Sunday, January 6, 2008

Why are Internet radio commercials not more subversive?

I was flipping around on TUN3R the other day, and landed on the punk station PHC Radio. After listening for a few minutes, on came a commercial which sounded like something out of the X-Files. There was a very ominous voice telling the listener about how "they" [RIAA] want to shut down Internet radio, and that we should send an e-mail to the US government protesting this. Both the tone of voice and content of the message sounded very conspiratorial.

It's certainly not the first time I've heard a commercial critical of excessive royalty payments, but it's certainly the most memorable. I certainly agree with the content of the message, but was taken aback by how subversive the delivery of this message was. It came across as though there was some kind of global conspiracy to shutdown Internet radio, almost like some kind of secret Internet Illuminati or Bilderberg society (there are legitimate concerns of RIAA's motives, but we're not talking The Da Vince Code here). I must admit that at first, it made me feel a bit uneasy. Then I thought about what was said in the commercial, and recounted the fact that there was nothing false being said, and it was really more the tone of the commercial that jarred me a bit. If nothing else, it got my attention, and I began to wonder why not more Internet stations were running these types of spooky advertisements, and why more stations were not running any Internet Radio Equality commercials.

While I'm sure the reasons are as varied as the stations themselves, I've come to believe that Internet radio has some very new opportunities that have yet to be explored on the advertising front, especially when it comes to non-mainstream topics. Internet radio advertisers have barely scratched the surface.

Backing up a bit, I used to read a magazine called AdBusters, which as some of you may know is one of the more well known anti-corporate left wing rags out there. While they attack all things corporate, they focus a lot of their attention on the mind-control aspects of advertising. While I don't agree with a lot of what AdBusters says, and I tend to find them a bit militant and unrealistic, they have brought some important points to my attention.

One of the most signficant movements that Ad Busters fought for, was "Culture Jamming". In its crudest form, this was the act of manipulating billboards or bus ads, so as to publicly criticize the subject. For example, a common target might be an ad for latest apparel, featuring a [clearly] anorexic model. A Culture Jammer would throw on a sticker saying something like "I'm hungry and depressed. Feed me." While some people might see this as clever, it's clearly illegal and doesn't play fair. However, the Culture Jammers would argue that there is not much of an alternative since most mainstream media bureaus would not allow an ad to be disseminated that criticizes one of their large clients. Case-in-point: Adbusters has filed a lawsuit, accusing the major Canadian television networks of denial of free speech for not allowing Adbusters to air commercials (at full price), which are highly critical of a number of high profile sponsors. Adbusters have had the same problems in the United States, and intends to embark on the same legal battles in the US, should they prevail in Canada.

With the Internet, many people may question the necessity of such lawsuits, given how decentralized and uncontrolled the medium is. That may seem to be the case, but unfortunately most ads shown, are either banner ads, and do not command a captive audience. Furthermore, the more controversial topics are difficult to communicate effectively in a single banner ad, or pop-up, or voken. Video ads are the most effective, but video ads are, for now, just glorified banner ads which don't command a captive audience. Even YouTube has balked at showing full-blown 30 second ads, opting instead to show translucent banners above the video the user has chosen to watch. Furthermore, "the mother of all mediums", television commercials, are themselves being undermined by the spread DVRs.

So, going back to the anti-RIAA commercial I recently heard on PHC Radio, I honestly can't think of a medium [over the Internet] which commands such a captive advertising audience, whereby the advertiser can articulate such a complex and nuanced messages. From an advertisers perspective, this is incredibly encouraging. Internet radio allows the advertisers to enjoy the niche marketing advantages of the web, but convey a message that would normally be too complex or nuanced to catch the average person's attention.

I see both positive and negative consequences here, but mainly positive ones. On the downside, it allows for charismatic flimflam scam artists to more easily lull the naive into buying their products. But on the upside, it allows for arguments that are generally not popular, but have rational merit, to directly confront listener who wouldn't normally go out of their way to hear the message. Whether you want to educate people on: Global Warming; the negative consequences of "Fair Trade"; or specific reasons why the car you are selling are better than your competitors are selling. I believe that Internet radio currently offers the best format over the Internet to deliver these intricate messages to the right audience.

But there are threats too. Consolidation of media outlets generally stifles what can be said or advertised. Also, at the micro level station managers themselves may feel moral obligations to censor certain messages. But more than anything else, fringe movements tend to not have as much money as mainstream organizations, and simply lose out on the cash front. Furthermore, rationalists tend to waste time appealing to people's logic, rather than their base emotions (witness the failure of John Kerry).

The "free world" (whatever that means these day) has always supported a Battle of Ideas, and I am not aware of any society failing for being too transparent, or too open to new ideas. So, I welcome with open arms a new, more cerebral wave of advertising that Internet radio allows for. I can only hope that the right ideas win out.

The future is unwritten, so stay TUN3D.