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When Online Advertising Doesn't Make Sense

Want to read this article? Sure! But first we have a question about potatoes.

Posted on June 18, 2012, at 11:41 a.m. ET

One reason we cheerily accept online advertising, aside from the fact that it pays for nearly everything we click on, is that we understand it. Whether the ad is related to the content, like a phone ad on a tech site, or just appropriate to a site's demographic, at the very least you can imagine how the ad meeting went. Even with the spammier breeds of ad — those little text and block ads that follow you around after you visit Amazon, for example — the backstory is easy enough to figure out, the reasoning apparent. But this? This is too abstract. Questions about potatoes make me feel like an anonymous marketing meatpuppet.

I won't name the publication, because it's a good one and the writer is a friend — anyway, this survey box is a Google product used by others, too. But it's a vile product, isn't it? First of all, it's a roadblock, and nobody in the history of planet Earth has ever been like, "whoa, cool, a roadblock ad." Second, there's no way through except participation. Most of the time a roadblock is a video of some sort, or a display ad on a timer. Instead, this is a forced interaction about something that has nothing to do with you. It has all the worst traits of an ad, without the actual ad part.

Lastly, the questions are almost comically inane. If this "market research" data is really worth anything to anyone to anybody, it's almost nothing. People are paying, though! Google describes the product as follows:

This provides an alternative to the traditional paywall model: site visitors don’t have to pull out a wallet or sign in, publishers get paid as their site visitors respond, and you gain insight into what people think -- for just $0.10 per response for the general US population or $0.50 per response for custom audiences.

This is what happens when humans are made to interact with the mega-scale clickonomics of Google AdWords. You're forced to do away with the polite fiction that, to these companies, your time, opinions and interactions are worth more than a few pennies. This is interactive spam, basically.

Working for content isn't inherently a terrible idea, and is in many ways more appealing than the alternative (the constant and demoralizing relinquishing of personal data). But the contents of this box are so silly that the work feels like a prank, or revenge. Not to lean on too many civil engineering metaphors, but these surveys are like speedbumps on a highway.

I've reached out to Google ("hey Google, do you like dogs more than cats?") and I'll update if I hear back. In the meantime, I clicked "I don't know, show me another question" a few times, and this is what I got:

I love that "I don't know" is always an option; it never, ever makes sense. Anyway, readers! Regular potato or sweet potato? If you've ever been to California, post your favorite tuber in the comments.