Ad Attack - correspondence with Mossberg

The day after I first posted my column, "Ad Attack", a Wall Street Journal page affirmed my concerns about what DoubleClick's doing "behind the scenes," and how online advertising is evolving. Perhaps it was nothing more than the bad taste to serve up a particularly bloated piece of advertising, but I found it to be a breach of trust, and reason enough to scratch Walter Mossberg's "Personal Technology" website from my list of potential destinations.

I wrote to Mossberg, telling him what I thought of his site's underhanded advertising. He may well have been uninformed about the methods, but given what he writes about -- to say nothing about the irony of the particular column at hand -- he should know better.

My letter to Walter Mossberg

January 22, 2000

Dear Mr. Mossberg:

I've read your WSJ writing from time to time and enjoy it. While going through some papers today, I made a note of ptech's web address and decided to check out the online version.

Going from the OK but unnecessary entry page to, I was presented with what I suppose is the latest column, rather than a table of contents, but the topic was of enough interest for me to start reading.

I noticed that once it all seemed to be there, the ad up top was animating clouds rolling by, and I hit [esc] to stop it, as I find moving pictures to be annoying when I'm trying to read. (Don't you suppose EVERYONE does?)

The animation didn't stop. What's more, I noticed in the status line that the page was "still loading," in spite of what should have been a "stop loading" command. And it was loading something sizeable, almost half a megabyte, from a site identified only by its IP address. Had I missed a sizeable graphic that was part of the story? No, the story was all there, along with all its decorative objects.

Ironically, the January 20th column included a reprise of your criticism of AOL, for trying "to trick users who had turned off its annoying pop-up ads to agree to view them again."

I took an unprecedented step in my 5 year web surfing career - I disconnected the phone line, as apparently the only immediate recourse (other than closing the browser window, which didn't occur to me at the moment) to your site's attempt to do something insidious.

I imagine that it was only a particularly bloated and egregious ad, with technology enhanced beyond the simple annoying banner (sure enough, right-click makes it take offensive action, rather than giving me a menu of possible choices as well-behaved items do within Win95) in a way that the makers or buyers think will increase its effectiveness.

Indeed its effectiveness has been increased, but I doubt in a way that you or they would have preferred. I'm no longer interested in today, and without something fairly compelling happening in print, I'm unlikely to ever return to it.

I can't recall ever writing a "I'm never coming back" letter, either, but this advertising attack may as well be a virus, and we have more than enough of those running around as it is. Looking a bit further, I see that the leader of privacy abuse opportunities, Doubleclick, is behind the scenes.

That suggests a possible compromise: I'll come back to Personal Technology online when you column investigates the role Doubleclick is playing in collecting marketing information and tracking online behavior that people would not willingly share, were they to be asked directly.

I'd be delighted to receive email notice of that column.
Tom von Alten

Mossberg replied,

dismissing my concern and suggesting that for consistency, I should see that I didn't visit any sites that use Double Click or similar services. No doubt he knows what I know and am telling you: that's becoming increasingly impossible.

I wrote back to him, responding in particular to his statement to me that

"I have nothing to do with ads, and I don't accept dares."
Interesting position for someone who publishes his work in a surround of ads, and sees fit to criticize AOL for its advertising technology. I told him to consider the suggestion for his Personal Technology column to look at marketing information capture as an invitation , rather than a dare, and I asked him if I could reprint his email here.

His second message to me dispensed with the formality of salutation and signature, and just said


Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Sunday, 30-Jul-2000 11:29:00 MDT