It’s Hard Paying Attention to the Gadgets

Three stats I saw last week got me thinking about our rising inability to pay attention to anything.

Empty Conference Room
(Photo credit: Tom Quinn/Flickr Creative Commons.)

One, while on conference calls, 60% of us report to multitasking and generally not paying attention unless we’re the ones doing the talking. (Nobody is paying attention to your conference call.)

Two, there were those stats about the abysmally low engagement rates for brands in Facebook. (Why brands are un-friending Facebook.)

“Red Bull’s main Facebook page has 44m fans. Maybe a lot, but by generating just 330,000 interactions last month, the brand managed less than 1 monthly interaction for every 100 fans…. Meanwhile, Coca Cola’s main page has a whopping 84m fans globally, but scored an engagement per fan 20-times lower than Red Bull’s. MAC, one of the digitally most sophisticated brands in high-end beauty averaged just one monthly interaction for every 500 fans. Same story with a top digital performer in the beer category- Heineken, earning just 1 interaction for every 180 fans.”

If you look at just those two stats, side by side, you might conclude that corporations produce really boring content, and when we’re at work talking about our corporations, we’re boring too. But I also saw this third data point: People reading on Kindles are much less likely to remember the plot of a story than readers who read the story in a paperback book. Digital readers experience comparable levels of “empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence” that are similar to physical-book readers, but there’s something about “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle [that] does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

I don’t exactly to know what to make of that. (To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what all those words mean.) But it does suggest that current digital reading experiences are less memorable, at least in some ways, because they ask less of some of our senses — the movement of eyes across the page, or the work the brain needs to do to place words in a specific place on a rectangle of white paper. When you consider the capabilities of digital reading devices such as phones, laptops, tablets and Kindles — which can integrate sound and motion and even limited touch interaction — it’s odd that paper still tantalizes certain parts of the brain better. I wonder if that edge will hold when we start reading stories inside a pair of VR goggles.

Driving in the Future with Navdy

I just like this commercial. I got to meet Doug, the guy who invented the Navdy product; I got to eavesdrop on a cute mother-son phone conversation; and discovered a cool new band called Sugarbeef.

Annie Leibovitz Goes Native for Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton Ad in August 2014 Vanity Fair

I love the new Series 1 campaign for Louis Vuitton, with photography by Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber and Juergen Teller.

At first, when I saw the print creative in the Sunday New York Times, I didn’t think much about it — a brand like Louis Vuitton enlisting a prominent photographer such as Leibovitz for advertising work isn’t unusual. She’s been collaborating with Louis Vuitton on commercial work for years. But when I saw the campaign in the pages of Vanity Fair, a magazine that lists her on the masthead as a contributing photographer, I liked it even more. It didn’t require copy saying “advertorial” or “sponsored” at the top: Louis Vuitton’s brand is prominently stamped in the lower right-hand corner and copy below the photos tells you where to buy the products, so it’s obviously not an editorial series. Yet there’s nothing more native to the pages of Vanity Fair than luscious photographs of beautiful, fashionable people directed by Annie Leibovitz. These are ad pages that augment the reading experience that brought me to Vanity Fair in the first place. How lovely.

Jarring Reminder from VW: Keep Your Eyes On the Road

Nice use of location-based text advertising and in-cinema video to create an experiential ad for Volkswagen.

Newcastle Imagines an America That Lost the Revolution

Celebrate July Third with this Newcastle spot from Droga5.

Alcohol Brands and Car Services Bid for Drunk Driver Story

I love programmatic banner buying as much as the next guy, but some days I can’t help worrying about the future of online advertising.

Of course there’s the viewability crisis, where 54% of banners are delivered outside the viewable area of a browser, and therefore can never be seen by human eyes. Among ads delivered by ad networks, it’s even worse: 69% of them aren’t viewable. Then there are all those ads served intentionally (and fraudulently) to software bots trying to act like web-surfing consumers. Even among what’s left — viewable ads served to human beings — I would argue that plenty of money is wasted on over-aggressive re-targeting.

And then I came across this.

Drunk Driving Headline

A friend submitted an anonymous tip to the ChasNote hot-line. It’s a link to this story at LA Times (headline above) introducing new allegations of drunk driving to the ongoing story of booze-fueled violence by a Los Angeles Dodgers fan against Bryan Snow, a fan of the rival San Francisco Giants. The submitter was pointing out an awkwardly placed ad for a brand of vodka, but he didn’t include a screenshot, only a link to the story.

Tanqueray Ad LA Times

By the time I followed the link to the LA Times, the vodka ad had been replaced by this one (above), for Tanqueray gin. It appears to the team here at ChasNote that some automated ad-targeting software — software developed by an ad-network that manages certain inventory for the LA Times — created a bidding war among alcoholic beverage brands for this drunk driver story. Oy vey. And, for extra credit, it placed an ad for Hertz Rental Car below the Tanqueray ad. Really unfortunate, eh?

But, wait, you say. It’s quite the opposite! It’s brilliant re-targeting!

I did, in fact, book a car with Hertz at its website the night before, so this is actually state-of-the-art targeting aimed at predisposed customers, right? It’s wasteful targeting, in my view. I literally bought the company’s services 12 hours prior, and if I book another Hertz car 12 hours later it’s because I had a good experience interacting with the product and personnel. An advertisement of any kind, at that point, would have nothing to do with it. Offering me a 30% discount when I’m likely (given my behavior in the most recent 12 hours) to pay at full retail is actually kind of stupid.

I’m also a fan of Tanqueray’s product, though I haven’t made that official in Facebook nor have I visited the brand’s site in the past year. Maybe someone’s been combing through my receipts from the grocery store?

Still. It’s awful, in the opinion of this longtime Hertz and Tanqueray customer, to see these brands running alongside a drunk-driving story. Not great to see them running alongside each other, either. I’ve got to believe we can do better.

Fraud, Invisible Ads and Silly Targeting

Robots Watching TV
(Photo: “Robots Watching Telly” from Nice Paper Toys.)

Mercedes-Benz recently accused Rocket Fuel, the giant ad network, of fraud, asserting 57% of the impressions the car-maker bought on the network’s websites were seen only by non-human software bots. From the FT:

Part of a recent Mercedes-Benz online advertising campaign was viewed more often by automated computer programmes than by human beings, according to documents seen by the Financial Times.

The ads were inadvertently placed on to fraudulent websites by Rocket Fuel, a Nasdaq-listed ad technology company that went public last September with a market capitalisation of nearly $1bn.

Rocket Fuel, in a blog post, refutes those numbers, claiming only 6% of the Mercedes-Benz impressions were fraudulent, and that they replaced them with ad impressions served to actual humans “before any bills were even sent.” In the same post, they tout their prowess in identifying and declining fraudulent inventory. “We reject approximately 40% of all ad space daily due to its failure to pass our own bot and brand-safety screens.” Good for you, Rocket Fuel, but bad for the rest of the industry. Forty-percent?? What’s 40% of $43 billion in digital ad spending?

Of course, the industry recently made a small leap forward. At least regarding the online ads that are aimed at humans — 54% of which, according to Comscore, are delivered to parts of the web that human eyes can’t see, below the fold or otherwise outside the browser’s viewport. The IAB has formalized a new viewability standard. No longer will publishers or ad networks (those that comply, anyway) charge for ad impressions delivered outside the visible, on-screen space on a consumer’s screen. From now on, half (or more) of the ad unit must have the opportunity to be seen, and must stay there for at least one second. If you’re starting from zero seconds and invisible, I guess, this is progress. Modest, incremental progress, but it’s a start.

Numbers like that — 40% is fraud, 54% can’t be seen by humans — can depress a person. But the ads that aren’t invisible or software scams, at least they’re super targeted and awesome, right? It’s downright scary how those online ad algorithms know absolutely everything about us, right? Sometime I’m not so sure.

Roman Mars Tweet

Earlier this week I saw this tweet from Roman Mars, the prominent design and architecture journalist. The New York Times design columnist Allison Arieff calls him “the Ira Glass of design.” Meanwhile the marketing team at School of Visual Arts wants to send him back to school, and is spending marketing dollars to pursue its case.

It struck me that those emails and postcards would qualify as excellent, near-perfect targeting in the world of digital advertising. Last weekend I did two things online. One, I visited the website for a touristy Chinatown restaurant (Z and Y) to get their address, and, later that night, ate there with my in-laws. Two, I bought a Welsh Love Spoon as a present for my daughter. For the rest of the week Google served me ads for Z and Y Restaurant and promotions for Welsh Love Spoons.

Silly, right?

Do the ad-targeting algorithms think I’m due to go back to Z and Y so soon? And if I did go back to Z and Y a week later, shouldn’t the chefs and waiters ad Z and Y, not Google, get the credit for my return trip? And the Welsh Love Spoons. Is there something in my personal Big Data that says I’ve suddenly become an obsessive Welsh Love Spoon collector? I can attest to the fact that these ads connected with human eyes — for a full handful of seconds! — but I’m still tempted to call them a scam.

Postcard From Pop-Up Magazine

Pop-Up Magazine Program

I had so much fun at Pop-Up Magazine on Thursday night.

The Kitchen Sisters introduced us to “bone records” from Soviet Russia. When vinyl was hard to come by, creative music fans figured out how to groove pirated American and European pop songs into recycled X-ray film. I especially like this one: Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel stamped over an image of someone’s actual heart and ribcage.

Bone Record of Elvis Presley Heartbreak Hotel

Jon Mooallem profiled the longest-burning incandescent lightbulb, at the fire station in Livermore, California. It celebrated its 100th birthday in 2001, and it’s still glowing 24/7. You can see it in action live on the Internet, but they don’t make webcams like they used to make lightbulbs — they’ve had to replace the webcam twice.

Livermore Fire Station Lightbulb

Driving from San Francisco to Providence, RI, in the summer of 1990, I listened to the audiobook for Moby Dick. It was unabridged, 21 cassette tapes of uninterrupted classic lit, and the longest audiobook offered by the bookstore I rented it from. I thought I was pretty badass until Aaron Loeb told the story of the guy in a Somali prison who “read” Anna Karenina, all 349,168 words of it, to his fellow prisoners in a Morse-code-like system of knocks on the wall of his cell. It took something like seven years for the novel to make its way down the line to the rest of the inmates.

I loved all 65 minutes of Sam Green’s live documentary, The Measure of All Things, especially when Bao Xishun, the world’s second tallest man, saved a choking dolphin and, in the process, found love.

Bao Xishun Saves Dolphin

Caroline Paul told an incredible story about her attempt, as a teenager, to break the distance record for crawling on all fours…. Oh, forget it. I’m not even going to talk about it; you kinda had to be there.

(Disclosure: In addition to being a Pop-Up Magazine fanboy, I work for its publisher, California Sunday. My role in Thursday night, though, was basically sitting around admiring the hard work of Pat Walters, Leo Jung, Lauren Smith, Derek Fagerstrom, Evan Ratliff, Doug McGray, and the enormously talented storytellers they brought to the stage. Special thanks to our wonderful sponsors, MailChimp and Lexus.)

Save Our Saucepans

SOS Print Ad 1938 Ladies Home Journal

Last night at Pop-Up Magazine I was chatting with two people, one from Clorox and one from a Clorox steel wool supplier, who gave me a quiz I failed: What does SOS stand for in SOS pads? Turns out it’s Save Our Saucepans. Whatever those letters stand for, there’s nothing that polishes your aluminum pans “like new and like magic” like SOS. At least if you believe (as I do) this 1938 ad from Ladies Home Journal.

The Valley of Ambiguity

The Valley of Ambiguity

From Annalee Newitz’s (excellent) theory on viral journalism and the valley of ambiguity. Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction.

TED videos, often seasoned with cheery platitudes, become viral for the same reason that grumpy cat pictures do. They don’t ask us to think critically — just to enjoy, or be amused and enlightened without the time-consuming labor of skepticism and doubt clouding our clicks. Why do we want to share these stories? Because in some sense they are not open to interpretation. You don’t have to worry whether your friends will wonder why you shared this — it’s obvious.

The same goes for viral journalism on the other side of my chart. These stories, like explainers, how-to guides, Mythbusters-style debunkery, and truth-telling investigative journalism, are in some ways the opposite of a stupid video or a LOLcat. They are about truth, rather than amusement. But in fact, they go viral for exactly the same reason LOLcats do. They are not open to interpretation.

I guess we can all publish more feel-guide self-help guides, or just pretend that our low tweet counts (ahem) are a sign that we have asked our readers to do some critical thinking — and, by extension, we’re brilliant.