayhem Corporation

Paul Raven @ 01-10-2010

Edit, 31 Oct 2010: Mister Messick has since paid the full amount that was owing to Futurismic, and offered many apologies for the confusion and miscommunication that led to the following post.

Hi Scott, me again;

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve removed the Media Mayhem ad-block code from Futurismic, as I informed you I would do last week. I realise that this is technically a breach of the contract I signed with you guys – but then again, pretty much any behaviour other than sitting patiently waiting for the money I’m owed is a breach of that contract on my part. Interestingly, late payment on your part isn’t a breach of contract; were I was less naive, perhaps that would have rang an alarm bell with me earlier on.

I’ve been patient, Scott; I really have. I understood from the outset that Futurismic was small fry compared to some of the other names on your roster of ad publishers, to the extent that I was quite astonished and flattered when one of your employees solicited me directly about hosting your ad units. Oh, I’ve had plenty of people offer ad deals to Futurismic, but you guys were the first one that wasn’t obviously a gang of link-farming hucksters. I mean, the same company who run ads on Tor.com? And you want to run similar ads on my little site? Well, colour me stoked. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Ninety days, Scott. That’s how long I was supposed to wait before revenue from the ads I was running started to come through. The ninety days passed long ago, didn’t they – given that I put the ad-block tags into the site theme on 17th February? So I started making polite enquiries as to what was happening around the end of June. First of all there was the line about the accounting department all being away on vacation (can it really qualify as a ‘department’ if the entire team can be away at the same time?), and then it was a change in payment terms enforced upon you by your advertisers, which would have the knock on effect of delaying the passing through of those payments to us publishers.

Then there was the possibility of sending out a cheque, but no one seemed able to tell me whether the change of mailing address I’d informed you of back in May had actually been registered anywhere, and I’d been told that electronic payments would be fine when I signed up with you (what with me being UK-based, and hence unable to cash a dollar cheque with ease). But there’s an authorisation problem with the company’s PayPal account (or it’s empty of funds, or possibly both), and you’ve never had to look into sending funds via bank transfer before, and, and, and…

A week ago, after I told you I’d be yanking the ad blocks at the start of October, you assured me that you were working on the PayPal problem, and thanked me for understanding. Well, Scott, I’m afraid I don’t understand.

You see, understanding is rather dependent on having information to base that understanding upon. I can’t understand if all I get are hollow reassurances. So I’ve ended up doing what a science fiction fan does best, and extrapolating a narrative from a few observable facts. Facts that include:

  • The notice on your website that says you don’t deal with sites that pull less than 100,000 page views a month; why, then, did you solicit ad spaces from a media minnow like Futurismic?
  • The mysterious mass absence of the accounting department, followed by the revelation that only you – the company president, no less! – can authorise and send payments; sounds like the accounting department’s job to me, really, but what would I know?
  • The fact that for the last three months or so the ads running here haven’t changed from dull plugs for MySpace; minimum revenue space-fillers, and hardly the exciting media promotions that are, according to your website, your stock in trade.

Can you see where those plot points might be leading? Maybe I’m just too used to the pessimistic narratives of contemporary science fiction, but I’m not expecting a happy ending.

I really wanted to believe in you guys, Scott; your customer service was excellent when we had some problem ads appearing in the stream, and Media Mayhem gave every indication of being a legitimate and above-board ad broker company, right up until the point when I started asking about getting paid. Indeed, I suspect that for most of its history it has been… and maybe it still is, when dealing with its bigger publishers rather than the sub-100,000 minnows.

All I know for sure is that Media Mayhem owes me money, and that when I get in touch to find out what’s happening about me getting paid, all I get are excuses (if I get any reply at all). And so I’m using the only leverage I have; without publishers like me to run those ads, you have no business. Currently, you’re taking money from someone somewhere to publish ads on my property, but you’re not passing my share of that money on. Maybe a small site like Futurismic isn’t a priority, and slips through the administrative cracks; maybe you really have run into every conceivable obstacle in the course of trying to pay me (and very kindly decided not to bother me with trivia or keeping me informed of what might be happening with my account). I just don’t know for sure… and I’m afraid my speculations at this point are less than charitable.

So, your ad blocks are gone. I realise that this effectively breaks our contract, and probably means you are no longer obliged to pay me the money I’m owed… but you know what? At this point, I’m not entirely convinced you’ve ever intended to.

Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face here? I guess I am… but hey, it’s my face, and while my pockets may be empty I’ve still got this stupid sense of pride to cling on to. And I’m working on the theory that, should there be any other smaller sites out there on the internet who are running ads for you and wondering when they’re going to get paid, perhaps they’ll realise that there’s something amiss, and that they’re not the only ones getting the run-around.

I’m kind of sorry it’s come to this, Scott; some might say it’s not very professional of me to go public with an issue like this, and perhaps they’re right. But some might say it’s not very professional to string along a client that you yourselves solicited advertising spaces from, and to offer nothing but excuses even when they’ve been waiting for well over twice the stated length of your payment cycle.

Naturally, I’m not expecting you to lose any sleep over this – heck, that contract means that even if I could afford a lawyer, it’d be pointless hiring one – but I’m damned if I’m going to lose any more sleep of my own. I consider the contract between us null and void from this point; I hope that money comes in handy for you and the company.

Yours…

Paul Graham Raven, Publisher


Advertising In Books

Gareth L Powell @ 08-09-2010

By most accounts, the publishing industry has been having a tough time of late, having to adapt to increased competition from the Internet and video games; falling sales; and the explosion of self-publishing and print-on-demand technologies. In addition, publishers are searching for ways to make e-books attractive and profitable, and like music publishers before them, they need to come up with new business models and new revenue opportunities.

One such opportunity is the inclusion of advertising in books, both print and electronic, and there are two ways this could happen:

  • Firstly, traditional ads could be included in the end pages of books, much as the old mail order ads for x-ray specs and sea monkeys used to be included in the backs of American comic books.
  • Secondly, and this is perhaps more interesting, interactive hyperlinks could be included within the actual text of the book itself.

If a character in the book drinks a particular brand of soft drink, a link could be included to a promotional landing page on that company’s website; or if the action takes place in New York or San Francisco, links could be included to hotels or tourist attractions in those cities.

Would this kind of advertising work, or would it put off more readers than it attracted, leading to further falls in sales? Could it revolutionise the publishing industry, or would it lead to less variety as advertisers pay only for space in books by big-name authors, leaving books by new writers struggling to attract finance?

Would you buy a book with advertising included in it, or does the very idea repulse you? Can you foresee advertising becoming ubiquitous in literature, or do you have alternative suggestions for the future of the publishing industry?

I’d like to hear your thoughts…

Gareth L Powell is the author of the novels The Recollection and Silversands, and the short story collection The Last Reef. He is also a regular contributor to Interzone and can be found online at www.garethlpowell.com


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