EDITORIAL: Can't Thank Some Folks Enough

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Sports fans knew about this time last year that e-commerce was in for a rough ride when Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was named Time magazine's man of the year.


Superstition has it that whoever or whatever is on the cover of Sports Illustrated is jinxed. So it stands to reason that Bezos on the cover of Time would jinx Internet marketing for the year.


Thanks, Time.


A more serious early sign of a rough 2000 for Internet marketers was when ad services firm DoubleClick came under fire for having the audacity to try to use data from the Abacus Direct co-op database of catalog buyers to get banners working.


"This amounts to little more than a secret cyber wiretap," Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm said in a statement at the time. Gee, thanks, Jennifer. You and the rest of your knee-jerk, fear-mongering buddies killed what I figure was one of the best shots at predictably delivering Web advertising to people with a history of mail-order purchases. Nice job.


Oh, and don't forget the press. They still report that "consumer backlash" killed the DoubleClick/Abacus initiative. Please. The vast majority of consumers have no idea what DoubleClick is. The media, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Federal Trade Commission and a couple state attorneys general killed that effort by manufacturing hysteria. So season's greetings and holiday wishes to all of them for treating basic marketing information of a type that's been in use offline for years like plutonium.


And what year-end editorial about online marketing would be complete without mentioning anti-spam group Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC, keeper of the Realtime Blackhole List? After this year's high-profile court brawls with yesmail, Harris Interactive, 24/7 Exactis and others, marketers practically faint at the mention of MAPS. Way to go, MAPS. Your vigilante, no-due-process tactics have certainly had their intended chilling effect. Unfortunately, it has been on marketers who want to play by the rules. Meanwhile, the true spammers are as unrepentant as ever.


And let's not forget Wall Street for being its usual overreacting self. After tossing billions of dollars at some of the stupidest business models in history and fueling obscenely frivolous top-line marketing efforts with the "first-mover-advantage" myth, it's now just as abruptly pulled the plug on even the solid business-to-consumer dot-coms. Yea, Wall Street. Clap, clap, clap.


But all is certainly not lost. There are positive signs as we head into 2001. First, as noted in last week's editorial, in which I stupidly mislabeled Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" as "The Road Less Traveled," last year's frivolity is notably absent. Fewer dot-com Super Bowl ads, no belching frat boys or lava lamp watchers. That Bezos was Time's man of the year for 1999 seems quaint. Traditional brands no longer are viewed as hopelessly left behind. What's more, they're being hailed as online marketing's best hope to lead the revolution. Revenue and profits once again matter.


This is an atmosphere in which serious marketers can go to work.


Another good sign is that after several years of enduring finger-wagging lectures from privacy advocates and the like, a lot of marketers have stopped feeling guilty for trying to use the Internet to make a buck and are beginning to grumble about the would-be Internet police.


Whether the new attitude will translate into a revolt of some sort remains to be seen, but there is a healthy sense of disgusted resolve in the air. With wave after wave of layoffs and some of last year's highfliers turned seemingly overnight into penny stocks, the end of 2000 looks grim on the surface, but maybe it's simply a dose of reality that has been needed all along.
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