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Return of the Human Computers

In a recent article on crowdsourced computing, The Economist traces the phenomenon back to the late 1930s, when Depression-era stimulus money funded teams of number-crunchers to work together like a giant Excel spreadsheet. The concept is experiencing a comeback:

Over the past few years, human computing has been reborn. The new generation of human computers carry out different tasks, but they mirror their predecessors in many other ways. They are being drafted in to perform tasks that computers cannot. They are employed in large numbers and are organised into streamlined workflows. And, as was the case in the age before electronic computers, their output is combined to generate results that could not easily be produced in any other way.

My colleague James Everingham, a founder of two businesses — LiveOps and now Luminate — that organize freelancers into human computers, points out that modern crowdsourcing requires a new, more subtle approach than the math factories of the pre-digital age:

As technologists we must be careful to view our computer as more than a series of simple switches. The components of our computer are people with feelings, aspirations, goals and desires and we must treat them as such. We should strive to provide them with sufficient surrogates for the same things that satisfy those of us that have traditional work environments including a community, feedback, growth opportunity and visibility into meaningful work results. The real power of human computing is more than just controlling a large crowd of workers. High-value work is accomplished when you align work types with interests and enable large groups of fanatics to do work that feeds their passion.

In other words, if you look to crowdsourcing merely as a cheap alternative to full-time employees, you are bound to get what you pay for. If instead you conceive of crowdsourcing as mechanism to pay people for work they’re already doing because they enjoy it, you’ll find yourself with both high-quality end results and a happy CFO.

Eyelashes Too Good to Be True

Procter & Gamble has pulled a CoverGirl ad featuring a photo of Taylor Swift. From Tanzina Vega’s piece at NY Times:

In the ad, for CoverGirl NatureLuxe Mousse Mascara, Ms. Swift’s eyelashes have been enhanced after the fact to look even fuller, and, as a result, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus ruled this month that it was misleading.

The ad itself disclosed the touch-up work: Copy underneath the photo said that her eyelashes had been “enhanced in post production.” And what ad, after all, hasn’t been enhanced in post production? According to a spokesperson for the NAD, though, this case was different: “The photograph stands as a product demonstration. Your eyelashes will look like this if you use this product.”

In the past few years the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has forced Johnson & Johnson (here) and P&G’s Olay (here) to pull ads for false claims for anti-aging creams, but in both cases the violation was sketchy scientific claims. More recently it ruled against L’Oreal (here) for going too far on lighting effects and post production touch-ups on Julia Roberts’s and Christy Turlington’s skin.

Hmmm, this is tough one. The L’Oreal and CoverGirl ads strike me as more explicit versions of what most beauty ads do: They bring together a young, beautiful person with a small team of magicians (stylists, lighting technicians, professional photographers and Photoshop gurus) to imply that we could all look like that young, beautiful person even without the magicians. At what point does it cross into photo-as-product-demonstration?

A Reverse Pay Meter for Online Newspapers, A Pricing Model That’s More Like Everything Else We Buy

Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine considers the upside-down logic of paywalls at online newspapers, where low-value readers get their content for free while loyal, engaged readers are required to pay. Instead Jarvis proposes that newspapers build the opposite — a system of credits that rewards readers for actions that show loyalty (and benefit) the publication, such as sharing stories across social media, looking at ads, reading more articles (which generates more ad inventory), and sharing data about yourself that enables the paper to charge higher advertising rates.

You can’t argue with his logic. Every other time we dole out money for something, we pay more when we get more. You want more features with your car? You want a faster processor in your laptop? No problem, just reach a little deeper into your wallet.

The problem, says Jarvis, is this:

Now I’ll tell you why my reverse meter won’t work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall — many — and how many had paid — few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There’s always someplace else to get the news.

That’s a lame excuse, though. With their illogical paywalls, newspaper publishers seems to acknowledge Jarvis’s point: Most of what they create is a commodity, yet they whine that consumers won’t pay for for it. Back in the good old pre-Internet days, when the dynamics of print-newsspaper distribution meant that consumers had to pick among the two or three papers, publishers could get away with charging for undifferentiated products.

Now that that’s changed, why not abandon (or license) all the common content and focus resources on what each paper can do uniquely well? Two good things will happen. One, publishers will stand a better chance of selling subscriptions if they create something readers can’t get anywhere else. Two, the expenses associated with making all the undifferentiated, overabundant stuff will go away, so the ad model stands a much better chance of covering costs.

College Kids Three Times More Likely to Watch TV Online vs Basic Cable

Full report at eMarketer.

How to Keep Bullies from Eating Your McDonalds Fries

After Burger King called this German spot “degrading” to its brand, McDonalds agreed not to air it on TV. It remains available on YouTube. I wonder if that was the plan from the start.

More at Ad Age.

X-Ray App Lets You See Moosejaw Models in Their Underwear, Boosts Sales 37%

Moosejaw X-Ray App from Gary Wohlfeill on Vimeo.

The app enables Moosejaw catalog readers to look through the models’ clothes to see what they are wearing underneath. In five weeks 75,000 people downloaded the app. For a catalog with an average distribution of 120,000 copies, that says two-thirds of their readers used the app.

It helped ring the cash register too. According to Mashable:

The app also drove sales, up 37% from the same period in November last year. Catalog response rates — that is, the percentage of catalog subscribers who purchased something from Moosejaw’s website in the weeks following the catalog’s release — were up by a full third to 4%…. We were particularly impressed given that the app seemed to distract users from the products themselves.

Let’s just hope Moosejaw doesn’t figure out how to make this app work on people outside its catalog.

If NFL Players Could Endorse Beer Brands

NFL rules prohibit active players from appearing in beer ads. But if they could the ads might look something like this.

More at MTV’s Clutch blog.

Bob Costas, NBC and Chase Team Up on 2-Hour Commercial

Tonight NBC will air “American Giving Awards,” a 2-hour special hosted by Bob Costas that will profile recipients of Chase charitable donations.

From NY Times:

The producers and the network suggested Friday that the awards show was a feel-good holiday season special. Kimberly B. Davis, the president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, said it was about celebrating “ordinary people doing extraordinary things in communities.”

But to others, the show has another bottom line. It’s a “‘greed-washing’ campaign to score P.R. points,” countered Lisa Graves, whose publication “PR Watch” investigates company public relations campaigns. The $2 million in donations that will be featured on Saturday “are a drop in the bucket compared to its ultra-lush benefits for bankers who profited richly from the swaps that undermined our nation’s financial security,” she said.

The “American Giving Awards” are part of a broader business world trend. Not content to have the news media cover its good works, many companies are creating their own media, often cloaked as entertainment.

I don’t think this is such a bad thing. It’s not like viewers have to watch it; if it’s good TV they will. As for the blurring of church and state, I’m hoping NBC News will continue to cover JPMorgan Chase as they did before. Of course, industry watchers have raised legitimate questions about a news outlet’s objectivity when it’s a division of a giant global media conglomerate that puts advertising profits ahead of reporting rigor. But that’s about money–the biggest ad spenders, presumably, are most likely to benefit from favorable coverage–not the content of the ads that money buys. If Chase feels compelled to peel off some marketing dollars from a flight of credit card commercials, and to put that money into charity work and long-form commercials congratulating themselves for doing so, great. I’m not recommending Chase for a Nobel Peace Prize, but in my book greed-washing still beats unapologetic greed.

Google’s Top Search Advertisers

The biggest chunk of Google’s revenue, search advertising, continues to be dominated by the titans of direct response: Wireless carriers, ecommerce sites, travel and financial services. IAC (Ask.com, Match.com, Citysearch, etc) was the #1 search buyer in the first 9 months of 2011. Microsoft, General Motors, Avis and Enterprise also make the top 20.

Kantar Media data as reported on Ad Age. Above chart from Business Insider.

Afri-Cola Commercial from 1968

This 1968 German commercial for Afri-Cola surfaced on Boing Boing again recently. Here’s the original Boing Boing post from 2005. As much as one may enjoy (??) the spot’s unusual blend of nuns, soft-core porn and free love advocacy, it wasn’t enough to maintain leadership for Germany’s one-time dominant soft drink brand. From Wikipedia:

After the Second World War, Afri-Cola became one of the most popular drinks in Germany and a symbol of the German Wirtschaftswunder. In 1952, the company launched Bluna, a lemonade similar to Fanta, which also became a hit among customers. However, in the hard competition of the 60s, Afri-Cola started to lose its influence on the German market to Coca Cola and Pepsi. The commercial designer and photographer Charles Wilp started a marketing campaign to regain its image. However, the market share of Afri-Cola continued to dwindle during the 1980s and 1990s.