The news today that Google and Oracle have been ordered to reveal when they have paid bloggers highlights a widespread issue online. In short, how do you know when what you read is a true expression of opinion, and when are you in fact being advertised to without you knowing it?
This is a huge problem online and goes to a deep seated principal in our society – in short, you should know when you are advertised to. Before Sir Tim Berners – Lee created the wonder of the internet, the main outlets for advertising were the print media, radio, TV and cinema. Newspapers would sometimes sport articles and pages made to look like a news article, and would bear the legend “This is an Advertisement” at the top or bottom of the article just in case there was the possibility that the article headed “IQ of 145 and still can’t remember?” or something similar could remotely be mistaken for a serious piece of journalism. Advertising on the Radio was usually limited to the same repetitive plugs for local businesses selling cars or windows or both, while TV adverts were limited to a set number of minutes during advert breaks during the course of every hour on commercial TV.
The line became blurred on the Cinema. Product placement became popular as ever more expensive films required more commercial support to fund the spiraling Budgets. 007 became a victim of this from the 1970s onwards – watch a re – run of Moonraker and spot the 7 – Up product placement. There was also a 1970s experiment in subliminal advertising. During a cinema showing, a single celluloid pane was replaced with a picture of a Mars bar. When the film was shown at full speed, the pane was invisible to the naked eye. However the subconscious did register the image. This manifested itself during the intermission, when there was a run on Mars Bars at the kiosk. The audience had been advertised to and did not even know it. As a result, they did not know that the urge to buy the Mars Bar was in fact a suggestion via advertising. As a result, subliminal advertising was banned with immediate effect.
Thirty years later, the online world is not regulated in such a clear manner. Facebook, Google and many internet services make all of their revenues from advertising. Advertisers are always trying to find new and innovative ways of advertising, and for them it is now open season. When Lady Gaga makes a remark about a TV program or another artist or anything else to her several million Twitter followers, is the expressing an opinion, or has she been paid to make that remark? When you run a Google search, how do you know that the top result is actually the most popular and not the one that has a commercial arrangement with Google? When you read a Blog, how do you know that the author is expressing a view or recounting the results of an investigation or research? You don’t. Increasingly, well respected Bloggers have become suspects for having been influenced, commercially paid or otherwise, to express the views that they have written.
The demand by a US Judge that Google and Oracle should reveal who they have paid to blog for them relates to an intellectual property dispute revolving around patents, where different commentators, bloggers and rights groups appear to have received payments in order to make certain remarks. However it lifts the veil on this much wider issue of unwitting internet users being advertised to without them knowing it. Minors are starting to use the Internet and are not even aware when they are being advertised to by individuals they may have taken to as role models, and may make choices based on statements that are in fact advertising while being deprived of the right to actually make a choice on whether they are responding to a piece of advertising.
The revenue streams are now getting to be so great that it may be too difficult to now close the stable gate after the horse has bolted and effectively try to regulate this practice as the world is now very different from when subliminal advertising was first banned. Perhaps all we can hope for is that at least people may view material on line with an open mind and with their eyes wide open to what they are reading.