As I approach the Philadelphia bus shelter, I'm struck by the gaze of a familiar, yet ominous strongman. His aging muscles are backlit by a powerful fluorescent light. Intrigued, I approach the advertisement and begin to look at the copy. As my eyes scan below the title of the film, an irritating, unavoidable, and inevitably cryptic message glows: http://www.warnerbros.com/eraser. Here is another website for the fearless compujunkies to surf at three in the morning and another piece of litter along the information superhighway.
While computer users like myself have the choice to turn off their computers or stop their net searches, it is more and more difficult to remove the strands of the net from our personal lives. When we return home from a long day of work, television now flashes an endless barrage of corporate web addresses at us. When we pick up our newspapers to browse the comics, it is difficult to flip past a handful of pages without spotting a '...dot- com' along the way. The web's marketing frenzy is no longer limited to literature, entertainment, and computer browsing.
Within the past few months I have noticed the web's subtle migration from the virtual into the physical. Products ranging from children's cereal to artificial sweeteners all boast web addresses printed on them. Open up your pantry and you may be surprised to see how many munchies you own with web support. Children can check out the 'You Rule School' page for cereal kingpins General Mills, Inc. where you can play with food and view the trix rabbit, the honey bee, the leprechaun, and the cocoa pebbles creature. If that drives you coocoo you can turn to the history of Snicker's bars or Mars' concepts of soccer and nutrition. Ragu, the pasta sauce maker, offers a virtual Italian mother who dishes out recipes for pasta meals. The only catch is that all of her recipes call for Ragu pasta sauce.
As a student of interactive design and a frequent web surfer, I find it incredible that companies continue to produce this costly marketing drivel. Designing an effective web site is time-consuming and difficult, yet the web seems forever full of this type of product propaganda. Loyal web users argue that the internet is a free-market establishment which supports all manner of free speech (barring pornography in certain locations) including ludicrous promotional gimmicks. This freedom of expression, many argue, makes the web 'the final frontier' for free speech. This school of thought fuels the trend. While speech on the internet is not exactly free (How much does a PowerMac cost anyways?), why should a promising new technology be senselessly cluttered with marketing hype? The internet is a source of valuable research and scientific information and an outlet for international communication and business. Why does it need to invade our kitchens?
Corporate spinsters view the influx of product advertising and information as a healthy outgrowth of their business. According to Debra Aho Williamson of Advertising Age, 'Of the 100 Leading National Advertisers as tabulated by Advertising Age, 46 have purchased Web advertising so far this year and nearly all have corporate Web sites.' However, many companies are cutting back on their website budgets because of standardization difficulties within the web community. Williamson states that companies are hesitant to dump large amounts of money into web development until screen standards and accurate customer tallying methods are established. It is currently difficult for many firms to reap sizable profits from on-line advertising. But consumers are likely to see a great deal more internet advertising on the shelves within the next few years. The marketing firms of Forrester and Jupiter foresee Iinternet advertising becoming a $5 billion industry by the year 2000 (Williamson).
What this financial wizardry means to the average consumer is further assault by large corporations which manufacture packaged foods, beverages, cosmetics, beer, and apparel. Williamson points out that Kraft Foods plans 'an aggressive marketing schedule for its site' as does Pepsi-Cola Co. Does this mean that next time you purchase a pair of blue jeans you're likely to find a hotlink in the fifth pocket? Perhaps. Is your next mac and cheese extravaganza likely to be followed by a vapid on-line chat session with fellow processed cheese aficionados? Hopefully not.
The solution: A self-critical culture The real problem with an exploding internet is the absence of a highly developed social culture. The issue at stake is the nature of human interaction in the future. Though it is unlikely that we are going to revert to illiteracy our collective attention spans and reading levels have suffered with the current computer culture. Many of us are already technologically dependent and spend a great portion of our days in front of computer monitors. With the application of digital technology seeping into the mainstream of daily life, where are we to go for relaxation and peace of mind? For many, it is back to the computer to surf for 'fun.' Although the net is constantly alluded to on television, it's presence will likely increase exponentially with the arrival of PC TV's in the home.
With PC TV the television becomes a computer monitor capable of surfing the net and watching hundreds of interactive channels. You can divide your time between choosing stock portfolios and investigating the history of oreos. But what about springtime basketball leagues, community activism, or simply picnicking? Have these activities been eliminated by our global work environment and accompanying internet culture?
Internet advertising of mass market goods represents an invasion of the digital realm, the ether, into our private lives. As a designer, I think about the role of technology in culture. I think we should all begin to consider where to draw the line between the ethereal and the real. How dependent should we allow ourselves to become on technology? Should the public set an agenda for the information content on the internet? I don't believe so, nor do many students in groups such as CAFE (Coalition for Academic Freedom of Expression), SAFE , and organizations such as the ACLU. Instead of creating legislation and policies, we should set the example by avoiding vapid advertising sites and promoting discussions and intellectual forums. Only a culture critical of itself is likely to improve.
The irony of this dilemma is the relationship between advertising and culture. The corporate sector contributes large amounts of money to cultural foundations, activities, and literature. Were corporations to lose money in their advertising campaigns, the social and cultural enterprises of a region would suffer. Williamson examines this in her discussion of HotWired electronic magazine. 'Everyone is looking to advertising not merely to sustain the medium but to save it. Without advertising, Web publishers and all the infrastructure companies go out of business.' Ideally, there would be no ads in our literature or junk mail in our lives. However, corporate advertising, as obnoxious as it may seem, works. It is unlikely that the trend of releasing the virtual upon the real will end because of corporate guilt.
In the meantime, enjoy the simplicity of having only a hundred channels to watch, reading electronic magazines before your web connection backs up for hours, and take a walk after work to relieve stress. If you need to find a recipe, call a friend or ask a colleague, and avoid the Ragu woman. Work on the development of a V-chip (that would be Vidiot) to block out sites of no value for your children. If you happen to run into Arnold Schwarzenegger, tell him to stick to the cinema; he loses his zest on a 13 inch monitor.
'Web ads mark 2nd birthday with decisive issues ahead' by Debra Aho Williamson Advertising Age August 1995
'Outlook ‘97: Will Web ads go mainstream?' by Debra Aho Williamson Advertising Age October 1996