Monday, May 28, 2018


After over 12 years of blogging, I finally changed the look of WATN.  I liked the old format and it seemed useful for off-PC users, fitting tablets and phones better, but the main picture at the top of the earth lights failed to load finally.

So, I took the opportunity to make some changes.  I still have some work to do on the site and it changed the way the text formats, so old posts are not quite as clean and easy to read, but I think it looks nice enough. 

You'll notice on the sidebar that it has a favorites section.  I am trying that out to see how it works; these aren't actually the most-shared and most-read blog entries I've written.  As far as I can tell its just "most clicks" which includes spiders and bots spamming my site with ad comments and crawling across the webpage looking for stuff.

Also I have a twitter feed widget up, not sure if I'll keep that or not, but its something to help people connect with me on other platforms.  Eventually I want to get more stuff put into place and I'm still fiddling with how the layout looks, but at least its a change.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


"Melts in your mouth, not in your hands."

Marketing and advertising experts like to analyze how ads have changed over time, how various movements and epochs in advertising took place.   It is my opinion that we're entered a new era of advertising but most companies and ad businesses haven't caught up yet.

Originally, the first ads were very crude and direct.  An image, a sample.  They relied on basic senses such as smell (wow that food smells good) and other local influences.  Word of mouth would let this spread a bit further over an area, but it was very local.

In time, advertising began to reach out further, through posted notes on public areas, mailings, and such.  In 1704, the first newspaper ad was published, reaching everyone who bought that paper, even if they weren't in the same city.  Newspapers would travel with migrants, and were passed between people on the frontier just to have something to read, and if necessary insulate walls with, light fires with, or use for toilet paper.  A New York ad could reach a cowboy in Texas and a miner in California.

By 1835, billboards showed up in big cities, allowing an ad to stay in sight and be visible for long distances as people passed it.  Advertising was still passive at this point; they were relying on people coming across their product or ad, reaching people as they would come within range.
In 1920, advertising became more aggressive.  Instead of waiting for people to come to an ad, they began sending advertising out over the air on radio shows, primarily soap operas (which got their name by the soap ads).  Companies began to sponsor a radio show: you'd have one business paying for advertising on that show, and that's the only ads you'd get.  Fatima Cigarettes on Dragnet.  Canada Dry on Jack Benny's show.

This allowed companies to directly target potential customers rather than hoping they'd contact someone by putting their advertising out for all to see.  Shows had advertisers based on their audience, trying to reach an audience based on the content of the show.  When television advertising appeared in 1940, this was even more directed -- but now instead of a single advertiser, there would be multiple companies competing to reach viewers.
By 1960, advertising was becoming scientific.  Focus group studies and market research began, trying to find the ideal way to reach and target their audience.  Who was buying these products?  What kinds of things did they like?  What sort of ads were most effective?  By studying this kind of thing, companies found out how to best spend their money and hone in on their buyers.

Yet there's more to this than a simple history of techniques.  Advertising first started out primarily informative: you can get this here.  Then it became descriptive: this is what my product is like.  In the descriptions, "pitches" developed, explaining why this product is superior and desirable -- even if they had to lie to get there.  That snake oil salesman was just telling you how great his bottle of goo is, at the risk of a few lies and exaggerations.

Ads shifted from merely information about a product to being more about enjoyment.  It wasn't enough to simply tell people Coca Cola was refreshing and tasty, they had to show wonderful people being happy drinking coke.  Products promoted a happier existence simply by using this product.

From there, lifestyle ads began to be produced.  In these ads, a business tried not to sell their product by its merits so much as to sell their product by associating it with something people wanted to be part of.  Instead of Coca Cola being tasty and making you happy, now Coke was something young and hip people liked: you were cool by association.  The Marlboro Man was not about great tobacco and flavor, they stopped even mentioning any of that.  Now the product was an image, a symbol of being cool, independent, rugged, and masculine.  Advertisers tried to associate the product in peoples' minds with a certain lifestyle or image in addition to or rather than sell the product its self.

So now, instead of an ad on how dependable, safe, fuel efficient, or fast a car is, there are beautifully shot scenes of cars sliding over wet pavement, driving along roads, parked by partying college students, etc.  How good is the car?  Who cares, you'll be like this if you drive it!

The internet had a huge impact on advertising, though.  With search engines and later social media sites feeding advertisers data on who looks for or talks about what, and demographics on those people, advertisers could more specifically target their ads.  Now instead of looking at general groups they could pick 20-something hispanic college graduates who like pizza and computer games.  Ads could be shown only to those groups and people, with multiple different types of ads for different folks.  When you log onto your site, you get a suite of ads targeting you based on what you do when and why.

Yet there was a problem here: people were finding it easier and easier to avoid ads.  With ad blocking software, ad-less streaming services, digital video recording, and other tools, people were able to consume content without even seeing ads.  And what's worse, when they saw ads, they were not likely to even pay attention to them.  If an ad runs, they're usually fast forwarded, or muted while someone looks at their phone instead.

So advertisers responded by trying to make advertising interesting and memorable.  Instead of being informative or associating with a lifestyle, ads started to become little skits, little stories.  They were surprising, ironic, visually stunning, bizarre, shocking, and even confusing.  The idea was that if you could get people to pay attention and talk about the ads, then they'd be noticed, and take effect.  So Burger King runs a series of odd and slightly creepy ads about a guy wearing a plastic mask showing up in the morning in uncomfortable places.  You get ads with punchlines that people remember "she sounds hideous!"  You get ads with little goofy skits and memorably strange characters like a gecko or reenactments of odd insurance events.  In many ads it isn't even clear what they are advertising, and the product sometimes never even appears.

How well these work is a matter of some doubt.  The "Breakfast with the King" campaign won tons of awards and lots of people talking about it... but BK dropped the campaign because it not only cost a lot but was not increasing sales.  It was "viral" in the internet sense, but not effective.  It was great for the ad company, winning awards and making lots of money... but not so much for Burger King.

And to complicate matters, several traditional and valuable platforms for reaching customers are dying out or no longer in use.  Radio advertising is not nearly as valuable as it was in the golden age of the wireless.  Television advertising is not useful as it once was when people don't watch TV as much -- and when they do, often are watching content without ads (Netflix, etc).  Newspaper circulation numbers have plummeted from their zenith in the early 2000s, and classified sections are virtually worthless with the rise of alternatives such as Craigslist.  And as I said above, its trivial to block out and ignore computer advertising.

And to make matters worse, viral ads get people talking and enjoying the entertainment (or at least puzzling over it) but how well do they work to sell products?  Here's a quiz to help consider this.  What product or business are these familiar ads promoting?  (answers at bottom)
  1. The Most Interesting Man in the World
  2. Wife thinks husband is talking to another woman, he's wearing khakis
  3. Sketches convince women they are more beautiful than they think
  4. Handsome black man rides a unicorn and surfs waterfalls
  5. Blendtec Will It Blend?
  6. Pop Starlets in the arena as gladiators
  7. You turn into someone else when you're hungry
  8. Where's the beef??

Monday, May 14, 2018


"We are literally turning umbrage into an industry."
--Lionel Shriver

One of the hazards of modern writing is a sector of the public who is ready to find fault and discomfort in nearly anything they encounter.  This oversensitivity and zeal to run to social media and decry what one finds objectionable.  An author can run into this movement to their discomfort, particularly in certain genres.

There is such a thing as the "Sensitivity Reader" being used at big publishing houses, and you can hire one or more personally as an independent writer. What they do is go through your book to see if there are any of a certain sort of stereotypes, biases, or what they consider to be "problematic language."

This has the advantage of giving your work a seal of approval that is likely to avoid most of the social media outrage machine, and prevent people from complaining to your publisher (or you) about certain elements of your book.  However, there are many disadvantages.

I would warn authors to be cautious having a "Sensitivity Reader" edit their book for the basic reason that conflict and uncomfortable characters and situations are what make for drama and engaging storytelling. If you sanitize everything out of the book that certain groups may find objectionable, you're likely to defang your story and may even ruin your plot.

Its important to remember that an author has a story to tell and uses characters, situations, language, and events to move that story along, entertain, inform, and interest readers.  Having someone pore though your manuscript to remove all the objectionable bits is very likely to ruin the story.

Mark Twain's books include racist terms and peoples.  Should that be removed for being objectionable to minorities?  JK Rowling's Harry Potter stories have very unpleasant people doing mean things, should those be removed for triggering those who have experienced similar events?

There’s a thin line between combing through manuscripts for anything potentially objectionable to particular subgroups and overt political censorship. Is it any longer acceptable for characters to be bigoted? Can a character in your novel vote for Brexit? And if all the characters speak with the same courtesy, and voice the same standard left-of-centre views, contemporary fiction can’t hope to contribute to the understanding of a world that elects Donald Trump.

Fiction won’t help younger readers to make sense of their real lives, if in books Muslim men never groom white girls or become radicalised through the internet, transsexuals never regret transitioning or conclude they’re actually gay, women are always confident and empowered, and the terminally ill are always brave (or whatever they’re supposed to be; ask the experts). These days, with all hell breaking loose in Europe and the US, the left’s sensitivity run amok seems to be coexisting in a bubbled‑off alternative universe.
Sensitivity Readers are expensive, one quoted in the Guardian piece about them quit while making $100 an hour to go through books.  Another reference states that it cost $250 for a single book examination.  
Further, based on the article, they can be difficult to work with.  The retired reader complains:
“I quit doing them because they were exhausting and sometimes authors wanted to argue with me,” she says. “They weren’t open to the feedback. They weren’t trying to understand the feedback. They were insisting on the rightness of what they were writing.”
Now, that's not the voice of a skilled, engaging editor, that's the voice of a tyrant.  And to be honest, anyone who reads other people's writings in order to find things the consider objectionable is not very likely to be flexible and understanding.  They aren't typically the sort of person who is there to engage in a discussion or consider what other people think, only to impose their viewpoint.

And it is important to understand that these readers only come from a specific and particular viewpoint.  They are not going to worry about how poorly white men are portrayed or what insults are directed at Christians.  They won't care if a conservative nationalist is treated in a story.  They will not object to the depiction of southerners as ignorant incestuous bigots.

So the end result is that an expensive Sensitivity Reader is likely to just slant your book in a manner that is objectionable to another group of people, rather than clear up any objections.  And that's not a big win for authors at all.