Conflicted about the recent controversy surrounding Gmail advertising? Look no further than the past. More specifically, the annals of radio broadcasting.
Turns out, advertising had a difficult birth in radio. When major networks started making noise about selling “toll broadcasting” in the 1920s, there was a public uproar. Herbert Hoover, then the Commerce Secretary, even held a national conference on the subject. His take: “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.” The report issued following the conference dictated that toll broadcasting should be kept under “close observation,” with limited ranges for stations and only “indirect” commercial messages. Ha! Of course, these edicts never came to pass and the world welcomed radio advertising – and later television and Internet advertising – with open arms. Can mainstream acceptance of email advertising be too far behind? Don’t think too hard; the answer is already history.
Consider that, for as long as people have advertised products, they’ve sought to advertise them efficiently. The desire for information is systemic to capitalism itself. Internet, TV, Radio, even painted barn sides are only as good as their audience (think: tree falling in the woods). Early on, advertisers seeking to target their audience isolated geographical regions for their billboards or bought specific programming timeslots for their radio ads. Newspapers and magazines published different regional editions of the same issue to allow advertisers better access to potential clients. Television soon followed.
As the customer/advertiser interface advances, so do the methods. Today, Web sites sell ads that not only leap in our faces (talk about “advertising chatter”) but also subsequently track our movements. Soon, Gmail and others will troll our emails for keywords. What’s next? In the futuristic film “Minority Report” advertisements actually pick people out of crowds with retinal scanning technology, tailoring ads just for them. Scary? Maybe. But the concept is more chilling because it’s rational, not because it’s fantastic. The only recognizable advancement in “Minority Report” is the hardware. The underlying philosophy – to sell, and to sell well – is the same as it is today… and as it was yesterday.