Thursday, 21 May 2009

Could advertising be the new publishing?

To follow, after the video: Unwitting semi-prescience. Oversimplified economics. Early printing presses. AdBlock Plus. The April edition of Bearded magazine. Repeated use of the word 'content' as a noun. The Credit Crunch (but only in passing). Bill Hicks (ditto).

I was going through my phone the other week; apparently last May I thumbed a short note on it to the effect: "If this is an information/knowledge economy, and information is so available as to be almost worthless (assuming the traditional economic model, supply and demand, the value of scarcity, etc.), then is everything just a worthless bubble kept aloft by advertising?" I wish I could say that that was me anticipating the Credit Crunch; instead, what I then went on to note was an intention to post my ramblings here, add a link to a video of Flogos, and make some silly quip about advertising itself now being nothing more than bubbles.

Yep, looking for the cheap joke, as ever.

Nonetheless, while that post didn't make it onto here (until now), there was at least the beginnings of a point in it: the extent to which the online economy is supported by advertising (cue link to Chris Anderson) - basically, it relies on it. HEAVILY. And most of us acknowledge that.

Yet, at the same time, ask most internet users what they think about online advertising and if you don't get the full Bill Hicks rant, complete with YouTube link (NSFW), you'll be lucky to hear anything more positive than "Well, you just put up with it, don't you?" To which the answer is, of course, "No, you don't," not if you know about Firefox extensions like NoScript, Adblock Plus, or Mozilla's new experimental add-on, Jetpack, all of which are about as friendly to ads as your average Rentokil operative to an infestation of rats - and unlike rat extermination, entirely free.

But, of course, that's not the full story - online advertising certainly isn't seen by everyone as entirely akin to an unwanted infestation.

Many of us, without really even thinking about it, judge a site's legitimacy on the quality of its advertising - at the very least, if we're being told by a flashing banner that we're its lucky millionth visitor (for the third time today), we're going to be less likely to trust what it has to say than we would be if the advert came from a company rich enough to place its logo on only the best sites. And then there's viral advertising - if something entertains us, makes us laugh, or otherwise engages us in some likeable way, not only will we be happy to watch or interact with it, but we'll pass it on, post the video to our blog, sign up to its Facebook page, or even post our own imitations on YouTube.


Essentially, because that brand has done a little more than simply try to persuade us to buy something we don't really need; it's actually had the courtesy to give us something in exchange for our time and attention, even if that's only a quick chuckle, or a moment of wonder before we realise that, "Wait? No! Those sheep couldn't possibly have been trained to do that! (Although it's still kind of cool anyway)." Yes, we know that by passing on a links to a viral we're helping an ad campaign, but if the ad's done something for us it feels like a fair exchange.

To frame it another way: we don't mind adverts that are more or less equivalent to content.

That's hardly a new observation. But is there something new that can be done with it?

Here's where Bearded magazine* comes into things: specifically, an advertising space raffle on the April edition's back cover. For £10, if you won the raffle, you could place whatever you liked in that space (and somewhere online) for a whole year. What came to my mind was to use it as a cheap way to publish and publicise some of my short stories, while perhaps collaborating with an illustrator friend so that my presumptions might at the very least be enjoyable to look at.

I never got around to it, alas, but again there was the beginning of an idea there (and this is the one I've been rambling towards here): could advertisers be about to further rehabilitate the short story?

(It seems to be always either about to die or about to be saved, so I'm assuming it's basically fine and just needs a new reason to get out of bed).

In many ways, advertisers already find themselves in much the same position as the owners of the early printing presses. Not by owning the means of production, but by having become so essential to the survival of those that do own it that at least a chunk of pretty much everything that gets published - both on and offline - is determined by them. So why not use some of this chunk to actually publish something? And why not short fiction?

Imagine a one-page short story in a newspaper's weekend magazine, perhaps by a well known author, attractively illustrated, with links to more similar stories online.  It's unexpected, it's worth reading, it's not in itself an ad, and it's not so long that you'd skip over it - any fiction lover would be delighted. And moreover, what potential customer wouldn't form a positive opinion of a brand that's not only giving this away, but in the process also supporting the arts?

Or online; imagine, as a small web ad, an intriguing first couple of lines next to an arresting image, the full story (and others) free and only a click away, on Brand X's website. It's intriguing enough to check out and, once there, short enough to be read online, yet still long enough to keep a potential customer on the site; it'll be linked to, it'll be discussed, and in the process the relevant brand will be seen and engaged with.

But what can be done with the short story is mostly just the scenario that interests me - and essentially what we're talking about here is just branded content anyway. Nonetheless, if advertisers were to explore publishing genuinely creative, web-friendly, short stories in ad spaces, and generally making more use of the form, I can't help feeling that they might find that they've hit on at least one more persuasive reason for today's web users not to just zap web ads into oblivion - and with them, perhaps, inadvertently, the Web as well.

*it's about music, not beards; quite often the two happen to intertwine, though.

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