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Mobile advertising’s goose is cooked

This week, a prominent interactive marketing site ran an article about a new survey of mobile phone users conducted by Harris Interactive. The article’s headline, ” One in Five Users Gives Mobile Search and Audio Ads Thumbs Up”, was a brazen attempt to apply a positive spin to a finding that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that people can’t stand the idea of mobile advertising. The article’s headline should have been: “Mobile Users to Advertising Industry: Stay Away From My Phone!” Another article (in a prominent advertising trade magazine) noted that consumers were “ambivalent” about mobile phone advertising. Ambivalent? We’re talking about an 80 percent disapproval rating here – that’s not ambivalence: that’s overwhelming opposition.

There’s a reason so many ad people twist words when they talk or write about how much consumers detest the idea of mobile advertising. The big players in the mobile industry, including AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, would love to begin serving ads into cell phones, because doing so would be highly lucrative. The big three search engines (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) have all launched mobile initiatives for the same reason, and there’s an entire cottage industry of companies (including Ingenio, the co-sponsor of the Harris Interactive study) that want to make big bucks by making cell phones the next big ad platform.

There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one. As every survey of mobile users demonstrates, the overwhelming majority of mobile users don’t want advertising, don’t need advertising and won’t tolerate advertising, even search-based text advertising, the least intrusive form of advertising ever devised. Study after study proves that mobile users want their phones to be ad-free. And yet the mobile ad industry cranks on, gearing up for an advertising offensive that’s self-serving, ill-conceived, and ultimately doomed to fail.

Let’s cut to the chase here. The fact that Google’s search-based ad model became successful was a historical fluke. Even Google’s founders didn’t think that anyone would stand for ads appearing alongside organic results on its search engine results pages, and were completely surprised when the inclusion of ads didn’t cause a mass defection among Google’s users. People tolerated search ads because they really were unobtrusive, occupying a small fragment of one’s browser window. Some people were annoyed by these small ads, but most people learned to live with them, because, after all, they really didn’t mess with the user experience that much: they just took up some wasted space.

But you don’t have any wasted space on a cell phone screen. The tiny display (even the iPhone’s screen is tiny compared to a notebook display) can barely display the information that people really need to see when using their phones. Advertisers have no wasted space to play with, which means that any commercial messages, relevant or not, are going to play havoc with the user experience. There’s no way around this basic fact, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in the mobile marketing business willing to acknowledge this.

My own theory about why the mobile industry continues to push the idea of mobile advertising is that they realize that mobile users are essentially a captive audience. Most people signing up for cell phone plans have to commit themselves to long-term, multi-year contracts. Unlike users of Google or Yahoo, they can’t simply switch without incurring severe financial hardships. The industry thinking is that if AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint decides to start beaming ads to their phones, their subscribers will tolerate this ad pollution, because living with it will be less painful than paying hundreds of dollars in penalty fees. The only reason that the big carriers have held off is that they know that making this kind of power play would create a PR nightmare and a hue and cry from consumer activists calling for investigations from the FTC, the FCC, and perhaps even the U.S. Justice Department.

Do you want to know where the real future is? In communications networks that are free of advertising, where users are guaranteed they’ll be spared exposure to gratuitous commercial messages. I know many busy people who would pay a significant premium to be part of such networks, because their time is valuable, their attention span is limited, and their toleration for ads is zero.

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint: are you listening? Mobile advertising is the worst idea since the Push Media craze of the mid-1990’s, and we all know (or should know) what happened to PointCast, iFusion and Marimba, which sought, against overwhelming opposition, to force advertising down the public’s throat.

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