Chapter 5. Push and Pull


Chapter 5. Push and Pull

Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.
Lao Tzu

What do bananas, text books, and beach sand have in common? No, it's not a joke, though the answer dwells in the borderlands between humor and horror. We're talking about ambient advertising , and it's funny and fascinating, until it crosses the line.

Originally known as fringe, buzz, stealth, or guerilla marketing, ambient advertising has gone mainstream. Specialty agencies such as Ambient Planet and Diabolical Liberties are helping to spread the word into every nook and cranny imaginable. Beer mats, bar toilets, pizza boxes, receipts, floors, cars, parks, and prescription pharmacy bags. Ads lurking in the holes on golf courses. Commercials carved in sand. Logos inscribed on foreheads. Everyday objects and nature itself are becoming channels for push media.

But where is the line? At what point is push too pushy? Our emotions lure us toward the extreme. For instance, I hate spam. It invades my inbox, steals my attention, and wastes my time. It's bad for me, and I'm pretty sure it's bad for society. Some days, I get angry and search for solutions in the shady bazaar of black lists, white lists, filtering algorithms, and challenge-response systems. But mostly, I try to ignore it, control-deleting my way ahead in a state of learned helplessness. Spam is the poster child for the dark side of push.

Spam is also a canned meat product and the subject of a hilarious Monty Python sketch in which two customers try to order a spam-free breakfast from a menu that includes it in every entrée. The waitress tries to help by noting "Well, there's spam, egg, sausage, and spam, that's not got much spam in it," while a raucous gang of Vikings repeatedly sings "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Lovely Spam, Wonderful Spam," louder and louder, until the song reaches an ear-shattering operatic climax. Interestingly, Spam was one of the few meats excluded from the British food rationing during World War II, and the British became seriously sick of it, hence the skit. And eventually, the phenomenon of marketers flooding Usenet newsgroups and email inboxes with junk advertising messages was named spamming in honor of this sketch. Or at least that's what I learned after a Google search landed me on the Spam (Monty Python) page of the Wikipedia.

Which is why I love the Web. How could I not love a medium that puts the full text of this sketch and a streaming audio version of the Vikings' spam song at my fingertips? Heck, I can even nip over to NetFlix and pull Volume 8 of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" all the way to my mailbox in Ann Arbor. The Web allows me to pull what I want into my attention or my possession when I want it. No more shopping malls or pushy sales clerks. Books, clothes, groceries, movies, musical instruments, and 30 HP Nortrac Bulldozers are just a few clicks away. The sky's the limit.

But there I go again. Rushing to the extremes when the action is in the middle. For while I must confess a penchant for pull, I would never wish for a world without push. I would shed no tear for the loss of telemarketing or door-to-door soliciting. But no more advertising? No more unsolicited advice? The idea of a push-free world reminds me of my visit to the anechoic (echo-free) chamber at Consumers Union. The walls sport massive fiberglass wedges that prevent reverberation. The floor is formed by a platform suspended above the bottom by wires. And to nullify external noise, the entire room is encased in a meter of cement. This is the ultimate quiet room, perfect for testing stereo systems and speakers. It sounds like a wonderful place to escape the cacophony of modern life, but alone in this room, you find the silence is deafening. And that's how I imagine a world without push. In the absence of push, we lose our inspiration for pull.

Like yin and yang, shown in Figure 5-1, push and pull are interdependent opposites that cannot exist alone. Each contains the seed of its opposite. They flow into one another, constantly evolving, continuously seeking balance. Though we may be inclined to cleave them into distinct categories of black and white, good and evil, hot and cold, or active and passive, the truth lies where they meet. In the words of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and librarian best known as the father of Taoism, "to see things in the seed, that is genius."[*]

[*] According to legend, Lao Tzu was appointed Keeper of the Imperial Archives in 6th century B.C. by the King of Zhou. His studies of the archive's books led to the insights that inspired Taoism, a philosophy and religion dedicated to seeking "the way" or "the path."

Figure 5-1. The tai-chi symbol unites yin and yang


Consider, for instance, the XML-based "really simple syndication" format of RSS , which allows us to subscribe to news feeds, blogs, event calendars, search results, and any other type of dynamic web content. We can now turn the sources we find into services that find us. We can selectively opt in to push, so we need not remember (or take the time) to pull.

Of course, when we subscribe to blog feeds and email discussion lists, we assume the cost of noise in return for the value of signal. We ignore most posts. Only a few engage our attention. But we're used to filtering push. We do it all the time when we "listen" to our colleagues. We remember only the juiciest gossip and most relevant word of mouth.

The genius of yin-yang is also evident in the success of Google. By intertwingling the world's greatest search engine with tasteful, targeted advertisements, Google struck a balance between push and pull that sent their stock into the stratosphere. Google's brand of sponsored search, which clearly differentiates paid ads from results, is one of those bright ideas that seems obvious in hindsight, but few appreciated in advance.

Not so long ago, huge flows of money chased after directories and portals, dismissing search as a dog with fleas. Wired magazine forecast the demise of web browsers at the hands of personalized push technologies such as PointCast. Online advertisers went intrusive, spawning multitudes of winking, blinking banner ads, pop-ups, pop-unders, interstitials, eyeblasters, and skyscrapers. And competitors like MSN Search blended paid ads with results, earning income at the expense of trust.

Eventually, Google's strategy of balance proved itself friendly to users and advertisers, and the rest, as they say, is history. But that's not to say the Web has entered a new era of enlightened marketing . Far from it. Today's Web is littered with obnoxious, ineffective ads. Marketing departments fight (and often win) the battle for screen real estate. Home pages are seen as channels for delivering messages and persuading users. A generation of marketing professionals, raised in the glory days of broadcast television, struggles to adapt to the new medium. We see it every day. Push at the expense of pull. The balance remains out of kilter, and the web design community is lured toward the opposing extreme. Marketing is demonized and ridiculed in countless books, cartoons, blogs, and discussion lists. In Dilbert, for instance, the Pointy-Haired Boss's son, who hid in an attic for four years instead of attending college, was hired by the company and made VP of Marketing due to his complete lack of knowledge.

As the user experience designer Peter Merholz points out:

Because so much marketing *is* bad, and so many marketers *are* clueless, there's a tendency to dismiss marketing altogether.

And yet, as Merholz implicitly suggests, design and marketing are not enemies. On the contrary, they are inextricably bound together. It is impossible to find the line where one ends and the other begins. And in this ambiguity lies opportunity. Design and marketing professionals would do well to learn from one another. It's time to forsake the tyranny of the OR and embrace the genius of the AND.[*]

[*] Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras. HarperCollins (1997).