Dear Miss Afflerbach
In March 1961, San Francisco advertising maverick Howard Luck Gossage placed an odd ad for Eagle Shirtmakers in The New Yorker magazine, which had a circulation of about 400,000 copies. The ad called for people to mail in a coupon to Miss Afflerbach at the company’s headquarters in Quakertown, Pennsylvania in order to receive a piece of cloth with a buttonhole and a pocket – a Shirtkerchief, or was it a Shirtkin, or a Napchief? – of dubious use or value (1).
Something incredible happened: The company received 11,342 coupons. Many people gave a smart answer to the question being asked, i.e. what use was a pocket in a handkerchief/ napkin, and a book with the best letters to Miss Afflerbach was eventually published (2), giving yet more visibility to the publicity stunt. Why did it work so well? For one thing, few ads are smart, witty and involving, and so the ones that do stand out have a good chance at striking it big.
Today, in the era of “interactive advertising”, 400,000 banner ads would lead not to 11,342 returned coupons, but to 400 clicks if you’re lucky, and so at most to 100 people asking for the Shirtkerchief, or less than 1% of the results Gossage was able to bring home for his client. Why? Because banner ads are smaller than ads in The New Yorker and don’t take up the whole page? Sure. But even when ads on the web occupy the whole screen, results are only marginally better.
Another pertinent answer is something Gossage loved to say: Because advertising sucks and there’s just too much of it (3). Plus, the way an ad is perceived depends not merely on the editorial content, but also on the other ads it shares space with. Ads in The New Yorker were not sold to anybody who was ready to pay for them. There were complicated rules, and quotas; a real curation process was in place.
Even though the Editorial Department and the Advertising Department were physically separated, on different floors of the 25 W. 43rd Street building that was home to The New Yorker, there was this idea that they should “regard the magazine as a whole”. The Advertising Department went out of its way to find new campaigns they liked, and vetoed ads they disliked. Only classy ads they thought their readers would find interesting, tasteful and sophisticated were allowed (4).
Today, with real-time bidding (5), every single banner ad impression is up for grabs and is assigned in an online auction that lasts a fraction of a second to the advertiser willing to pay the most for it. This is great for direct response, but less for the quality of the ads. Factor in poor creativity, ads that try to fool you to click, dubious advertisers and aggressive retargeting campaigns, and we can well say that if ads in The New Yorker were classy, advertising on the web has been everything but (6).
Last but not least, there is the unspeakable truth in an era in which we have come to idolise social media: The New Yorker was much more of a real social network and of a community than Facebook or Twitter ever were or ever will be. The New Yorker was “both an extension of the individual and a place of communion to which they came for their shared experience” (7).
Nothing like this can be said with a straight face about either Facebook or Twitter. Why not?
What are Twitter and Facebook? Twitter is a distributed link- sharing system, just like Reddit is a centralised link-sharing system. Facebook is many things: A place where you share jokes and photos of your cat and kids. A way to connect with friends living on the other side of the planet. A feed reader, and more. Facebook is what we used to have before Facebook, i.e. the Open Web, but behind closed doors, delivered very well and a bit sanitised. And we love it, don’t we (8)?
But the one thing it’s not is a community. Facebook is just a tool: A big forum, even though that doesn’t sound very “web2.0”. A utility, as Mark Zuckerberg himself likes to say (9).
By July 1922, less than two years after the first commercial radio station started broadcasting from Pittsburgh (10), “400 volunteer radio stations had sprung up across America” (11).
These words reminded me of RadioPossibility, the hosted blog service started by Marek, a brilliant writer and engineer living in Texas I somehow got to know. Back in 2001, Marek invited me to set up my blog at dotcoma.radiopossibility.com. In those days, we were positively sure that the web would become more and more decentralised. David Weinberger wrote Small Pieces Loosely Joined (12). Chris Locke wrote Gonzo Marketing (13).
One of the big ideas behind those books was that, as people found more interesting things to read on far-flung blogs than they did on lame web portals and on traditional news outlets, it was going to become increasingly difficult for advertisers to chase these readers (“targets”, in marketing speak). Not everybody was optimistic about what was going on. Andrew Keen was so worried that he wrote a book saying that blogs written by amateurs were actually destroying our culture (14).
Little does it matter if you believed we were closer to a new Renaissance or to the end of times. The pendulum has swung the other way. Larger blogs have either morphed into more traditional media companies, or have been acquired by such companies. The one man band blog written by an expert in his field or an enthusiast has been all but wiped out by Facebook (15), which web designer and web critic Jason Kottke presciently called “the new AOL” as far back as 2007 (16).
While Facebook is a very successful company, some interesting questions remain unanswered. Is Facebook a force for good in this world? Is it a positive and liberating force (17)?
Is Facebook any good for companies that want to try to interact with their customers? Lastly: What about advertising on Facebook? Could the fact that we’re missing a common shared vision of the world like the one we had as readers of The New York Times or of The New Yorker be detrimental not only to the fate of our democracies, but to advertising as well?
1. Harrison, Steve, Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man, pages 76-79. For the Shirtkerchief, or was it a Shirtkin, or a Napchief, ad, see also the picture and the text of the ad.
2. Gossage, Howard Luck and Harris, Miller, Dear Miss Afflerbach;: Or, The postman hardly ever rings 11,342 times.
3. “Is advertising worth saving? From an economic point of view, I don’t think most of it is. From an aesthetic point of view I’m damn sure it’s not; it is thoughtless, boring, and there is simply too much of it”. Gossage, Howard Luck, as quoted in Goodby, Jeff and Bendinger, Bruce, The Book of Gossage, page 4.
4. Gossage, Howard Luck, Goodby, Jeff and Bendinger, Bruce, The Book of Gossage, pages 133-153.
5. Please see Wikipedia’s definition of Real-time Bidding.
6. Even AdWords has a similar quality problem, with Google forced to axe no fewer than 500 million bad ads.
7. Harrison, Steve, Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man, pages 106-7.
8. I kind of miss the Open Web, to be honest with you.
9. It’s funny to see pundits accuse Mark Zuckerberg’s company of turning into what he said it was all along: a utility.
10. KDKA is a radio station from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was created by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation on November 2, 1920.
11. Twitchell, James B., Twenty Ads That Shook The World, page 75.
12. My personal blog was later moved to dotcoma.it.
13. Weinberger, David, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web.
14. Locke, Christopher, Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices.
15. Little did Keen know about how bad things would get with Facebook and Twitter! Keen, Andrew, The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.
16. This point is actually controversial. WordPress keeps on telling us that everything is ok and that the blogging world keeps on getting bigger an bigger. However, Technorati’s last State of the Blogosphere report was published in 2010. And few if any studies at all have been released after 2011 or 2012 the latest.
17. Jason Kottke presciently called Facebook the new AOL back in 2007. He was right. It’s even worse: Facebook is not a “social network”; it’s a closed and private Internet. At the same time, one must recognise that Facebook has been profitable for years; that their success has been absolutely incredible, and their execution close to perfect. The way they fended off the attack coming from Google’s G+ speaks miles about how good they are.
18. Some people say that they can read things on Facebook that are not given any attention to in the mainstream media. True enough. But at the same time, you see only what Facebook wants you to see, and only as long as they want you to see it. With a feed reader, you get to read all the posts of every blog you choose to follow. With Facebook, you see what Facebook thinks you will enjoy. This is what Eli Pariser calls The Filter Bubble. What this means is that they are the ones who hold the remote control, not you. And lately we discovered that they even play tricks and pseudoscientific Brave New World experiments on you to try to find out if they can make you happy or sad. Furthermore, filter bubbles don’t merely hide part of the news from us; they also make us live in an “emotional world”, as Eli Pariser says in The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think, page 150.