Online Advertising: Pro and Con
Opening statement by the proposition
Calls from telemarketers, mailboxes stuffed with coupons for products don’t use, and dreary advertisements for things you don’t need, from diapers to dentures: that was the bad old age of advertising. Today, modern advertisements, through the magic of computer technology, are now carefully segmented and targeted to consumer desires. For example, say that you are a dedicated runner. If you buy a pair of running shoes from Road Runner Sports, you may get coupons in your email in-box offering you 10% off your next purchase, or notifications about new and exciting shoe models. Both the consumer and the retailer benefit from online advertising. The consumer benefits because the advertising and personal value conveyed by advertising are maximized and tailored to his or her needs. He or she receives information about products of genuine interest to him or herself, rather than generic information. He or she does not need to wade through extraneous buzz or noise to get to what he or she needs to know.
The producer benefits from online advertising by generating a captive audience through the online solicitation process. Instead of wasting valuable resources, the producer can target areas on the web where desirable consumers are likely to congregate online. An eco-friendly baby stroller company can advertise on the sites of ‘mommy bloggers’ and green parenting websites. The money saved through careful segmentation can then be passed onto the consumer, through reduce costs and promotions.
Online advertising offers the prospect of unique venues in which sellers can use their advertising revenue. Giving bloggers products to review allows consumers to hear what the product is like when tested in the ‘real world’ and also allows such bloggers to discuss negative as well as positive experiences. When advertising is less-than-ethical, alternative feedback online is easy to Google to challenge product claims. After seeing the advertisement for a cream or lotion on Make Up Alley, the computer user can run a search of the product and see if it really leaves a user ‘wrinkle free.’
Online advertising tends to be more informative than other types of media. Quick demonstration videos, genuine articles about the product’s statistically demonstrated benefits, and case studies are more easily digested online than in a magazine or television advertisement. Online advertising draws upon all of the senses of the consumer, and all of the consumer’s emotional and intellectual capabilities. It allows the consumer to be more critical but also makes for a more captive audience, because of its targeted nature.
Opening statement by the opposition
Recently, the FTC was forced to take action, requiring Internet bloggers to make a full disclosure if they had accepted free promotional products from companies which they ‘reviewed’ objectively on their sites (Allard 2009). Many bloggers have loyal followings of readers who trust their input and opinions. But because of the Wild West, unregulated world of the Internet’s ethics, it was still considered acceptable for a blogger to receive free products from a company and post positive spin as an opinion, not advertising.
Much of the online environment is still unregulated, and thus is an ethical minefield for the consumer and companies that advertise online. Many online informational sites are actually partisan, rather than objective, which can cause the consumer to trust such information as unbiased in an uncritical fashion. At least advertising on television is clearly bracketed as such. And even from the company’s perspective, the online format can be problematic. Companies suffer the opposite problem: disgruntled reviewers might write unfairly negative reviews of a product, and post them online. The popular review site Yelp has caused many restaurant owners to complain, given that one bad review posted by a reviewer desiring to make a name for him or herself as the next Frank Bruni can ruin the reputation of an otherwise good establishment. Also, because there is so much ‘noise’ online, standing out in an appealing way is difficult for an organization.
The Internet is an easily manipulated medium. It is easy for consumers to be persuaded with questionable evidence, and it is also easy for legitimate retailers to see their product’s name distorted and defamed. Stay offline when deciding what to buy and where: do your research the old-fashioned way — ask your neighbor, not your friendly neighborhood blogger!
Rebuttal by the opposition
The idea that market segmentation online is easier is questionable. Because search engines are so diffuse in their outreach, someone who merely wanted athletic shoes might surf Runner’s World and not necessarily be interested in becoming part of the RW mailing list, for example. By trying to over-segment their marketing online, companies could lose many potentially interested consumers, simply because the company did not configure the likely user of a specific website appropriately. Market segmentation is dependent upon knowing who uses particular websites, but the most dedicated hobbyist and consumers are not necessarily those who spend all of their time online — the most willing consumer of expensive running shoes might be outside running, not reading a website!
Advertising online may convey the illusion of veracity to the consumer, but is not really more informative than a commercial. Articles and videos are just as partisan as print magazines and television advertising, only with more ‘bells and whistles’ online, they may be more apt to lead the consumer astray. From the point-of-view of a product’s manufacturer, the uncontrolled aspect of the online format enables renegade bloggers and Facebook users to easily create parodies of online materials. Real world, brick and mortar service allows the producer to craft a legitimate and controlled image.
Rebuttal by the proposition
Television and magazine advertising is hardly more legitimate and informative than online advertising: consider the strategic use of products in supposedly ‘content-based’ movies and television programs, and how many informative magazine features about fitness, beauty, and weight loss promote various sponsors! Online advertising is no better or worse in terms of how the bias of the presenter may be concealed. The nature of the capitalist system requires a television watcher or an Internet surfer to be a critical consumer. At least with Internet surfing, the consumer can quickly close a window that has brought up an advertisement from a questionable source, and move onto a more credible Internet venue. The surfer must use his or her discretion when using online reviews: and some people do simply blog about products they happen to like, and are not paid by the company! Savvy consumers will eventually learn to screen out excess noise and know who and what they can trust.
The Internet is not going away: more and more people are using the online venue as part of their daily lives. Consumers want to do more shopping and product research online, producers must oblige them and also can capitalize upon the added features of the format. You cannot turn back the clock — furthermore, a final aspect of Internet advertising must not be forgotten that makes it uniquely positive for the 21st century: unlike paper advertisement, it is green, and does not generate additional waste by cluttering up people’s shelves and mailboxes.
Questions by the opposition
Is it really possible to know an Internet article is honest, or sponsored by a company?
How can you know how many potential consumers are lost, given the over-segmentation of the format?
How can you prevent a product merely becoming a ‘niche’ item, given the nature of Internet segmentation?
Does being advertised online convey or detract from a product’s legitimate and honest image?
Questions by the proposition
How is screening advertisements for bias so different online than it is for other media sources?
Is traditional, paper-based advertising a sustainable business model in the new green economy?
So long as the relationship between the blogger and the sponsor is identified, why is blog-based advertising ethically questionable?
How can a company rehabilitate an unfairly-damaged image other than using the online format?
Closing remarks by the opposition
Consumers will buy from companies they trust, and the online format does not foster a healthy relationship between consumers and producers. Producers have the ability to use flashy advertising as a substitute for a good product, and to deceive the customer through paid, sponsored relationships with bloggers and advertisers. Consumers may still have difficulty understanding when a blogger is in the employ of a company. Producers may find their good name impinged upon by reviewers who do not have legitimate grievances with a company.
Staying offline and focusing on broad-based real world relationships is more important for companies. If companies focus on generating good products and high-quality consumer relationships with a wide range of customers, rather than pursuing the next ‘new’ online thing and trying to use market research to segment their product, they will prosper in the 21st century.
Closing Remarks by the Proposition
The Internet cannot be ignored — it is where consumers ‘are’ in the 21st century. Producer segmentation of different consumer demographics and online product promotions convey value and ease for the consumer, when shopping and researching products. Although abuses do exist, no they are no worse than the ethical lapses that have occurred with previous media.
The producer ignores the Internet at his or her peril: he or she will lose valuable consumers. And the consumer also should not shy away from the additional product information, good and bad, that the online format can bring.
Allard, Heather. FTC targets bloggers. The Mogul Mom. October 8, 2009. April 9, 2010.
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