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Stupid Media Watch: Advertising Ignorance in the Washington Post


By Ken Magill

If online advertising is going to get a fair shake in the mainstream media, it apparently isn’t going to happen in the Washington Post.

A three sentence blurb from a piece last week on Google’s plan to combine people’s searching behavior, Gmail chatter and YouTube consumption habits to enable the delivery of more accurately targeted ads tells us all we need to know:

“The move will help Google better tailor its ads to people’s tastes,” the story said. “If someone watches an NBA clip online and lives in Washington, the firm could advertise Washington Wizards tickets in that person’s Gmail account.

“Consumers could also benefit, the company said.”

Ffffft! That’s the sound of coffee coming out my nose. Either that or I need a Beano.

Consumers could also benefit? Seriously?

Ummm. Let’s see. Free email accounts with more than 7,500 megabytes of storage? Check. No consumer benefit there. The ability to find anything anywhere on the Internet with a few keystrokes for free? Nope. No consumer benefit there. Millions of free searchable videos? Nah. No benefit there, either.

Oh, and let’s not forget advertising that people may actually be interested in getting. No. Absolutely no benefit there, either.

That the reporter who wrote the piece would write “consumers could also benefit” immediately after describing a consumer benefit speaks volumes about her shameful ignorance of who wins with targeted online ads. She clearly thinks they only benefit Google and its advertisers.

And this piece appeared in the Post’s business section.

Just as comically ignorant, the article claims consumers can’t opt out of the initiative. Uh, yes they can. Those who don’t like what Google is doing can simply stop using Google’s sites.

There are plenty of alternatives.

And if Google makes people uncomfortable, they will stop using its service. Wow. Imagine that. Market forces might actually police Google better than any regulator could.

The social mechanisms are already in place to encourage Google to be transparent.

In fact, as I was writing this piece a box appeared in the upper right corner of my Google search page saying: “We're changing our privacy policy and terms. This stuff matters.”

Moreover, in the interim, I have been interrupted from accessing my Gmail account with a full page explaining Google’s plans.

What is truly astonishing is the utter lack of intellectual curiosity so many non-trade reporters display on the issues of online privacy and advertising.

Nowhere in the Post’s piece is a quote from an expert defending behaviorally targeted advertising.

Moreover, the reporter apparently didn’t attempt to get a Google executive on the line. She quotes a blog post, but doesn’t say she attempted to make the call.

Not surprisingly, however, the media’s go-to privacy zealot, Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, pops his head up near the end of the piece.

“There is no way anyone expected this,” said Chester, according to the Washington Post. “There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns.”

As usual, there is no evidence the reporter asked if online advertising has ever harmed anyone.

Folks, we’re in a battle to save the greatest information and entertainment innovation in human history.

Unfortunately, the good side of the battle—the side that really does benefit consumers—is nowhere to be found in the mainstream media.


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