Lies, Damned Lies and Marketing

Lies, Damned Lies, And Marketing Claims

I’ve been reading a little book by Michael Brooks called The Maths That Made Us. Actually re-reading it. Something I never do, so many books still to read. But in Bangkok, having no new books in English to read, I’ve been going through each of my small library one by one. It’s an interesting book, some bits quite insightful, others cursory or banal. In a section in algebra, and covering quadratics, cubics and quartics, it mentions the original paper by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page when they were at Stanford in 1998. The key point in this part of the book was the difference between linear and nonlinear algebra. Having built search engines for robots to navigate, I’m familiar with the exponential problem of powers of n complexity. I have always been intrigued at how a search engine like Google for instance can achieve such amazing web search results so quickly, suggesting it searches using a linear algorithm. Intrigued but not enough to find out how. Brin and Page’s paper was the one that spelled it all out. So I now have a copy of it on my laptop, and when intrigue builds, I’ll read it. In the meantime, like a reader of novels who races to the last page to see how everyone dies, I checked out the conclusions. I do this with all research papers. This time I was in awe of the altruistic prescience of this bit in an appendix:

“Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention”, a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious. A good example was OpenText, which was reported to be selling companies the right to be listed at the top of the search results for particular queries [Marchiori 97]. This type of bias is much more insidious than advertising, because it is not clear who “deserves” to be there, and who is willing to pay money to be listed. This business model resulted in an uproar, and OpenText has ceased to be a viable search engine. But less blatant bias are likely to be tolerated by the market. For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from “friendly” companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market. Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline’s homepage when the airline’s name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.”

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, Computer Science Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA and

9 Replies to “Lies, Damned Lies and Marketing”

  1. Advertisers never leave an opportunity unexploited whoever much it may offend or annoy a potential customer. A classic case is the instruction sheet for a newly purchased device such as a vacuum cleaner or washing machine. When an instruction sheet actually is included in the package along with the new gadget it is typically printed in a font size which is too small to read or it applies to range of models which does not include the model actually purchased. Clearly the manufacturer was too stingy to print a sheet for this partcular model. In desperation one Googles the model number only to be greeted with advertising material about how wonderful the said device really is. Yes I already know that, that is why I made the purchase. Now can you tell me how to switch it on please?

  2. I am amazed at how poorly TV advertising is done, e.g. why do we get the same loud, stupid, repetitive ads on the same programs night after night, week after week. Don’t advertisers know that viewers have remotes with Mute buttons. The Mute button is by far the most used button on our remote for this very purpose. Why don’t advertisers measure the effectiveness of individual ads by applying statistical methods to corresponding sales variations and then plan their campaigns accordingly?

    Years ago a friend in the advertising business told me that “Ratings Week” is actually six weeks and that the TV people are notified well in advance of when it is going to be. Ratings Week is a statistical farce. Do they know about random sampling? It is a very powerful method that scientists have been using for more than a century. Maybe if you are a TV executive it might give the wrong answers.

    1. First, the mute is the most used button on my controllers too.

      Your gripe John goes way back. I recall back in the day of VHS video tapes you invented a signal processing system to detect when an ad had been recorded off a live to air movie, and on playback the tape fast forwarded automatically to skip past the ads.

      That said, Dabni Harvey, a wonderful friend in the USA has been in advertising all her life, was SVP at Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the world’s largest media agencies. I made the same comments to her long ago, and you know what she said? She asked me if I knew why the agencies did such inane ads. When I said “no” she added, “because the ads work”.

      You are right that they do not care about the sensibilities of you and me. But you are wrong in underestimating the competence of these marketing people, whose job remember is to sell you stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have.

      There’s mass marketing, TV, radio, print, which annoys me and you. The targeted marketing we never see because it goes only to those who the agencies know are qualified customers.

      But I cannot help but chuckle at the fact that you did actually buy that gizmo with the poor user manual.

  3. Never having owned, borrowed, leased or hired a TV in my life, after 70+ years I wouldn’t know how to operate it. As for remotes, I am so remote, if someone explains to me how to use one, I can only take in two or three moves- which I promptly forget. If google annoys me on my device with its tricks, I switch it off for a while, or longer.
    The problem is that most of us are fair game because we allow it.
    Sure, some things are now unavoidable. Banking, tax and other gov requirements, and if you want to travel and not pay an agents to do the work,…

  4. I was reminded, by the article, of the Ancient Metropolis video I was watching on SBS 30 yesterday, its explaining how, like criminals and gladiators in the Roman Colosseum, losers of football matches were sacrificed.
    I thus got to see us as similar to Aztecs and Romans in the way we are being similarly sacrificed to higher-ups’ values, their indulgences and privileges being at the cost of the 99% poor/poorer.
    Similarly fooled by “bread and circuses” us poorer people. In their case by religious BS about the Sun coming up and so on. In our cases by needs to buy sportier cars, fancier clothes and so on. Done by Advertising of course, for the last 100+ years.
    I saw it coming, how Sales & Marketing is at the top of Western societal values, already in my 2nd job, from 1968-71, at IBM Nordic laboratories, since finding that its top managers most often got their positions by being top computer salesmen.
    An impression underlined by their exhorting me to corrupt my technical writing, as an Associate Writer, with Sales BS.
    An impression confirmed by similar experience of L M Ericsson at their Broadmeadows Australian factory, 1977-80, as a technical communications person moving between techos and top people, and between them and their opposite numbers in Telecom.
    Painfully, was how I was seeing it at the time, these experiences now seen in retrospect as informative.
    Extremely informative, their helping me understand, see the ground-truth of, what I am now seeing in videos of:
    Chip fabs; US-China hi-tech, US-China Sales & Marketing rivalries and so on,

    1. Yes, capitalism is better than the alternative, which would be communism in the Marx sense. Not only is it irrational, people do not share, but proven to not work (because people do not share). Capitalism may not have to be evil. Like communism, it comes in various forms. The current one we call a market economy. Market therefore implores marketing. As you say Peter, nothing else matters as long as capitalists are selling stuff to us. But part of that is okay I think. I am a materialist, I like nice things, quality, durability, functionality, prettiness. But I am not a consumer. Once I have something I want, I don’t want another, or a bigger or better or more flashy one. I never understand when someone gets a pay rise or job promotion then they go out and buy a bigger house, faster car, more tv sets, ending up with no greater spending power. I am maybe more like Jacob, somewhat off the grid, I don’t buy processed things, I am not drawn to brands, I feel no peer pressure. But I do have a TV, I like movies and news and I turn on the mute for ads. Actually I am able to tune ads out, organic mute. So a capitalist system that is not in your face “buy this buy this buy this” but more humanitarian could work. Now you tell one!

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