Technology in Service of Mankind: The Punishing Signal

Think of all of technology’s broken promises, starting with the last time you updated your operating system. It’s a discipline lousy with hyperbole, half-truths, and lies, lies, lies.

But every now and then, our best and brightest bring technology’s glimmering potential to bear in an effort to improve the collective quality of life.

This time, that group is the Mumbai Police Department …

Last week, the department posted this lovely video explainer to Twitter. It outlines their latest effort at fighting noise pollution, and quickly went viral.

By hooking up decibel meters to red lights, the police assessed honking noise in real time and then, through an admirably perverse algorithm, delayed green lights, resetting the countdown if the honking volume exceeded 85 decibels. In their words, the idea was “honk more, wait more.”

While admirable, this effort feels rather ironic coming from a country that acknowledges the free-for-all nature of their chaotic roadways with the admonition “Good brakes, good horn, good luck.”

Will this clever trial quell India’s addiction to honking?

Hard to tell, but in a country with 11 times the population density of the United States and no subway or mass transit system, the question really is ‘what can it hurt?’

Fingers crossed and holding my ears for you Mumbai…

In Mumbai, traffic is exceptionally loud thanks to the national proclivity for honking.

PS: Hat tip to Greg Popp who steered me to this story in the NYT. Good luck with your shoot in NZ, amigo.

A Troubling Fact Regarding Digital Industries and Employment Figures

Dennis Ryan, Advertising, OlsonOn Tuesday, New York Times Op-Ed writer Joe Nocera wrote a fascinating article about Jaron Lanier’s recent book “Who Owns the Future?” Within the review, Nocera cites Laneir’s harrowing perspective on how the new digitally-centric economy ultimately decimates the middle class. A simple comparison between Kodak and Instagram  blew away Nocera. And then me. And probably you, in turn…

“At its height, Kodak employed more than 140,000 people…When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people…Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars just because those 13 employees are extraordinary…Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it…Networks need a great number of people to participate in them to generate significant value. But when they have them, only a small number of people get paid. This has the net effect of centralizing wealth and limiting overall economic growth.”

Collaborative networks hold such promise for intellectual and artistic advances; if Lanier is right, we need to innovate to add economic ones as well. Or better still, find ways for more people to return to that old fashioned idea of making stuff.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

PS:  I stepped away from this blog for a while. But I’m getting back to it now–mostly as a repository for bite-sized information I find interesting. Hope you will to.

Google’s Own Search Results: Book Smart ≠ Job Smart

This morning, my LinkedIn feed presented a condensed version of an interview with Google’s Laszlo Bock, their SVP of People Operations.  Among other topics like  big data and predictability, Laszlo dropped this little mind bomb:

Dennis Ryan, Olson, Advertising“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all…Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore… We found that they don’t predict anything. What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

He goes on to talk about the artificial academic environment:

“One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

Boy is that the truth–the most valuable people in any advertising agency are those who love figuring things out when there are no obvious answers. And anymore, there are no obvious answers though some like to pretend there are, mostly to hold on to their hard earned profit structures.

Life isn’t true or false, it’s multiple choice. Actually, it’s nearly infinite choice. And in this modern era, when those choices have expanded exponentially and more critically, when the exponential multitude of those choices is more palpable than ever, we can become paralyzed, or at least insecure. The annoying but accurate acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is a very real, social media-fueled phenomenon that most of us have felt at least a twinge of at one time or another.

But that is the world we live in. Which despite the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, is one reason why a soft, unsaleable liberal arts education may be the best gift to young minds. It won’t promise answers, but it should help teach you to think. And that’s a start.

You can find Adam Bryant’s full Interview here.

 By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

Web? Mob? Sometimes It’s Hard to Differentiate

Three items popped up yesterday that while initially disparate, actually spring from the same foundation.

First, my friend Paul Meyer sent me a clip from this New York Times article which outlines the impact Google marketer Wael Ghonim had in galvanizing the youth movement protesting Egyptian police brutality and eventually, all of Mubarak’s regime.  After police beat a young Egyptian to death, Wael created a very active Facebook group “We Are All Khalid Said” and filled it with pro-democracy, anti-government propaganda articles and editorials from around the world.  Ultimately, this culminated in the January 25th Police Day revolt, an event they hoped would gather 50,000 protesters that ultimately drew twice that.  Ghonim used modern media outlets to communicate that the regime in power neither understood nor respected, and ultimately unseated them.  Yeah peaceful mob action!

Dennis Ryan, Chicago Advertising, Element 79

Then there was the viral clip featuring CBS LA TV reporter Serene Branson stumbling through a live post-Grammy piece.  For nearly ten long seconds, she says gibberish and looks panicked before the cameras cut away.  The garbled clip went viral for its ‘hey, laugh at the blonde bubblehead’ hilarity…until unsubstantiated reports arose that she had actually suffered a stroke on air.  Suddenly, it wasn’t so funny.  This morning, CBS doesn’t confirm the stroke rumor, but the uncertainty killed the joke.  Boo sickening mob action!

And then there’s the Daily Online Examiner’s story about the people trying to make a buck selling appliances online at Full House Appliances.  In a bit of understandable but ill-directed policy, they banned “negative feedback” while threatening “criminal libel” against anyone who posts bad reviews of their company.  In a long section of eight point type that follows up their ‘Click to Agree’ box which most of us check with knee-jerk disregard, they explain their motivation this way: “While there are ample consumer protections, the inconvenient truth is that seller (the good ones to be precise) protections are severely lacking.” Lawyers doubt those threats would hold up in court.

Dennis Ryan, Chicago Advertising, Element 79

Today, everyone of us must learn to adapt to a world where people–even name-calling, libel-spewing trolls–have access to powerful media tools.  We have to deal with this new reality.  Whether the revolution breaks our way or not.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


The Rise of this Misinformation Age

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising

Yes, This is a Facebook Group

I blame Y2K.

Or more specifically, the hysteria that built up over the moment the clocks would hit the first second of the year 2000.  At that point, every computer and microchip would…well, they would do something.  Something awful, something bad, something awful…bad. Pundits preached caution. Web firms sold protective software and patches.  Corporations and governments prepared for the worst…

Then nothing happened.

Real life flew in the face of every exalted expert, every network news designated authority, everyone we entrusted with our faith in the worst.  In the end, Y2K was a non-event.

Unfortunately, these types of non events seem to be on an upswing of late, spurred on by our voracious 24/7 appetite for news.  Just last week, the clean up effort in the Gulf was suspended due to the looming onset of Hurricane Bonnie; oil rigs were abandoned, crews evacuated.  But by the end of the week, Bonnie weakened considerably as it passed over Florida and by Saturday, the National Hurricane Center characterized it as ‘dissipated.’  Still, the dire predictions alone resulted in a 27% drop in Gulf crude-oil production and 10% in natural gas.

More amazingly, the New York Times reported yesterday that the oil slick itself appears to be dissolving far more rapidly than anyone expected.  Apparently 80º seawater that bakes at 100º at the surface may have evaporated as much as 40% of the gushing light crude.  Combined with microbacterial degradation and the effects of all that chemical dispersant, the slick has largely disappeared.  That’s not to say we’re out of the woods and everything is snips and snails and puppy dog tails, but it bears remembering that less than two months ago on June 2, this same august organization reported that a nuclear option was being considered to stem the seemingly unstoppable flow.

People make mistakes.  Even experts can get it wrong.  And given the choice between measured rationality and fever-pitch hysteria, news outlets will always pick the latter.  After all, they’re in the business of selling newspapers and aggregating viewers.  Just think back to that Summer when killer pit bulls threatened every man, woman and child in America with their evil, pipe-snapping jaws, and ask yourself what happened? Suddenly those stories stopped.  Did the dogs suddenly stop biting people or was the threat exaggerated in the first place?

Our throughly wired, always on world now lurches from crisis to crisis, and our collective stomach linings grow progressively thinner with worry.  Almost all of us battle some sort of low-level anxiety regarding all these uncontrollable yet broadly publicized threats to our well being.  For weeks, I got two or three updates a day on the performance of the stock market until I finally realized how to opt out of these updates–they were making me nervous and I know next to nothing about financial markets.  Tom Petty got it right with his song “Crawling Back To You”: “MOST OF THE THINGS I WORRY ABOUT/NEVER HAPPEN ANYWAY.”

We live in an unparalleled information age.  And by the same measure, an unparalleled misinformation age.  And so the real advantage lies not with whomever can accumulate the most information, but whomever can curate the best information.

That’s a key skill for these dizzying times.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Blaming The Media Is So Passe: Blame the Immedia

Yesterday was one gut-wrenching day on Wall Street.  The market was whipsawed by a series of incredible sell-offs, all triggered by a futures traders’ sell order typo that read “16 billion” instead of “16 million.”  The Dow responded by dropping almost 1,000 points: the biggest trading day drop in history.  At one point in the afternoon, it dropped 600 points in seven minutes.

That’s the story that started to come together in the hours after the markets closed.  That’s what I learned from the online and on air media Thursday night.

Element 79 Chicago Advertising Dennis RyanBut that wasn’t what I learned all day long from the Immedia.  No, the Immedia–all those instant market updates like Captivate in our elevators and the New York Times email newsflashes–just told me bad things were happening.  Then worse things were happening.  No ‘why,’ just ‘what.’  I felt incredibly anxious about the state of the markets.

But then I remembered I write for a living; I know nouns and verbs and adjectives–I don’t know anything about futures and puts and calls.  Still, I got to share the fear.  I got to feel all the anxiety about something I neither controlled nor fully understood.  Did I need to know these things?  Was my life enhanced?

We mistake all this immediate information for actual intelligence.  It’s not.  These are just data points–when the news first came across, no one knew about the typo, no one had the context of how automated computer trading was intensifying the sell offs.  But we immediately knew the knee-weakening fact that the ever-stable P&G was down 37% at one point.

Sadly, we no longer get news stories with context–we get quick facts, mere headlines, which rarely tell the whole story and frequently are plain wrong.  In early reports, the would-be Times Square Terrorist was some forty-ish white dude caughtchanging his shirt in an alleyway on a surveillance camera.  Tiger Woods crashed his car.  Balloon Boy was flying away…

All this Immedia isn’t good for us.  Our minds fill up on these nutritionally-dubious appetizers and we’re left feeling vaguely sick by the time the main course is served.  We lose the real story to the immediate sensation of reacting, instead of responding.

Yes, I do want to know the box scores immediately–they need no context.  But more complicated news?  That’s a different story.  And its more valuable when it comes contextualized in a story too.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Slammed? Wow! Consumer Reports Doesn’t Like Infomercial Product Quality

I don’t read Consumer Reports.  For starters, I already own a car and the necessary large appliances but more importantly, in their bid to maintain editorial objectivity as they conduct product ratings, they accept no advertising.

No way can I subscribe to that approach.

Anyway, the New York Times posted a review of an article in Consumer Reports‘ February issue where they express dismay at how otherwise intelligent consumers purchase truckloads of infomercial products that amount to low-quality snake oil hokum.  They may even use the decidedly unacademic descriptor ‘crap.’

That’s not just their opinion; they subjected fifteen popular products to their rigorous testing process, rating everything from the Snuggie to Grease Bullet cleaning tablets and the ever-popular, thrillingly-named ShamWow!  My favorite finding?  “Each time we laundered two Snuggies, we removed a sandwich bag’s worth of lint from the dryer screen. After 10 washings, “the fabric had bare spots between pills and clumps.”  Imagine…

As one editor put it, “We tend to laugh at these commercials but they are very powerful persuaders.”  Why is that?  Why do we have such a hard time turning away from these breathless, carnival barker sales pitches that sound like parody before they inevitably become parodies?  Why aren’t we offended by their rote work plotting of problem/solution/product demo and lily-gilding a gogo?  Why are they so persuasive?

I have a theory on what makes them work…  Enthusiasm.

Raw, unfettered enthusiasm that communicates as genuine excitement, absolute faith and infectious energy.  When you compare that tone and the sound of most mainstream brands, there’s a glaring difference.  Mainstream brands come from corporations with stockholders, HR Departments and legal staffs.  Infomercials spring from the fevered zeal of hopeful entrepeneurs with the sole goal to sell, sell, sell.  And that makes all the difference.

Is there room for this kind of enthusiasm in mainstream advertising?  Certainly somewhere.  But it’s gonna require we all get a lot more comfortable with one specific type of punctuation: the exclamation point.

Or rather, the Exclamation Point!

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Where Have You Been? A Matter of Cookies and Transparency.

These Webb Cookies Go Deep Undercover

These Webb Cookies Go Deep Undercover

This month’s Epicenter blog on discusses Flash Cookies, an online tracking mechanism similar but far less known than the more commonly-recognized internet cookie.  Both operate very similarly to store user data, but there are signifigant differences.  Perhaps the biggest difference is storage capacity: HTML cookies can save up to 4 KB of data while Flash cookies can hold nearly 100 KB.

Oh, and there’s one more thing: when you choose to clear the cookies from your browser, you eliminate the HTML ones, but you don’t touch the flash cookies because they aren’t stored in your browser.  Actually, they are part of the Adobe Flash Player and you can find them through the Settings Manager.  Generally, they have an .sol extension.

Viewed positively, Flash cookies keep track of things like your volume settings for YouTube videos, high scores on flash games and user data for sites like Amazon.

Viewed suspiciously, they are shadowy spyware, implemented in a manner that runs counter to the transparency that characterizes the best web behavior.  Some paranoid programming and tech savvy types conjecture that Adobe intentionally tries to deflect privacy concerns by locating these files in disparate tab locations within their software, under unusual labels like ‘storage’ instead of more straightforward headings like ‘security’ or ‘privacy.’

Unfortunately for marketers and online data crunchers, most people do view cookies negatively.  According this article in today’s New York Times, a study from Penn and Cal Berkeley shows two-thirds of Americans object to online tracking.  It’s even becoming an issue on Capitol Hill as various representatives are considering legislation to address the issue.

I am not anti-cookie (or Local Shared Objects or DOM Storage Objects).  They make many things far more convenient and I’m willing to sacrifice some measure of privacy in exchange for their usefulness.  This compromise also drives things like my use of Catalina Marketing’s discount card at the grocery store and my daily use of Facebook; I’m willing to let marketers learn more about my behavior in exchange for coupons and free services.  And you can always turn them off.

But first you have to know they exist.  And reside in a different directory.  The disturbing point at the crux of the blog post was how nearly half of the web’s most popular sites use these cookies, yet very few mention them in their privacy policies.  That’s wrong, plain and simple and people have a right to be suspicious of these site’s intents.  Remarkably, the list of offending sites even includes

Of course, if you grew up watching the Watergate Trials, that will just confirm years of suspicion.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Changing Face of Facebook

A recent feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine labeled “Facebook Exodus” highlighted some purported trends regarding Facebook and it’s fading hold on certain demographics.  Of course, Facebook proponents viewed this less as ‘highlighting’ and more like ‘hyping’ but some facts do remain, many of them courtesy of this iStrategy Labs analysis of Facebook statistics.

•  Facebook is almost ridiculously popular, nabbing nearly 88 million unique visitors in July from the US alone.

•  The six month trend for Adults 55+ has been a stunning 514% growth in new users.

•  That same trend for high school and college age students is 16.5% and 21.7% less new users.

Good or Bad is Debatable: But Change Is Always Constant.

Good or Bad is Debatable: But Change Is Always Constant.

Because we live in a Twitter powered world of byte-sized information, those last statistics have been frequently mis-reported as those audiences shrinking by those percentages.  To be clear, those audiences have still been growing but at far, far lower velocities.  And that does represent a trend.

But as someone who remembers when our neighbors the Tanguays back in Radnor, PA became early adopters of cable television, it’s hard to be surprised to see changes to the platform.  Back then, no commercials EVER came on cable–that was the whole selling point.  After all, if it had commercials, why would you pay for it?

Obviously, things change over time.  And the same is happening to Facebook.  Personally, I’ve become immune to the chain letters disguised as apps–if you want to know my birthday, ask me and I’ll tell you but no, I won’t download another app for that honor.  Nor do I want to fight your Ninjas or join your Mafia mob–it’s a newer face but not a whole lot more than the old Dungeons and Dragons bit.  I’d rather play basketball thanks.

As Facebook matures and newer alternatives arise, the biggest challenge will be maintaining a positive signal-to-noise ratio among it’s heaviest users.  So long as the contacts and networking stay simple to use and acceptably clean of too much unwanted junk, Facebook will retain it’s audience.  Should that balance shift, it won’t.

Kind of like television.  Imagine that.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79