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Cybernaut

A matter of good taste

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In the marketing world, it’s known as synergy – bringing together a variety of different mediums to relentlessly market products or concepts, while surrounding the consumer with ads that work at every level, both subtle and not-so-subtle. A lot of the time you’re not even aware that you’re looking at an ad.

An obvious product shot strategically placed in a movie is one example – your mind is aware of the brand name at some level even if it doesn’t distract you from the movie itself. When you leave the movie you’re guaranteed to encounter billboards, bus ads, magazine inserts and other placements that will only reinforce the hidden movie ad you just saw.

The goal is to make us dream of products the same way we can dream about our daily lives, to break down the barriers that separate the ad world from the real world, and to rewire us to consume as mindlessly as we drive, eat, and go through our daily routines.

Most of the time we don’t notice this synergy at work, but occasionally we stumble upon ads so obvious or so tasteless that we have no choice but to sit up and take notice.

The most recent example I’ve found is on the Toronto Star Web site (www.thestar.com). I grew up in Hog Town and most of my family still lives there, and I like to check in occasionally to see how things are doing and make sure my friends are staying out of trouble. So far most of them are.

The lead story recently has been Cecilia Zhang, a nine-year-old girl who was kidnapped last October for reasons unknown, and found dead last week.

It’s was an abomination, the kind of story that gives a city nightmare and that will deeply affect her family and friends for their whole lives.

Still, that didn’t stop an advertising gadget from trying to capitalize on the tragedy.

Along the right hand side of the Web page, in a column marked "Ads by Google", they were links to purchase print posters by the artist B.J. Zheng, to the Hua Chen Fine Art Gallery which carries B.J. Zheng originals, and a link to the homepage of Washington-based interviewer Yeeli Hua Zheng.

What the Google ad feature does is comb through the text of a news story you select in an attempt to match the subject matter with links to paid Google subscriber. If you read a story about the Maple Leafs, for example, the Google ad could feature links to stores selling hats and jerseys, collector shops, and the team’s homepage.

In the second example this form of advertising might be acceptable, grudgingly, but anyone would be hard-pressed to justify using the death of a little girl to sell art prints just because she happened to have almost the same last name as the artist.

I checked a few others stories to see if other inappropriate ads came up, and sure enough they did. For example, a story about the government of Newfoundland laying off 4,000 government employees had ads along the side for hotel rooms in St. John’s.

The Google system is automated which is the whole of the problem. It lacks tact. It doesn’t make distinctions between sad stories and happy stories, and had no idea what’s appropriate. Maybe one day it will, but until then the synergy approach will always be flawed. When consumers become aware of the ads, they tend to lose all of their power.

Google to offer free e-mail

Speaking of Google, the world’s most used Internet Search Engine is preparing to expand its services to offer the world free e-mail. Like Hotmail and Yahoo, Gmail will offer free Web-based e-mail through its homepage.

Unlike Hotmail and Yahoo, Gmail will not cap user accounts at two megabytes or five megabytes. The current plan is to give people up to 1,000 megabytes of information, which is about one and one-fifth the size of a standard CD-ROM disk.

Another unique feature is the ability to use the Google search engine to plow through your e-mails to find information.

The fact that this announcement came out on April 1 prompted many to wonder if it was an April Fool’s hoax, but apparently it’s legit. The service is being tested as I write this, and could be introduced as early as the fall.

The huge capacity being offered to users did set off alarm bells – storage is expensive so there had to be a catch. That catch, when it comes to e-mail services, usually comes in the form of spam and advertisements.

Google acknowledged that some marketing will go on. Spam will be filtered, and text-only ads will run alongside the Gmail window in the same form as the search engine.

There was no immediate response from MSN or Yahoo, which recently dropped Google in favour of its own propriety search engine, but you can be sure they’re going to have to offer their subscribers something to stick around.

Feds say file swapping O.K.

While thousands of our neighbours are being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for illegally sharing songs, movies and other copyrighted materials through peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and LimeWire, things are getting more and more confusing in the Great White North.

Last fall the Supreme Court of Canada made the decision that it was legal to download copyrighted materials through the Internet but illegal to upload the same materials. You can borrow, but you aren’t allowed to lend.

That’s all that the Canadian Recording Industry Association needed to initiate its own spate of lawsuits against 29 Canadians who were considered the worst swappers in the nation.

They hit their first snag when Internet Service Providers refused to reveal the identities of the 29. The CRIA took the ISPs to court, and this week a Federal Judge ruled that song swapping was legal. Judge Konrad von Finckenstein of the Federal Court of Canada determined that "the mere fact of placing a copy on a shared directory in a computer where that copy can be accessed via a P2P service does not amount to distribution."

So now we have two precedents in Canada, one that says it’s not illegal to download and another that says it’s not illegal to upload. That pretty much takes care of the whole file-swapping chain of command, although the P2Ps themselves have yet to be sued for providing a venue for Canadians to swap copyrighted materials.

The CRIA has said they will appeal the decision, claiming that P2P services are responsible for a decline in music sales of more tan $425 million since 1999.

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