Monday, June 2, 2008

The Ad and the First Impression

My friends at Wokai recently recommended that I start reading James Fallows. They sent me a link to his blog, mentioned that they'd just posted about an article he'd written, and told me I ought to drop him into my Google Reader and keep an eye on what he writes.

When I clicked on the blog link, the first thing I saw was an Exxon Mobil video advertisement telling me that "the world has two real large challenges right now." We need energy to power economies to improve standards of living, and we need to be able to do that without destroying the planet. Trust Exxon Mobil, the ad suggested, Exxon Mobil has it all under control.

Every one of my alarm bells sounded. I was instantly suspicious, instantly suspicious of James Fallows. I figured the man must be on the payroll. Clearly, only a dyed in the wool PR mouthpiece would run an Exxon Mobil propaganda video on his blog.

A big reason for my reaction, of course, is that I'm afraid of Exxon Mobil. Al Gore singled them out when explaining the next generation of the strategic persuasion campaign. He said they had funded 40 front groups the expressed purpose of which was to "position global warming as theory rather than fact,” and that strikes me as desperately greedy behavior. Maybe I shouldn't be listening so much to liberals and godless tax-raisers, but I can't seem to help myself.*

Anyway, regardless of the validity of my reasons, the ad freaked me out, and it gave me a knee-jerk negative impression of James Fallows.

It turns out, of course, that James Fallows is something of an innocent bystander (and an enjoyable and insightful writer about China and American politics). That ad and others from Exxon Mobil are everywhere on Atlantic Monthly's site, so, unless you want to hold the syndicated blogger responsible for failing to quit or stage protests when his means of syndication entered into a questionable relationship with a questionable oil company, probably better to hate on Atlantic Monthly than Fallows.

But there is definitely a lesson to be learned here. For Fallows. For Atlantic Monthly. For all of us.

Be careful with advertising.

First impressions are so big and important. If someone comes to you for information (to your blog, your magazine, your brand comparison website, wherever), and the first thing she sees is a vague, greenwashy advertisement for Exxon Mobil, there's a legitimate possibility that she's going to look elsewhere for that information.

In Fallows' (Fallows's?) case, he almost lost me, and I'm someone with a startup project the future survival of which very well might depend on my ability to bring in some kind of ad revenue.

The whole episode has given me pause for sure: it's the first time I've ever had such a strong reaction to an online advertisement, and I don't want to take it lightly, so I figured I'd write and think and make some observations. For one thing, my reaction reinforces my desire not to mess with monetization until I can do it on my terms, on terms acceptable to my user community. And, as is customary in situations like this, it has me wondering about the power of full disclosure, the power of radical transparency.

Fallows could stage a protest against Atlantic Monthly's ad sales department, and maybe that would keep the Exxon Mobil ad off his blog. Instead, however, he could write an article about Exxon Mobil, their marketing efforts, their relationship to Atlantic Monthly, and the fact they have a prominent presence on his blog. He could post a link to that article right next to the ad. And maybe, just maybe, he could win back some of those first impression skeptics, pull them into his blog conversation, and have the ad's presence actually GAIN him credibility by making everyone think.

Hmmm. I'm probably diving a little too deep into the hypothetical here. But what can you do. It happens sometimes.

What do you think, James Fallows? Want to give it a try?

*Note: It seems to me that Exxon Mobil has a lot of compelling short term economic incentive to propagate lies, and it seems to me that the people running the Exxon Mobil show have a lot of compelling long term psychological incentive to believe those lies. But I guess that'll have to be another discussion for another day. This post has spun off crazy enough as it is. No need to send another thought thread jumping into the tangle.


Luke said...

Fallows really is worth reading, though he may be less interesting to someone who like you has lived in China.

I see your point about first impressions. However, I have to wonder whether the Exxon ad will really matter with someone like Fallows blogging at the Atlantic Monthly, a writer and magazine respectively that are relatively well established.

Interestingly, Matt Yglesias, also at the Atlantic Monthly, is a big advocate for public transportation in general and rail in particular. If Exxon wants to fund his advocacy, I'm not sure I have a problem with it.

Jake de Grazia said...

Fallows is definitely high quality. I've cruised through his site quite a bit the past couple of days, and I like him a lot.

You're right about the likelihood of well establishedness trumping a weird first impression.

Similar to the fact that we watch Tom Cruise movies even though he's a Scientologist? Maybe?

Hmmm. Bit of a stretch. I should probably consult the metaphor making authorities.

And your Yglesias observation opens up a whole new can of worms.

Though I can't say that's my favorite metaphor either. Always thought it should be opening up a BOX OF SNAKES rather than a can of worms. Much more dramatic that way.

Thanks for the thoughts, Luke.

Stephane said...

Jake, your comments here resonated with me. I've been a subscriber to The Atlantic Monthly for years now and I've noticed a particularly strong "greenwashy" taste in the advertisements. Sometimes I'll spend a few minutes looking carefully at a single ad, savoring the richness of the greenwashy flavor. The Dow "Human Element" ads are probably my favorite. I always wonder why The Atlantic Monthly would attract these sort of ads, as the Monthly's articles are usually focused on international security issues. Who exactly are the advertisers are hoping to influence? My uninformed guess is that Atlantic Monthly subscribers tend to be relatively wealthy stockholders and the ads are intended to make the reader feel comfortable with their investment portfolio.

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Stephane.

Not a bad theory. I guess if I had heaps of money invested in Dow or Exxon Mobil, it would be nice to see what good things those companies are doing (or claiming to do).

I wonder how exactly the advertising companies choose sites on which to place their ads. Surely they look at sheer volume of traffic, but it'd be interesting to know what user demographics play a role in their decision making.

Income levels I imagine they consider. Age most likely Location maybe. Intensity of internet use? What else?

And I wonder if Atlantic Monthly and other publications make claims to potential advertisers about the "greenness" of their readership. I wonder if they suggest that companies try to tap that sentiment with their ads.

Wish I knew more.

Thanks for the comment.