iPad Is a Portable Billboard

by Rob Horning

20 March 2010


I still believe the iPad as it is currently being developed is for suckers, and this post by Mac Slocum gets at why: “The iPad is an Internet device and limiting web-based functionality from within an app—even a very pretty app—is counterintuitive.” The iPad wants to use design aesthetics to encourage potential customers to turn their backs on the open-ended experience of web browsing, and resume consuming culture product in preordained packets, like they were forced to before digitization. It wants to encourage users to adopt a passive spectator view of culture again, instead of making those horrid mashups that make people like Michiko Kakutani unhappy. Slocum cites Felix Salmon’s post about the demo of an iPad version of Wired: Salmon describes the tablet-version of the magazine as the “exact opposite, really, of the internet, which is an open system where it’s very hard indeed to control the user experience.” But controlling the user experience is basically the intent. Only a user that is controlled can be assuredly advertised to. Shutting off the ability for consumers to interact and participate restores them to their complacency and blunts their skepticism.

This trajectory for the iPad bespeaks of the failure of corporations to fully believe in participatory online advertising schemes where brand equity is put into the uncertain hands of random people online in the hopes they will become personally invested in it. It seems to be a rejection of what Rob Walker calls “murketing”—those scenarios, for example, in which consumers are invited to invest brands with meanings that are not determined in advance. (The brands become the medium for a collective form of public art.) Instead we’re seeing a regression to the only mode of advertising that apparently can be trusted—thrusting messages at captive audiences rendered pliant by passive consumption. This seems to squander all the immaterial labor consumers are performing online by sharing the details of who they know and what they all like, but perhaps that data will be factored in by other means. Besides, social networks have now built the infrastructure for harvesting the consumer information that’s commercially useful; brands no longer need to elicit it with any of surrender of control over their own brands and products. The social networking spaces seem contrived to limit the sort of defamatory and off-label uses of brands and reduce participation to cheerleading for them and for the ways in which their owners have sought to present them. Consumer choice becomes a matter merely of what to consume, not how.

The iPad is for those who want the Web with training wheels and guard rails. It’s for those who would like to see control restored to a mandarin class of cultural arbiters (like Kakutani). And once that control is restored, the waters become much safer for advertisers, who know once more with greater certainty what sort of associations they are supplying to brands by buying particular media spaces. It’s a portable billboard that nails down content where advertisers want it to be.


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