Nobody else owns our experiences

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There is only one other business besides marketing that talks about “owning” people’s lives.

Who Owns the Mobile Experience? is a report by Unlockd on mobile advertising in the U.K. To clarify the way toward an answer, the report adds, “mobile operators or advertisers?”

The correct answer is neither. Nobody’s experience is “owned” by somebody else.

True, somebody else may cause a person’s experience to happen. But causing isn’t the same as owning.

We own our selves. That includes our experiences.

There is an essential distinction here, and it’s the one between puppets and human beings. For lack of that distinction, both mobile operators and advertisers are delusional about their customers and consumers. (That’s another important distinction: operators have customers, advertisers have consumers. Customers pay, consumers may or may not. That customers are also consumers does not mean the distinction should not be made. Sellers are far more accountable to customers than advertisers are to consumers.)

It‘s remarkable that Unlockd’s survey shows almost identically high levels of delusion by advertisers and operators:

  • 85% of advertisers and 82% of operators “think the mobile ad experience is positive for end users”
  • 3% of advertisers and 1% of operators admit “it could be negative”
  • Of the 85% of advertisers who think the experience is positive, 50% “believe it’s because products advertised are relevant to the end user”
  • “the reasons for this opinion is driven from the belief that users are served detail around products that are relevant to them.”


  • 47% of consumers think “the mobile phone ad experience (for them) is positive”
  • 39% of consumers “think ads are irrelevant”
  • 36% blame “poor or irritating format”
  • 40% “believe the volume of ads served to them are a main reason for the negative experience”

Never mind that the second set of numbers is far too kind to the advertising business. What matters more is that mobile operators and advertisers are of one mind. This tells me that mobile operators now think they are in the advertising business. So does AT&T charging a premium for privacy and Comcast wanting to do the same. (Note: online advertising on the whole does not come with privacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. It wants to get personal, and does that by tracking you, as a matter of course. Shoshana Zuboff calls this surveillance capitalism.)

Years ago, when I consulted BT, JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth), then BT’s Chief Scientist, told me phone companies’ core competency was billing, not communications. Since those operators clearly wish to be in the “content” business now, and to make money the same way print and broadcast did for more than a century, it makes sense that they imagine themselves to be one-way conduits for ad-fortified content and not just a way people and things (including the ones called products and companies) can connect to each other. In fact, to a high degree, this is already the case.

The FCC and other regulators need to bear this in mind as they look at what operators are doing to the Internet. I mean, it’s good and necessary for regulators to care about neutrality and privacy of Internet services, but a category error is being made if regulators fail to recognize that operators want to be “content distributors” on the models of commercial broadcasting (funded by advertising) and the post office (funded by junk mail, which is the legacy model of today’s personalized direct response advertising online).

I also have to question how consumers were asked by this survey about their mobile ad experiences. Let me see a show of hands: how many here consider their mobile phone ad experience “positive?” (Keep your hands down if you are associated in any way with advertising, phone companies or publishing.)

When I ask this question, or one like it (e.g. “Who here wants to see ads on their phone?”) in talks I give, the number of raised hands is usually zero. If it’s not, the few parties with raised hands offer qualified responses, such as, “I’d like to see coupons when I’m in a store using a shopping app.”

Bob Hoffman, aka adcontrarian, puts it perfectly in Tons Of Data And Not An Ounce Of Sense and again in Display Ad Horseshit: “no one on planet Earth interacts with “interactive” advertising.

Another delusion of advertisers and operators is that all ads should be relevant. They don’t need to be. In fact, the most valuable ads are not targeted personally, but across populations, so large collections of consumers can become familiar with advertised products and services.

This is has been called branding ever since Procter & Gamble borrowed the term from the cattle industry and applied it in the early days of network radio, back in the 1930s. and it wouldn’t exist without massive quantities of ads being shown to people for whom the ads are irrelevant.

Today very few of us would know the brands of Procter & Gamble, Unilever, L’Oreal, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, General Motors, Volkswagen, Mars or McDonald’s (the current top ten brand advertisers worldwide) if those companies did not spend massive amounts of money delivering non-interactive ads to large populations that include countless individuals who will never buy their products from those companies but will damn sure known advertised products’ names and what they do. (In economic terms, brand advertising carries a powerful signal that clarifies one fact above all others: that the company can afford to advertise, and goes to the trouble of making sure its products are well known. “Interactive” ads targeted at individuals not only can’t (and don’t) do that; they actually subtract value by trying and failing, no matter how many clicks they get. Don Marti explains this well.)

A hard fact that the advertising industry needs to face is that there is very little appetite for ads on the receiving end — and much of that appetite is negative. People put up with it on TV and radio, and in print, but for the most part they don’t like it. (Valuable exceptions are print ads in fashion magazines and other high-quality publications. And classifieds.) That’s why they stop it at their browsers’ doors, with ad and tracking blockers.

Appetites for all forms of content, including advertising, should be consumers’ own. This means consumers need to be able to specify the kind of advertising they’re looking for, if any.

Even then, the far more valuable signal coming from consumers is (or will be) an actual desire for certain products and services. In marketing lingo, these signals are qualified leads. In VRM lingo, these signals are intentcasts. With intentcasting, the customers do the advertising, and are in full control of the process. And they are no longer mere consumers (which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”).

It helps that there are dozens of companies in this business already.

So it would be far more leveraged for operators to work with those companies than with advertising systems so disconnected from reality that they’ve caused hundreds of millions of people to block ads on their mobile devices — and are in such deep denial of the market’s clear messages that they deny the legitimacy of a clear personal choice, misdirecting attention toward the makers of ad blocking tools, and away from what’s actually happening: people asserting power over their own lives and private spaces (e.g. their browsers) online.

If companies actually believe in free markets, they need to believe in free customers. Those are people who, at the very least, are in charge of their own experiences in the networked world.

Originally published at Doc Searls Weblog at on August 3, 2016.

Written by

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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