Do androids dream of electric sheep?

That there Facetube thing that the kids use for cyber bullying and to poke each other until they bleed, and on which adults slanderously speculate about their friends and neighbours or use to stalk people they were at school with/arrange clandestine hook ups in hotel rooms with people they were at school with, was floated on the stock market this week, and promptly sank like a lead boat. The company had been valued at £105 billion and they were hoping to raise $150 million from this share release, but the market said otherwise. The shares went on for $38 a shot, but within days something like $10+ had been wiped off the price. That said, not everyone lost out. St. Nobbo of U2 did all right. His private investment company bought shares for much lower than even the reduced share price three years ago, which means that regardless of the dip in the floatation, Him and his apostles will have potentially raked in $1.5 billion. Which, obviously, he’ll use to end world poverty. Hurrah!

Facebook is undeniably successful. It has become, like Google, a web standard. It is a web site that even people who aren’t especially into the internet or computers find themselves using. All other social networks have withered in its wake. My Space and Bebo are as dead as dial-up and ICQ. And one of FB’s main selling points, despite perennial viral campaigns (often through the FB site itself) alleging that they’ll soon charge for membership, is that it’s also pretty much free to use. They have trialled something in New Zealand where you can pay a fee so that all your pals know for absolutely sure that you’ve just had a Toffee Crisp/spilt up from your boyfriend or whatever else you’ve seen fit – usually when drunk – to post onto your profile page. But other than that, in the five or so years that I’ve used it, it’s cost me nowt. Which – considering how much the founder Mark Zuckerberg is reported to now be worth (a strange phrase) – has frequently made me wonder how on earth it made any money; especially when you consider what their server costs must be with the site having close on a billion registered users. Obviously, you can buy more crops and a scarecrow for real cash in order to better production from your virtual farm, or use your real-life debit card to buy a Mafia hit man in your turf war with some guy from San Diego in the fictional gangland world of Mafia Wars, but – I hope – there’s not enough people sad enough out there to make that a serious revenue proposal (though nothing would surprise me).

No, despite the add-ons for Farmville and the other simulated reality games, you don’t have to delve very far to see that Facebook’s main revenue comes from advertising. And the advertising on FB is relatively – especially when compared to say some free apps on smart phones – understated, with ads generally appearing in small squares to the right of the main pages or bolted into the otherwise free apps and games you can click through into. There are no flashing, scrolling, singing banners that induce hypnotic panic buying in a blizzard of shopping epilepsy. And the advertising is also very clever, in that it meets one of the main criteria for marketing – reaching the consumer who wants to buy something that you’re selling. Because the demographic can be set quite narrowly (targeting a particular gender/age/sexual orientation etc), using the information the Facebook user has supplied as part of their enrolment and ongoing use of the site – where they live, their age, gradually adding pages they like and so on, which means that only certain people see certain ads. So I can understand why the advertisers would be attracted to FB. Especially in this culturally fragmented age where we no longer follow the same music chart or watch the same four TV channels. Let’s face it, if you are the manufacturer of thrash metal-themed toothbrushes and want to reach that teenage girl with bad breath who’s into Sepulchre who lives in Reading, Facebook is your way forward.

Because, let’s be clear about this, the internet is a marketing tool of which Facebook is just a small part. Everything you browse is somehow geared towards making somebody, somewhere cash. And yet… there’s another thing that I’ve often pondered – does advertising work? This is a question I think especially pertinent in light of Facebook’s valuation and floatation and the market’s ultimate lack of confidence in it. Like I said, I’ve been on Facebook for something like five years and never once clicked on one of the ads, let alone felt compelled by slick marketing to buy anything. Because, unlike say or Amazon, Facebook isn’t a site I go onto because I want to buy something. I log in because I want to see photos of my mates having drunken nights out and making cocks of themselves, and get the latest gossip about who’s fallen out with who. The ads are irrelevant. Personally I take little to no notice of them. Which makes you wonder how truly effective advertising through FB is. General Motors in the US obviously agree. A week before the Facebook stock floatation, GM pulled its $10,000,000 advertising account from the site. And their not the only ones who have found that the ratio of people browsing pages where an advert might appear, to browsers clicking on that add (which is what the advertiser pays FB for), to then going on to buy the product is less a graduating pyramid as a hedgehog with alopecia.

But while Facebook is presently taking a bit of a kicking in the media, I’m tempted to think that it isn’t alone in being ineffective at selling consumer tat. I feel it’s largely the same for advertising generally, and internet advertising in particular. The trouble is the consumer doesn’t care about advertising. OK, a sexy ad may turn you onto a product, but such ads and such sexy products are in a minority and only come along every now and then. The original Apple iPod and the re-release of the Wispa
are ones that I can remember hooking me in. In the main, we’d rather not see adverts at all. This comes in a week that an
American firm created a TV box that will actively skip adverts on the programmes it records when you play them back. Something which has thrown the American TV channels – who generate the bulk of their revenue from commercial breaks – into a turmoil. But wouldn’t you like that? Do you really want to watch adverts just when you’ve got to a good bit in Hawaii Five-O? Even the fun ones – cats going through walls for treats for instance – are only any good the first couple of times you see them. After that, you just want to get back to the show that you were watching before they interrupted you. The physics of progress demand that the more time technology saves me the quicker I want to do what I’m doing so that I can do some more of it. I hate anything that interrupts me. Which is something that internet ads have a tendency to do. Whether it be at the beginning of a You Tube clip that you have to wait 30 seconds before you can skip (which people then invariably do), or something that suddenly looms out of a web page I’m trying to read. And what about the adverts themselves? Not just on the web, but on TV and in the media. Some work, some don’t. And not necessarily because you like them. The EDF character on TV at the moment (apparently called Zingy) that dances cutely to the Human League and AHA – my Mrs Loves that. Attuned as she generally is to skipping through adverts at a rate that would make Max Headroom blow a circuit, she watches the little blob boogie and chuckles. But it hasn’t caused us to change our electricity supplier. And I have never compared the Meerkat. Though I have been tempted to Go Compare when feeling very about car insurance. Regardless of the quality of the ad, we don’t necessarily respond to advertising. Seeing is not buying. For instance, Kraft’s Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK uses its promotional budget to create bizarre adverts, based on the fact that they are so successful that they don’t really need to advertise. And you thought the drumming gorilla was great, didn’t you? But did it make you go out and buy a bar of Dairy Milk or a box of Milk Tray? I suspect not. But I’d go further than that and say that most advertising doesn’t even register. For instance, I have the habit of more or less discounting the top search in yellow on Google without even really looking at it, because I know it’s sponsored. My thought process is that someone has paid Google cash to put their advert at the top of the search page, so it isn’t necessarily the best option for me, simply one that’s hoping to make money out of me. Which means that I move to the next one. And another hurdle advertisers face when pitching their wares on the net is that people fundamentally associate the internet with getting stuff for nothing. They want it free. Advertising is an industry that has its primary success in selling itself as being something that manages to sell your product to customers. I’m not convinced – the majority of the time – that it does. The fact that advertising is a tax deductable expense has a lot to say for its viability. I wonder how well the industry would fare if it weren’t.

What I would say is that there is a difference between shiny, shiny, isn’t this pretty come and buy the shiny, shiny of an artistic advert and simply providing the consumer with information. Consumers want to be better informed. And the internet has been great in this. Whether it’s reading Trip Advisor reviews on some rat hole passing itself off as four star or getting other people’s experiences of the latest smart phone before you commit yourself to getting one, consumers can find out more about what they’re buying than ever before. Better and cheaper, that’s the motto. Which brings me onto the new UK law involving Cookies. (For those who don’t know, a cookie is a small file that the web sites which you browse place inside the web browser on your computer which gives a history of your internet activity. Banners on websites can then be triggered by the cookies you’ve accumulated to show adverts relating to the pages you’ve viewed). From this week, rather than cookies sneaking onto your machine insidiously, companies have to ask you if you want them. I’m surprised the Government has gone for this – given the way the multinationals guide policy, anything that makes it harder for the capitalist hegemony to steer people towards buying their products must have CEOs scratching their heads and wondering why they’re still sponsoring the halfwit second-raters in Westminster. By and large, I think cookies can be useful – though it has to be said, a lot of the existing cookies aren’t particularly clever, and simply create adverts which link back to pages I’ve already visited. A more Amazonian approach of – people who bought this, also bought… would be more useful. Especially if it shows me something I’ve already browsed at a better price. Whether the adverts you see are based on web cookies or the information you provide to FB (or whoever) through interactions in your social networks, it’s a question of balancing the right to privacy with getting a cracking deal on your next holiday and a discount on some herbal Viagra. And at the end of the day, they can’t make you buy anything.

But that’s enough from me, an advert has just popped up on my browser that says there are hot chicks in my area tonight. TTFN.