What Do You Think You’re Buying, Dave?

August 24, 2001

Several of you responded to last week’s rant about advertising, and I thank you. None of you told me what the commercial I described was selling, and I thank you for that as well. There are some commercials that bug me so much that I don’t even want to know what they’re selling. Take, for example, the commercial with the singing navels. If you haven’t seen this commercial, consider yourself lucky. I thought it had gone away, but, like syphilis, it merely went into a dormant phase and has now flared up again. I can’t even stand to watch this commercial. There’s something about singing bellybuttons that makes my flesh crawl. It’s the same reaction I had when I was a kid to seeing skulls. Skulls terrified me, but then as I got older I realized we all had skulls and they’re nothing to be afraid of. Singing navels, on the other hand, are bizarre mutants that are produced by a combination of genetically modified corn and silicone breast implants. It was the comparison to syphilis, however, that made my realize what advertising is: it’s an infection, and like real bacteria, the more we develop antidotes (such as saying, "I refuse to watch this commercial") the more resistant and invasive advertising becomes.

The most invasive form of advertising, the virus of the advertising world, is, of course, advertising on the Internet. In the beginning there was just spam, which is e-mail advertising. You hit "delete" and it went away. Then came banners on web pages. Banners are frequently animated areas usually at the top or bottom of a page that try to trick you into clicking them with notes like, "Click here to win 30 billion rupees!" Sometimes banners are targeted to particular markets. For instance, there was a time when doing an Internet search for "starfish" would bring up a list of results and a banner for a pornographic web site, while a search for "teddy bears" would result in a banner for a pornographic web site. This led to the mistaken belief that pornography is the only lucrative web business, when in fact it’s really advertising.

Lately web advertising has become even more insidious. Every time I visit one of my favorite web pages for astronomy and other science news it automatically generates fourteen separate web viewers with various ads–none of which have anything to do with astronomy or science. Well, the miniature surveillance camera being held up by a model with obvious breast implants is a reminder of some of the things science has given us. And at least there are no singing navels. Here’s the scary thing, though: the other day I closed one of these ads and as soon as I did a new one popped up that said, "Are you sure you want to do that?" Advertising is bad enough when it doesn’t talk back, but when it does it’s a sign of things to come.

I have seen the future of advertising, and it is interactive. The next generation of artificial intelligence may be spurred on by the belief on the part of advertisers that making the ads smarter than the consumers is necessary. Dumb ads serve a purpose: they make us feel good about ourselves. If we don’t buy the product, we feel smart, and if we do, we can at least say that we’re smarter than the people who made the ads. When the machines start trying to talk us into buying things we neither want nor need, when they resort to everything from prolonged arguments to breaking down into cyber-tears and saying, "After all we’ve been through together, won’t you at least consider buying a pound of this new guacamole flavored coffee?" then perhaps we’ll finally catch on. Either that or the computers will decide we’re complete idiots and they’ll take over.

Enjoy this week’s offerings.

Tales of Stupidity

I went to a fast food place. I looked at the menu and saw that you could have an order of 6, 9 or 12 chicken nuggets. I asked for a half-dozen nuggets. "We don’t have a half-dozen nuggets," said the teenager at the counter. "You don’t?" I replied. "We only have six, nine, or twelve," was the reply. "So I can’t order a half-dozen nuggets but I can order six?" "That’s right." So I shook my head and ordered six nuggets.

A lady at work was seen putting a credit card into her floppy drive and pulling it out very quickly. When inquired as to what she was doing, she said she was shopping on the Internet and they asked for a credit card number, so she’s using the ATM "thingy."

I recently saw a distraught young lady weeping beside her car. "Do you need some help?" I asked. She replied, "I knew I should have replaced the battery to this remote door unlocker. Now I can’t get into my car. Do you think they (pointing to a distant convenient store) would have a battery to fit this?" "Hmmm, I dunno. Do you have an alarm too?" I asked. "No, just this remote "thingy," she answered, handing it and the car keys to me. As I took the key and manually unlocked the door, I replied, "Why don’t you drive over there and check about the batteries–it’s a long walk."

Several years ago, we had an intern who was none too swift. One day, he was typing and turned to a secretary and said, "I’m almost out of typing paper. What do I do?" "Just use copier machine paper," the secretary told him. With that, the intern took his last remaining blank piece of paper, put it on the photocopier and proceeded to make five "blank" copies.

I was in a car dealership a while ago, when a large motor home was towed into the garage. The front of the vehicle was in dire need of repair and the whole thing generally looked like an extra in "Twister." I asked the manager what had happened. He told me that the driver had set the "cruise control" and then went in the back to make a sandwich.

Idiots At Work…

Sign in a gas station: Coke — 49 cents. Two for a dollar.

Idiots & Computers…

My neighbor works in the operations department in the central office of a large bank. Employees in the field call him when they have problems with their computers. One night he got a call from a woman in one of the branch banks who had this question: "I’ve got smoke coming from the back of my terminal. Do you guys have a fire downtown?"

Idiots Are Easy To Please…

I was sitting in my science class, when the teacher commented that the next day would be the shortest day of the year. My lab partner became visibly excited, cheering and clapping. I explained to her that the amount of daylight changes, not the actual amount of time. Needless to say, she was very disappointed.

Police in Radnor, Pennsylvania, interrogated a suspect by placing a metal colander on his head and connecting it with wires to a photocopy machine. The message "He’s lying" was placed in the copier, and police pressed the copy button each time they thought the suspect wasn’t telling the truth. Believing the "lie detector" was working, the suspect confessed.

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