Garbage in, garbage out

Advertising and computers were made for each other.

Marketing Magazine, January 3, 1999   

According to British science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke, shuttle trips to our cities on the moon are just a year away. The visionaries we’re hoping will make that happen better get a move on. And before they build that shuttle, they’ll have to resurrect Pan Am Airlines from whatever gone-out-of-business limbo it was consigned to when it folded. As for that monolith, well, there’s scant evidence that it’s about to make an appearance. But it’s a sure bet that if it is showing up, it’ll be brought to you by something. And I don’t mean God or some universal consciousness. More likely, there’ll be a snap-zoom to its lower left corner, a four-note synthesized sting and a tight close-up on the “Intel Inside” logo.


Never mind the monolith. HAL 9000 was the star of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But HAL was a vast, cumbersome and ultimately evil thing. In real life, computers have turned out to be a lot more insidious. And smaller. They’ve spent the past decade in offices and houses sprouting like so many beige plastic mushrooms. And a computer in every home is not enough: we carry notebook machines with us so we’re never without a CPU, a screen and a mouse. And if Clarke had been able to peer into this future — the actual future — he would’ve rebuilt HAL so that he didn’t offer Dave any piece of information without some kind of commercial.


“Open the pod-bay doors, please, HAL.”


“I’d be happy to do that, Dave. But first, here’s a five-second commercial for Windows 2002 — available in 2004.”


Advertising and marketing have grown right along with the appliances that are powering the information revolution we’re all glorying in right now.


Advertising’s always done that, of course, adapting to each new medium as it’s been introduced. While some might see that as a kind of flowering, there’s another botanical metaphor that makes a lot more sense. Rather than roses or orchids, advertising has grown more like crabgrass or kudzu. It’s not often a thing of beauty. But its stubborn persistence is admirable; it’s damn hard to kill.


The rise of the personal computer has paralleled the advent of radio and then television. In each case, a new technological advance has meant bold predictions of social and intellectual betterment. And in each case, it’s turned out that whichever advance is marching toward ubiquity is really just another place to put advertising.


Computers are exactly the same as their technological forebears in that respect. How many digital divisions have been launched by the big agencies? How many shoestring digital start-ups have made piles of cash building corporate or marketing Web sites? And how many more advertising campaigns have been launched to push hardware, software or


Advertising’s detractors — the doomed refugees of the Love Generation who try and fail every year to make November’s “Buy Nothing Day” something more than a dependable annual chunk of feature-fodder for the nation’s newspapers — miss the point. They think the proliferation of advertising is a testament to advertising’s inherent self-perpetuating evil.




Like computers — like any technology — advertising is not inherently good or bad; it’s value-neutral. As proof, look at some really dreadful advertising: Bell’s commercials with those two annoying wiener guys or McCain’s continuing wretchedness, those Toronto Ford dealer spots shot in an afternoon on a budget of $8.95, or any of the stinky advertising we snort at on any given day. The people who executed those spots probably had a lot of ideas other than what they ultimately ended up going with, and it’s probably a safe bet that at least three of them were better than what the clients demanded.


Computers and advertising are a lot alike that way: garbage in, garbage out, to quote an ancient programming mantra from the dawn of the silicon chip era. And in that sense, if no other, the two things are made for each other.


And advertising, for all the knocks it takes for being too much with us, isn’t as powerful as its detractors would like to think. If it were, then some smart creative team surely could have come up with a way to keep Eaton’s from being a bankruptcy-court grease spot.