Editorial Bring on the ads, Amazon

Huge week for Amazon, last week. But all that Kindly goodness was nearly upstaged by lock-screen ad nonsense. When I searched on the keyword "amazon" in my RSS tech folder, Friday and Saturday of last week looked like two big parade floats: "OMG, there are ads on the new Kindle tablet!" and "Praise the heavens, you can disable the ads!"

Tempest in a teapot, those ads. And Amazon took the wrong approach to removing them.

The Kindle e-book readers concentrate their functionality on reading e-literature, while the Kindle Fires spread their usefulness around more types of on-screen media.

First of all, residing as they do on the lock screen, the ads do not intrude on the content or service experience. That fact alone makes the furor overwrought. Additionally, the ads are not a surprise gambit; previous Kindle models display them. Distraught alarmists seem to forget that Fire tablets are Kindles. The Kindle e-book readers concentrate their functionality on reading e-literature, while the Kindle Fires spread their usefulness around more types of on-screen media, plus some measure of third-party app action. But they are all Kindles. The staging of ads is consistent across the product line.

I think the howling upset is connected to "tablet expectation" as created by iPads and Android slates. We expect tablets to provide a platform for running apps of the user's choosing, untethered from manufacturer interests. Their beauty is in their gadgetry. You are buying a platform upon which you place (mostly) third-party experiences. In that sense, despite their emblematic status as post-PC appliances, tablets are similar to computers.

The Fire is no such thing, and doesn't pretend to be. Jeff Bezos put his service-not-gadget philosophy in plain language last week, if it wasn't clear before. I can imagine Amazon execs observing the wailing over ads and saying to each other, "What the hell did they expect? We put advertisements in a purchasing device. What else is new?" The Fire, with its customized Android OS, is not an agnostic platform; it is a media buying facilitator. Mark Hachman concisely referred to the Kindle Fire as a "branded shopping cart." It is not for gadget freaks; it is for customers embedded in the Amazon matrix. Just as the iPad works best for iTunes users, the Fire is customized for Amazon.com users.

As such, the notorious ads, which are house promotions of Amazon media content, are likely to be inoffensive, or even welcomed, by many users. Take away "tablet expectation" and those ads are the front-end of a content recommendation engine, not essentially different from personalized buying suggestions surfaced on the site. When I sign into Amazon.com, the entire front page is a bespoke recommendation sheet of e-books, videos, electronics, watches (I don't get that part), TV shows and books. It is the web version of a Kindle lock screen.

Editorial Bring on the ads, Amazon

I'm using happy-customer logic. The argument against that logic runs to the evil of ads appearing on a purchased device. We are accustomed to extraordinary advertising intrusions in our web consumption, because we understand the basic equations of ad-supported publishing. But that train of logic, that when we pay for something we should be exempt from advertising, left the station years ago. I pay a fortune for cable TV, and if I hit the timing right, I can flip through dozens of channels and see nothing but ads.

Woven deeply into consumer culture is laser-targeted marketing directed maximally to those who spend the most. There is no exemption for being a customer; quite the opposite. Buyers reveal themselves through their purchases, and the more we are revealed, the more promotions we see. There is an interesting tale of one department store's sophisticated big-data marketing operation in "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg. (That link goes to Amazon, by the way.) The chapter on Target describes how a national chain can determine when shoppers are in change-of-life periods during which they are most susceptible to marketing suggestion.

Buying a Kindle Fire is not very different from acquiring a supermarket discount card (though substantially more expensive).

Buying a Kindle Fire is not very different from acquiring a supermarket discount card (though substantially more expensive). The card doesn't exist to save you money; it exists to record your preferences. From the merchant's perspective you are buying into self-revelation, asking for promotions and promising to be a loyal customer. So why would anyone be surprised to see ads in a Kindle?

And why wouldn't you want to? I want the ads. I like the recommendation page when I sign into the site. I like the music recommendations Rhapsody gives me. I like the little Twitter newsletter (out-of-date though it always is) showing me tweets I missed. When I buy into an ecosystem, I'm bought in. I want to be drawn deeper.

Editorial Bring on the ads, Amazon

So here's Amazon's mistake. It shouldn't charge to remove the ads. Fifteen dollars? Whose rear end was that number pulled out of? In addition to the seeming arbitrariness, there is a capitulating, negotiating feel to this solution. Amazon should not squirrel away from the lock-screen promotions. If a user doesn't want recommendations, Amazon should yank those suckers off the device knowing that it's the user's loss. They should invite users to opt in to smarter recommendations by filling out a preference form.

Are the Kindle ads there for Amazon's benefit? That is small-minded thinking. Regarding them as a product enhancement is larger-minded, and if there were no removal tax Amazon might be surprised how many Kindle owners chose to keep the ads.


Brad Hill is the VP, Audience Development at AOL. He is the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.

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