Bangor Daily News blurs the line between news and advertising

The Bangor Daily News is back at it with more ethically-questionable practices on its website, this time in the form of its new “BDN Marketplace News” section which attempts to disguise advertisements as news headlines.

A screenshot of the BDN Marketplace News section
A screenshot of the BDN Marketplace News section

What’s Going On?

At the bottom of article pages, the “BDN Marketplace News” appears directly under a larger “Similar Articles” heading, and uses the same font styles and layout as article headlines. Most deceptive, though, is the inclusion of the word “News”, clearly meant to suggest to visitors that those headlines are news.

This approach goes even beyond the practice employed by some other news websites that place advertisements within a “Related Sites” or “Around the Web” element; in those cases the elements are clearly marked as “Sponsored” or “Advertisements”, or they actually point to relevant articles, not to ads.

What’s the Problem?

It should be pretty clear: The “BDN Marketplace News” advertising element is intentionally designed to deceive visitors; that kind of attitude towards the people who give you traffic and ad revenue is a short-sighted and doomed strategy which absolutely threatens the paper’s long-term health. Combined with my coverage of the BDN’s deceptive “ad bar” back in January 2011, this creates a disturbing pattern of disrespect for visitors that should be addressed immediately.

What can they do?

The Bangor Daily News should immediately revise the “BDN Marketplace News” section to include a clear disclaimer that the links are “Advertising” or “Sponsored Listings” or similar language. To go one step further, they should also link the disclaimer to a page with more information about the Marketplace and how listings are added. This kind of update wouldn’t put them ahead of the pack on ethics, but it would bring them in line with current standards in the newspaper industry.

In the rush to shore up revenues, it can be easy to clutter up a website with a variety of “innovative” advertising placements, but a company that cares about its audience and is interested in long-term growth over short-term fixes can and should be held to a higher standard.

 

Milk needs to advertise, but bananas don’t?

Via Tyler Cowen, Matt Yglesias asks:

Why is it that nobody’s marketing broccoli and bananas? This stuff is sold in stores, in exchange for money. Presumably there are for-profit enterprises out there with a vested interest in selling more.

Tyler mentions the “Got Milk” campaign as part of his argument that broccoli and bananas lack “branding”; I take his meaning to be that those two particular items are too staid for their agents to invest marketing dollars in. Anecdotally, that seems unlikely– other consumer goods that lack intrinsic excitement are often over-marketed in order to increase their perceived status. I wager that toilet paper advertisements are some of the most frequent on TV, and among the most common within certain targeted programs. Yet, that is because- not in spite of the fact- that toilet paper is clearly not one of the more exciting consumer goods.

Using the “Got Milk” campaign as an example, I feel the opposite is the case here– that is, sometimes products which want to overcome (at least partial) negative or staid brands choose advertising as a vehicle for delivering counter messages in support of themselves. In the case of “Got Milk”, I personally perceived that entire campaign as the milk lobby’s attempt to quash the disparate, growing negative brand surrounding milk.

Part of the negative brand surrounding milk is a result of direct competitors, which is another clear motivation for using advertising to differentiate. While soy and almond milks have gained popularity, with soy in particular slowly shedding its purely “health” brand, bananas and broccoli have no such emerging competition; companies are not likely to introduce innovative, healthier new fruits and vegetables anytime soon.

While advertising can certainly signal vested interest, it can often be deployed as “make-up” for a product; in the absence of advertising then, it may not be that the distributors of bananas and broccoli have no vested interest in their products; just that their products are successful enough, or unique enough, on their own without the help of overt advertising.

Google removes anti-MoveOn.org ads; but did they do it too easily?

Just weeks after forcing a CafePress.com shopkeeper to stop selling t-shirts referencing their name, far-left liberal activist group MoveOn.org has struck again, this time successfully lobbying search giant Google to take down anti-MoveOn.org advertising which referencing the group’s recent attacks on Maine Senator Susan Collins.

Robert Cox broke the story in today’s DC Examiner, as he described the efforts of Senator Collins’ Internet director, Lance Dutson, to list the anti-MoveOn.org ads with Google:

Internet giant Google has banned advertisements critical of MoveOn.org, the far-left advocacy group that caused a national uproar last month when it received preferential treatment from The New York Times for its “General Betray Us” message.

The ads banned by Google were placed by a firm working for Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ re-election campaign. Collins is seeking her third term.

Earlier this week, Google told Lance Dutson, president of Maine Coast Designs, that the ads he placed for Collins had been removed and would not be allowed to resume because they violated Google’s trademark policy.

Google’s Web site states, “Google takes allegations of trademark infringement very seriously and, as a courtesy, we’re happy to investigate matters raised by trademark owners.” That suggests Google acted in response to a complaint by MoveOn.org.

As Cox notes (in my bolded emphasis), if I assume Google’s intentions as pure until proven evil, I can then only assume that they were contacted by MoveOn.org and pulled the ads in compliance. As far as I can tell, that’s the only way to explain why literally thousands of other ads with trademark “violations” remain on Google searches, including this one for “Blackwater”, also the name of a private security firm whose recent actions in Iraq have come under scrutiny.

Unless, of course, Google is quicker to support its political allies in their efforts to crush dissent via questionable trademark law?

Lance has more, including a chat transcript with a Google rep. And of course, this story will blossom as the various parties at fault work diligently to cover it up. Stay tuned!

Disclosure: I occasionally partner with Lance on various projects.

Adholes and the lessons of corporate indifference

The laughably awful advertising industry website Adholes, which has declined steadily in terms of reach and influence over recent years, has taken another sad step on its way to irrelevancy by publicly calling me (and by extension other customers experiencing this issue) an “idiot” on their corporate website.

Not since CBS News hoisted fake documents on the American public in September of 2004 has a company’s lack of respect for its customers been so blatant.

Before some explanation, first take a look at their instructions for unsubscribing from their newsletter:

adholes.gif

Clicking their “this idiot” link actually takes you to my original post (one year ago today, as a matter of fact) where I wrote about my specific, re-producible problem with their email unsubscribe process. It all began when I attempted several times to unsubscribe from the company’s lame email missives:

I have now unsubscribed via their unsubscribe process twice, both to no avail.

Compare that statement– I attempted to unsubscribe twice, and both times their published unsubscribe process failed– to the Adholes rebuke, where they think the problem was that I “still [couldn’t] figure out” how to unsubscribe.

Notice how, in the process of insulting me, they don’t even fully understand what my problem is? You have to be pretty intent on not listening to your customers to not even be able to understand what they’re complaining about.

The situation declined from there. Three weeks later, I received yet another unsolicited email from Adholes after my previous attempts to unsubscribe. In that post, I detailed my further problems with their bug-ridden website:

I just spent a few minutes trying to follow their directions on ‘deleting’ my account with them- which, according to their instructions, involves logging in, changing my name to “delete”, removing my email, saving my account, and then logging out of my account.

That would be awesome, except…Their system won’t let me remove my email, nor is there an option to ‘logout’ of my account…so, wow. Just when you think incompetence can’t get much worse, it often surprises you.

With that, what began as a simple unsubscribe request had blossomed into full-on absurdity. As ridiculous as their “new” unsubscribe instructions were, I attempted to comply, only to discover that the instructions were completely wrong. So let’s recap:

1) Adholes did not have a reliable process in place for people to unsubscribe from their email lists. This brings them close to one of the the modern definitions of spammer: Company sending out commercial emails with no reliable unsubscribe mechanism.
2) Following three unsuccessful attempts to remove myself, Adholes then gave me incorrect directions on removing my email, providing instructions to “logout” of my account when no such option existed. This is either intention obfuscation, or quite poor website design and implementation. Either way, it’s an embarrassing way to treat customers.
3) To top it all off, rather than sending me an apology, or attempting to correct their complete lack of an unsubscribe process for other customers, they chose to brand me an “idiot” for not “figuring out” how to navigate their non-existent unsubscribe method. That also serves to insult any other customers who may experience the same issue.

Fortunately, in an age where corporate transparency and apology are gaining increasing traction, this type of outrageously poor behavior by companies is becoming more and more rare. That said, we as consumers need to remain vigilant in the pursuit of these companies who believe it is their right to insult us even as they provide abysmal service.

Set the bar high, despite the medium

Today I received some announcement spam from Work.com, a new portal for businesses. Unfortunately, Work.com’s PR department didn’t exactly utilize the utmost care when sending out the announcement. Here’s the opening of the email they sent me:

Hi Jason Clarke’s,

As a website of valuable information for business, we wanted to tell you about our recently launched site designed to help business owners and entrepreneurs quickly find solutions to key business challenges like marketing your business and finding a payroll processing service.

Besides the fact that their automated email bot couldn’t distinguish between a person’s name and company name, check out that first sentence and bask in its grammatical insanity:

As a website of valuable information for business, we wanted to tell you about our recently launched site

Email can be hard to get right, and tempting to use on too large a scale, but despite those factors, companies who care still set the bar high for themselves.

Related items note: Previously, I’ve written about corporate email and mail foibles from the terribly awful Adholes and the only moderately annoying Audible.

My entry into ‘The Office’ promo contest

NBC and YouTube are holding an open compeition for people to submit :20 promos for “The Office“, recently nominated for 3 Emmys including Best Comedy. Up to 10 winners will have their promos aired on NBC this fall.

I’m a huge Office fan, so with the help of my brother-in-law and my wife, I submitted a promo to the competition. Technically, the entries are supposed to be kept private on YouTube (which mine is), but I’m also posting it here.

The rules of the contest are pretty strict: Original footage only, no clips from The Office, and only one NBC-supplied graphic, as well as The Office theme song, were the only stock provided.

With that in mind, here’s my entry- just click the “play” button on the video to watch it (you must have Flash, and you’ll want the sound on). If you want to submit your own, go here.

UPDATE: The video is now available. Please feel free to send me comments, suggestions, hatemail. Shoot…it appears the video won’t work because it’s currently set to private within YouTube, per the rules of the contest. So I’ll have to wait until tomorrow, when the contest ends, and then I’ll make it public and show it here. Sorry!

A mobius strip debate: PC vs. Apple, by the specs

Over the weekend, I picked up our new custom-built home PC system from my brother’s house. That, along with Apple’s new TV spots, got me thinking about the endless debate of PC/MSFT vs Apple. While I feel it’s one of those mobius strips of personal belief- like abortion or Red Sox vs. Yankees, its a debate neither side can hope to “win”- I still think that popping up every once in a while to make a point is good exercise.

As I said, what’s set me off this time are two factors. I’ll get to the cost/quality factor later on, but first I want to talk briefly about Apple’s new TV spots running all over prime time and cable. The commercials are typical Apple- smug, sarcastic, and delusional. They’re a far cry from the “Switch” campaign, which should a demographically-diverse range of “real” people, talking naturally about how switching to Apple did meaningful things for them- such as make their lives a tiny bit easier.

Today, Apple has traded that image- one of inclusion and friendliness- for that of a 20-something hipster with an all-powerful attitude towards a laughably stereotypical nerd that is supposed to represent a personified PC (and PC user).

The sad part here is Apple’s shocking hubris. As recent as five years ago, they were taking a friendly tact towards earning customers. Now that they’ve had admittedly gigantic success with a music player (it’s a single product line, mind you), they’ve gone into full-on jerk mode, effectively saying that the only people they need are the affluent young urban and suburbanites who sing the praises of the iPod and by proxy related products. This is a classic example of a company putting on huge blinders and believing that the magic dust they’ve been splashed with is anything but the latest in a long line of popularity-driven trends, which, as many other companies know, can be as quick to leave a product as they are to arrive.

I could be wrong, but I see Apple painting themselves into a giant corner here. They’re betting their entire future on a small subset of the population whose tastes are so notoriously fickle that they can destroy a product in weeks without a single afterthought?

So that’s hubris and blindness, now what about the actual product specs? Those happen to be exactly what irks me most about Macs. See, if they were more extensible, more powerful, and more accessible products, I could easily forgive some of their arrogance and defend their longer-term prospects. However, if you take a real look at technical specs, you find that Apple loses to any number of intelligently-built PC systems on all counts: performance, selection, customizability, and of course, price.

Recently, our home desktop system died and we began looking for a new system. My first stop was to check out Apple’s site since my search began just days after they announced support for Windows XP on their machines. I figured I’d give them a chance, hardware-wise, and see how they compared to my history of building my own custom PC systems.

I found just one system that was not outrageously overpriced, and since I’m not into the habit of paying through the nose for something just because it happens to be hip this year, I narrowed it down to a single potential Mac system: the 1.66GHZ MacMini model, retailing on the Apple site for $799.

Curious to compare Apple’s “Power has never been this economical” system with a custom-built PC for around the same price, I turned to my brother, a systems administrator, long-time custom PC expert, and VP of a networking consulting firm to see what he could deliver me for $800, or the same price as the MacMini.

Before I tell you which system I chose, I’ll let this handy comparison chart fill you in on the details of the Apple MacMini vs. the custom-built system my brother designed for me:

  Apple logo
Apple MacMini 1.66GHZ
Antec Super Lanboy PC case
My own self-built PC system
Winner
Processor 1.66GHZ Intel dual-core AMD Athlon 64-bit 2.1GHZ PC! – 50% faster, 64-bit power
Memory 512MB DDR at 667mhz 1GB Ultra DDR RAM at 400mhz PC! – Double the RAM!
Hard drive 80GB Serial ATA 7400RPM 74GB at 10,000RPM PC! – You can’t beat 10k!
Optical drive Dual-layer DVDR/RW/CD/R/RW at 8x speed Plextor dual-layer DVDR/RW CD/R/RW at 16x speed PC! – Twice as fast, plus the reliability of Plextor
Video card Intel GMA950 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory nVidia GeForce 6200 256MB HDTV/DVI/PCI video PC! – 4 times the RAM
Case Apple MacMini case Antec Lanboy aluminum case; dual fans (one oversize), hidden-door front Your call – But I’ll take my case. It’s expandable, for one.
Ports 4 USB, FireWire, 10/100 GB Ethernet 9 USB, 9-in-1 card reader, 3 FireWire, 10/100 GB PC! – double the USB, triple the FireWire, same ethernet
TOTAL PRICE $799 $680 PC! – It’s $119 less!!


Additional notes:
These specs don’t even consider that my system also includes three additional hard drives– a 100GB, 80GB, and 40GB- that I was easily able to swap out from my old PC and place into my new PC. I also took my ATI TV Wonder VE TV tuner and easily popped it into my new case. Likewise, if I want to upgrade to 2GB of RAM in the future, it will literally be a snap.

Of course, swaps, transfers, and upgrades likes these are the dirty little secrets of Apple’s vaunted hardware. Besides the impossibility of adding anything to the MacMini, you’d also have to contend with the sheer lack of selection of hardware and get hit again with exorbitant prices anytime you tried to upgrade existing parts. Combine that with Apple’s frustrating and long-standing habit of releasing new products while your current system still feels fresh, and they get you again. And again.

As you have probably guessed, I chose the custom-built PC system and pocketed the extra hundred bucks. I even used part of my leftover cash to pick-up a low-cost HP printer to replace my 10-year old DeskJet 742. Add that to the list, and I’ve still got $50 to spend on something besides a computer. Sorry, Apple, I guarantee you that whatever it is, it won’t be shiny and grey with a little silver apple etched on it.

Advertising on jasonclarke.org

As you may have noticed, I’m now expirementing with advertising on jasonclarke.org. Individual post pages now include text ads served by Google’s AdSense program.

Because I cover a variety of subjects here, and I get middling traffic, I don’t expect much from these ads, but I’m interested in testing their effectiveness.

I’m open to feedback, so if you have some, leave a comment or email me.

‘My Life, My Card’ campaign launches mesmerizing short film

Checking out Jason Calacanis’ site, I noticed a link to an amazing commercial that aired during this past Sunday’s Oscar telecast. I meant to post about the ad myself but it was lost in the shuffle, before I found it again. When I first caught this spot during the Oscars, I was simply mesmerized- for the entire two minute length- a virtual eternity for TV advertising- I sat there, continually freaked out in an entertaining way. Not recognizing the star of the spot, for most of the time I was convinced it was a promo for an upcoming TV show until the reveal came at the end.

The “commercial” was just that- a commercial- but it was also a 2-minute long short film for the American Express card directed by and starring M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense among others.

The commerci-short is part of the credit card giant’s “My Life, My Card” campaign, which I’ve already admired via its print iterations in Entertainment Weekly. Its print counterparts, while not as captivating, are classy, understated spots that feature interesting black and white photos of celebs (such as Ellen DeGeneres brushing her teeth) and personal comments from them.

Besides the genius of the ad, American Express and whoever its agency is are further proving they “get it” by posting the ad on the homepage of the campaign’s website, mylifemycard.com, for all to see.

Take two minutes and check out this amazing commercial/short film. If you admire Shyamalan’s unique brand of upscale spookiness, you’ll really dig the spot.