Advertising Politics Public Relations

On Labour, Ipsos MORI and the TPS…

This is one of those grumpy old curmudgeonly men blog posts that I kept reading on the web and never really understood until very recently. I’m just warning you so you can get out now.

I have a long-standing grudge against direct marketers, which basically comes down to my desire to live uninterrupted in my own home without having people ringing me up, coming around my house or stuff crap through my doors twenty-four hours a day. I forgive people dropping off pizza vouchers as that’s more public service, but otherwise I bloody hate the bastards. I don’t know if it’s an intolerance that has come from the world of spam, but given that I get around seven or eight hundred pieces of spam in any twenty-four hour period and given that only about five hundred bits get caught by my filters, perhaps my tolerance has been rather exhausted. I could make a joke about how my spam filters have such problems with them because they’re mosly indistinguishable from all of my daily correspondence with friends and colleagues about the size of my penis, but I’m not sure that would be funny and anyone my mum reads my blog occasionally now, and she’d probably roll her eyes.

Going back to Direct Marketers, there is hope! There is a process you can undertake which will stop these bloody people harrassing you and it mostly works! By law, direct marketers from the UK have to check your address and phone number against ‘Do Not Call’ lists. So if you don’t want to receive this stuff, you just go to this page and sign off from all the various lists. While you’re there, you’ll notice a couple of creepy things about these lists, including that there’s a list called the Baby MPS which is a list that you and sign up to if you suffer a miscarriage or baby-related bereavement. It’s the list that stops them bombarding you with advertising crap for the child you’ve lost. It’s not up to them to find out this stuff, it’s up to you to let them know that your child has died. Better still–I would think–would be if they couldn’t send it to you in the first place without your express permission. But there you go.

I say it only mostly works because actually you still end up with stuff from abroad and some people just ignore it. So I went ex-directory and also signed up for BT’s Privacy Service. I think at the time I had to pay to get control over who was able to phone me, but that’s no longer the case, it seems. Together you can mostly fight to regain your peace and quiet, and if you’re prepared to shout loudly at anyone proselytising at your front door then you’ve pretty much got the whole kit covered.

Anyway, so I’m at home, and first the phone rings and it’s a bloody automated phone call from the Labour party asking me how I’d vote in any upcoming election. Interesting. Suggestive. Also really aggravating. My disgust for this kind of home invasion is such that I briefly consider voting Conservative to spite them. Or for Boris Johnson. I’d vote to bring Thatcher back from the dead (she’s dead right? in all the ways that count?) if she’d kick direct marketers back into the pit of hell from whence they’ve scrabbled their filthy little way up into the world. You can read about these people on the Direct Marketing Association website. They’re interested in ‘inspiring consumer confidence and trust’ in people who pump shit through your phone line and front door. They use that form of language that PR people are trained in, which is so drained of meaning as to be linguistic equivalent of one of those sandwiches that only the British sell, in pharmacies for God’s sake. Places where you go to get Thrush cream or treat your corns. Sandwiches and language alike are cold, damp, inoffensive, lack all substance and make you want to heave.

Ranting aside about value-neutral, intellectually empty advertising pap, I tell them how I’ll vote and then hang up. I’m sort of vaguely aware that–of course–the Telephone Preference Service doesn’t extend to political parties. Probably this is reasonable, although it makes me angry.

Twenty minutes later though, another phone call. This time from Ipsos MORI. Ipsos MORI are a polling company, and they make money by being paid by people to do polls on their behalf. Since they are not explicitly selling or marketing things to you, they don’t have to pay any attention to the TPS. Instead, they randomly dial numbers and then ask people questions about themselves and whatever service they’ve been paid to harrass you about.

I don’t realise that they’re within the law, so I cause a big stink on the phone. I know it’s not the fault of the people at the call centres, but they’ve been put there to insulate the people who really are responsible and there’s no way to get to those people, so if you’re going to punish the company in some way, if you’re going to get them to stop doing it, then you have to complain. They explain to me that they are a ‘bona fide market research company’ concerned with public affairs, media, marketing, ‘loyalty’ and advertising (I got the latter stuff off their website). This doesn’t endear me to them enormously.

Now, these people clearly get complaints. They have a section called Called by Us? which has four sections: “Where did you get my telephone number from?” which is a pretty decent question to get started with. Then my favourite, “My telephone number is registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) and/or BT Privacy to stop cold calls so why are you calling me?”. Then one about the safety of supplying information and another about making complaints. That’s the lot. It’s clearly a pretty big deal. Their answer to the TPS question includes these lines:

There are no legal or regulatory requirements to filter unsolicited calls made for research purposes against the TPS. To exclude individuals with TPS registered telephone numbers could bias the results. It would also deny you the opportunity of participating in this research, the results of which may impact policies or services you use!

So the reason they inflict this stuff on people who specifically ask not to receive such unsolicited calls is because it would deny us the ability to participate! They even use an exclamation mark! To make it clear that this would clearly be ridiculous! But what if we don’t want to participate? Do we get the option to make that clear with the TPS? Nope. They’ll put you on a do not call list if you ask specifically, but it’ll be just for that one company, not any other. There’s basically very little you can do.

I know this is sort of a weird little petty vendetta by now, and I’m really sorry about that. I’m still getting in hundreds of press releases after writing a pretty strongly worded post on that subject that got a fair amount of correspondence. I’m still irritated by the way the Cillit Bang crew were prepared to plumb new lows to hawk some old cleaning drivel. This isn’t the same. It’s not the same scale, but it’s still really annoying. It’s another branch of sanctioned spam that you have no way of opting out of. PR spam. Comment spam. Life spam. Phone spam. It’s people actively costing you a little of your time or calm or space or patience to make themselves a tiny amount of money. And it would be all right if it was infrequent, but there’s a flood of it, everywhere, all the time, in every channel.

In this particular case, I went to Downing Street’s petitions website and tried to start a nice, simple little petition about this subject. Something nice and clean. It read like this:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to: ‘require polling organisations like Ipsos MORI to abide by the preferences of citizens who have opted out of cold-calling via the Telephone Preference Service.’

All organisations that want to cold-call to sell or market products in the UK have to check that the person they’re contacting has not declared they do not want to receive such calls via the Telephone Preference Service. At present, polling and research organisations are not required to abide by this law, and Ipsos MORI chooses not to do so.

They declare that not calling people would ‘deny [people who have said they do not want to be called] the opportunity of participating in [Ipsos MORI’s money-making] research’. The organisations concerned allow you to opt out of further contact from them, but does not stop other polling organisations
undertaking exactly the same processes.

This petition contends that it is not up to Ipsos MORI or any
other polling organisation to decide whether or not people
would like to be cold-called, it is up to the people they make
their money from.

The British public should be able to refuse cold-calling by
polling organisations at the Telephone Preference Service, and
the Government should hold these organisations to account if
they violate this agreement.

Unfortunately, the Downing Street site rejected the petition because (and I quote) it contained, “Potentially libellous, false, or defamatory statements”. I’m still trying to work out what on earth they were referring to, but if I come up with anything I’ll let you know.

Advertising Public Relations

On being 'challenging' to PR people…

Some people have been having trouble working out why I’ve got so worked-up about this whole public relations thing. Perhaps this quote from a Flickr user called keeneypr on the thread about PR posted overnight will help explain to you why I’m so angry about the whole thing:

Our job is to get even “challenging” people like you to write, say and/or do what our clients and companies want — of your own volition — and not even realize that you’re doing it. If you are telling us that you only want information from people whose views you like and trust, then we’ll just reach you through them and you’ll never be the wiser.

I could find a dozen similar quotes by people like him from the conversations that I’ve been having over the last few months with PR people. To be honest, I find it sickening. That they would seek to use me as a device to further their aims makes me even more unhappy.

Advertising Journalism Personal Publishing Public Relations

This is not a brothel…

As has probably become clear recently, I’m currently not particularly well-inclined towards people who work in public relations – particularly the particularly unscrupulous ones that spam me with press releases and work ardently to try and persuade me to talk about their products or services on my site.

They don’t seem to understand that I find it objectionable that they would consider me a platform for them to sell their wares. Nor do they understand that I could consider it even more irritating still that for the most part they haven’t got the slightest idea what things I write or care about. They consider my personal voice a commodity to be acquired, along with what little credibility and authenticity I have. This–I’m afraid–just pisses me off.

It may seem like a trivial thing to get angry about, but you’d be surprised the pressure that you can receive to deform what you write to serve other people’s best interests. And it needs to be said, quite apart from my own personal irritation with these people, they are actively trying every day to commandeer the conversations that you are having out there by fair means or foul to serve their needs more effectively. They do it by offering perks, holding or withholding access to people or things and by making people feel privileged by giving them gifts or treats.

For those reasons I’ve made every effort through the last few years to never be beholden to anyone, even to not allow myself to get in the kind of position where I might be unsure of my own motives. But this doesn’t seem to be enough to get the message across, so in a fit of irritation the other day, I wrote a pretty angry and frustrated post on my Flickr stream associated with the picture that opens this article.

In the post I stated that for as long as I have it up, will never contain anything that someone has tried to persuade me to write about. This applies equally to PR people, to marketing people or to my employer. I will write about any company or business (including the one I work for) only when I think there’s something genuinely of interest to talk about. I will only write about my employer when I’m proud of something they have done (or I have done with them) or when I really feel I have something to say. And I will absolutely never talk about something that I hear about through a press release, or as a consequence of someone giving me a freebie.

Of course, I’m not trying to talk for everyone with a blog out there. There are a lot of semi-pro bloggers out there who operate much like journalists and have good relationships with PR people. Their sites are treated like a job, and any access they can get to these organisations can help them do that job. So good luck to them. But they ask for these press releases. They encourage this contact. They make it clear that they’d like to receive them. I have to say that posts from Guy Kawasaki (encouraging the giving of schwag and compliments to bloggers to butter them up) and Paul Stamatiou (pitching for freebies and flights) make me (and Jeremy Zawodny) slightly queasy, but as long as these particular pundits don’t try and talk for the rest of us then I have no problem with them making it clear that they’re interested in receiving press releases. However, that doesn’t apply to me.

As far as I’m concerned, an unsolicited press release is quite literally no better than spam. It is an e-mail that arrives in my Inbox, trying to sell me something. In fact it’s worse than spam, because it actively seeks to persuade me–sometimes bribe me–to sell something on their behalf! Can you imagine how affronted you were if your Viagra spam not only tried to persuade you that you were impotent and in need of assistance but also wanted you to sell it to your friends? What kind of person would you be if you took up the opportunity to bring up sexual problems at every party you subsequently attended? That’s the kind of person that PR people seem to think I am.

I’m going to be putting up a page on my site soon for people who want to send me press releases, and it’s going to say all of this on it. Hopefully people will start to get the message that–for me at least–their attentions just simply aren’t wanted. If you feel the same way, then perhaps it’s time to let them know in public that your culture isn’t here for the benefit of their clients and that your voice is not for sale.

Advertising Net Culture Religion

The Vatican and the ethics of advertising…

I’ve discovered that in one territory at least I’m in perfect tune with The Vatican, or at least with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. I confess, this was entirely unexpected. From their perspective perhaps it would reassure them that there is hope even for the godless. From mine, it suggests that much of human ethical behaviour is biologically hard-wired and that it can be extraordinarily beneficial to an individual from a social species like ours to operate in altruistic and honourable ways. For more on that, if you’re interested, I can recommend pretty much everything but the last chapter of Matt Ridley’s extroardinary The Origins of Virtue.

The area that has triggered such an outpouring of love between the Pope and myself is advertising. It’s a territory that’s been on my mind a lot recently, along with marketing and particularly public relations. I’ve been trying to work out in my head what I think of all of these industries, which are both seemingly necessary and fundamental to the world we live in and yet simultaneously–to me at least–obviously ethically dubious. The Vatican seems to agree. Even though it has a pretty balanced view of these industries, recognising the good they can do, it also defines public relations as, ‘the systematic effort to create a favorable public impression or “image” of some person, group, or entity’. It’s difficult to view that description as anything but faintly damning.

When confronted with any accusation that industries like advertising are intrinsically dubious, however, the same arguments are trotted out in its defence. The one that I find particularly offensive (while accepting that it is not representative of the entire industry) starts off with the (entirely reasonable) move of declaring me and my sort hopelessly na√Øve and idealistic. It then roams off into altogether less plausible territory, first stating that we live in a world fundamentally red in tooth and claw and then retreating back into a weird childish rhetoric: “Everybody’s doing it, so why can’t we?”.

The most grotesque example of this position that I’ve ever read was in a book by celebrated advertising guru Paul Arden called It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. I can’t find any of the (limited) substance of the book online to interrogate accurately and I absolutely refuse to buy a copy, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to hopelessly mischaracterise from memory.

In the book Arden confronts in two small pages of large type (with pictures) the question of whether advertising is fundamentally immoral. The question he’s specifically addressing is basically this – isn’t trying to make something look better than it is to sell it really a form of lying?

His response is to cite some examples of when people engage in advertising every day. He talks about the person who dresses nicely to go outside, or puts on make-up. These people are engaging in advertising he declares, and we don’t decry them. So what’s the problem? Then he talks about a vicar standing up in church and proselytising the Word of God. Clearly, Arden argues, in trying to make God sound sexy to his audience, the vicar is engaging in advertising. And if they’re doing it, what’s wrong with me selling the odd Pot Noodle, some powdered milk, a couple of MIG fighter jets or the Labour party? Just to be clear, I chose these examples on his behalf.

When I first heard this argument I was absolutely horrified and explored its logic to try and work out if it made any sense. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t. And here’s why. The whole position is based on a weak argument by analogy. Argument by analogy works on the basis that if two things are similar in one or many ways that one can argue that they are similar in another. Getting dressed up is an attempt to put someone in a positive light. Talking about God from the pulpit is an attempt to represent a position or belief system in the best light. Advertising is an attempt to put any object or pattern of thought in the best light. There is nothing wrong with the first two and therefore there is nothing wrong with the third.

But this only works if the three things are truly similar. So here’s the test – can we think of any significant differences between the advertising executive, the business woman dressing for work and the country vicar? Is there any possibility that the concept of ‘promoting the good’ might mean something rather different for each of them? The answer should be obvious.

Nonetheless, let’s dig into it a bit more. Number one – do people ‘buy’ other people as products, and are they likely to be seriously misled about paying for someone’s services if the physical appearance of the person without their clothes and make-up on is radically different from their appearance with them on. Answer, almost exclusively no. So the analogy doesn’t stand. Women who look nice are not normally engaging in the same kinds of exchanges as those that advertising participates in.

There are exceptions of course, so let’s look at one of them. An apparently attractive female prostitute is paid for by a young man. The man ‘falls’ for her positive messaging and invests money in the possibility of intercourse only to discover she is in fact a man in drag. This might be considered a closer analogy to the process of advertising. Is he likely to be happy about this exchange? Is he likely to think it harmless? If we said this was ‘like advertising’ would we think of advertising in a positive light. Probably not. We may not have much sympathy for the john in question, but that’s not really the issue.

And do we really think that the vicar stands up and sells God each week purely in order to get his salary and nice house? I would argue that he or she would have at some basic level a belief in the divinity they were talking about. Do we think an advertising executive has the same belief in Pot Noodles as a vicar has in God? Again, clearly not. The analogy again does not stand. If there’s a process of selling going on at all, it’s a very different one indeed.

The truth is, many of these jobs (marketing, advertising and public relations) are business optimisations. A division of labour between people who make and people who promote results in more efficient practice in both. But separating the jobs in this way also has its risks – it cuts off being an advocate from believing in what you advocate, from making the thing you advocate, from being responsible for the thing you advocate. And with the personal social responsibility for what comes out of your mouth removed, then there’s an obvious tendency towards corruption and lying.

And yet, advertising, marketing and public relations can result in a better world. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications says so in their work on Ethics in Advertising (Part Two, The Benefits of Advertising), and I agree:

Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development. It is a necessary part of the functioning of modern market economies, which today either exist or are emerging in many parts of the world and which — provided they conform to moral standards based upon integral human development and the common good — currently seem to be “the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” of a socio-economic kind.

Political advertising can make a contribution to democracy analogous to its contribution to economic well being in a market system guided by moral norms. As free and responsible media in a democratic system help to counteract tendencies toward the monopolization of power on the part of oligarchies and special interests, so political advertising can make its contribution by informing people about the ideas and policy proposals of parties and candidates, including new candidates not previously known to the public.

Because of the impact advertising has on media that depend on it for revenue, advertisers have an opportunity to exert a positive influence on decisions about media content. This they do by supporting material of excellent intellectual, aesthetic and moral quality presented with the public interest in view, and particularly by encouraging and making possible media presentations which are oriented to minorities whose needs might otherwise go unserved.

So what is to be done? Advertising has its value, it’s clear. It’s important that it exists in the world and it’s not going anywhere. But it’s also clear that people involved in advertising–like Paul Arden in fact–are prepared to leap through highly dubious intellectual hoops to defend their sense that ‘everyone else does it, so why can’t we?’ when it comes to massaging or deforming the truth, with no sense of context.

Which brings me to the Vatican’s recommendations, as filtered through Creative Review and noted down on Design Observer as “What God Says”. If you can find me an individual who works in advertising who follows these rules, then they’ll have my respect. However, I suspect that it will be easier to squeeze a camel through an eye of a needle…

  1. Advertisers are morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do.
  2. It is morally wrong to use manipulative, exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation
  3. The content of communication should be communicated honestly and properly.
  4. Advertising may not deliberately seek to deceive by what it says, what it implies or what it fails to say.
  5. Abuse of advertising can violate the dignity of the human person, appealing to lust, vanity, envy and greed.
  6. Advertising to children by exploiting their credulity and suggestibility offends against the dignity and rights of both children and parents.
  7. Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish lifestyle is harmful to individuals and society alike.
  8. Clients who commission work can create powerful inducements to unethical behaviour.
  9. Political advertising is an appropriate area for regulation: how much money may be spent, how and from whom money may be raised.
  10. Advertisers should undertake to repair the harm done by advertising.

P.S. I wonder if anyone has had the nerve to turn these into a simple ten commandments of advertising?

Advertising Journalism Politics

On Monocle, Nat Torkington & Place branding…

While reading the new issue of incomprehensibly fascinating magazine Monocle–which has a parallel web presence orchestrated by ex-boss Dan Hill that stubbornly (and equally incomprehensibly from my perspective) refuses to include any content whatsoever from the magazine–I stumble upon an article about New Zealand called ‘Slow Zone’. The article is about the nation’s rebranding as a laid-back and ‘pure’ environment. In said article I notice that ex-O’Reilly all-star Nat Torkington is quoted as follows:

The Didsbury vineyard is among those featured on the wine trail along the heavily promoted Matakana Coast, although in the words of the rather tetchy local blogger Nathan Torkington, “Matakana doesn’t have a coast, it has a shitty little muddy river chocked with soil runoff from the farms that line it”.

Yeah that sounds like Nat to me! Very funny! Rather tetchy local blogger may now be on his gravestone. And in some ways that might be a good thing, since his other favourite words are rather more satisfyingly graphic. His wife would probably be delighted with ‘rather tetchy’. Or at least, maybe she’d relieved..? His original post that Monocle quoted is here if you’re interested.

This whole issue of Monocle has been focused around place-branding at the country level, and it started off being fascinating to me but has now started to creep me out. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of countries–and all their associated concepts of citizenry and representation–with the pure representational illusion of the branding consultancy? Or maybe it’s more than that? Maybe the reason I feel uncomfortable is that I’m feeling my way towards a new understanding of branding, public relations and advertising people.

The questions that are in my head are as follows: (1) Why are people drawn to these careers in the first place? (2) What pleasures does it provide them with? How does it support their self-worth? (3) Is there something in common between branding and advertising people and the kind of people who go into politics, and should we be equally suspicious of people drawn to branding as we are about those drawn to more overt power?

I think what draws people towards these careers has to be in part its core idea: that people can be influenced and changed–that things themselves can become different, transcendentally more than they appear to be–simply through the exercise of pure ingenuity, intelligence and the use of colour, imagery and language. I think it’s that sense of transformation–of the ability to recreate reality–that plays to the self-image of some of the dominant players in the industry. And it makes me very suspicious indeed.

I wonder to myself as I read about work in branding at these scales what a sense of power it must give a man to recarve a planet in their image without having to do anything proletarian like make anything. Something about the whole thing makes me very uncomfortable and seems to have significant parallels with the class system – that there is now an intellectual overclass that sits above and beyond a subjugated general public. But more even still, that this class feels itself able to deform and twist the world around itself with delicate tweaks of long, gossamer-like puppet strings, and that it’s managed to nuance and twist the messages even of its own discipline to such an extent that it’s not even fully aware of the hegemony that it’s created.

There’s something of new orthodoxy of the elite where young men and women are drawn to industries of control and coercion. It’s the same kind of rather alarming power game that meant that Henry Higgins could massage his Eliza Doolittle into someone fit to marry and that somehow we’d be persuaded that this was charming rather than entirely creepy!

And behind it all, there is the support of undergraduate classes in cultural studies and postmodernity that have been appropriated to alleviate the guilt of the reality-deforming by decrying the idea that there’s anything real beyond the rhetoric to protect or fight for.

I used to teach some of those classes. I’m not immune from blame.

Thank god for tetchy bloggers then! People who’ll declare the world as they see it, separate from marketing spiel and describe a glorious branded coast as a ‘shitty little river’. There’s a risk that we celebrate the cynical and consider that to be balance for the depraved, but I don’t think we’re there in this case. And I understand that branding is a force in the world, that it’s a thing that must exist, that there is no unmediated message. And I’ll live with it all. But let’s not celebrate it, eh? That’s just tacky.


Unkle vs. Beethoven for BMW…

I’m posting advertising, I know, but given that I’m unlikely to be buying a BMW (and most of you people are equally unlikely) perhaps it’s okay. Who knows. I’m still absolutely run off my feet right now–which is why everything’s been so quiet–but this advert is one of the few things that’s managed to break through my insanity. The video itself is reasonably interesting, but the music! Beethoven’s 9th symphony as reworked by UNKLE. There doesn’t appear to be anywhere to get your hands on it, unfortunately, which is a shame as it’s extraordinary.


The Veidt Method…

I appear to have just been spammed by a fictional character. I didn’t notice immediately. It took me a couple of seconds to twig what I was just about to junk. The text of the e-mail seemed a little too familiar…

Dear Customer,

You have received this e-mail because you have expressed interest in my course, and if you did that, it’s because you think you need a change in your life.

A better body? Increased confidence and magnetism? Advanced mental techniques that will help you at home or business? Well, yes we can offer you all these things…but in order to have and enjoy them, there’s got to be a new YOU!

More than just a bodybuilding course, the Veidt Method is designed to produce bright and capable young men and women who will be fit to inherit the challenged, promising, and often difficult world that awaits in our future. The course is designed to be easy to read and to understand, and if you follow it through, I can assure you that you and uour friends will quickly notice the results as a whole new realm of ability and experience is opened to you. Stay tuned for more updates on what you can expect to find in later updates online.

Please visit!

Best wishes and encouragement – Adrian Veidt.

Adrian Veidt, of course, being Ozymandias in Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic which is apparently being made into a film as we speak.

Rumours on the web suggest that we might be seeing the beginning of the viral campaign / ARG for the movie although not everyone is convinced. If it is an official property then it appears to be related to the people at in some way. There’s also a Rorschach’s journal out there that I’ve glanced at.

You can login to theveidtmethod with the user-name adrian and the password ramesesii.

Wondering what I think about this stuff. It’s quite a clever idea to sneak out this stuff ambiently as something disguised as a piece of spam. Still, it’s marketing, and normally I wouldn’t play their reindeer games. On the other hand, it’s Watchmen. And that’s … more interesting …

Advertising Humour

The Gieves & Hawkes Homoerotic Photo Novella…

Wandering through London the other day with an old friend from University, I stumble upon Savill Row and the main London shop for Gieves & Hawkes. After a couple of seconds parsing the adverts I find myself disoriented and confused. They are extraordinarily weird. They have an ostensible father/son theme, but it’s a strange articulation of it. It’s set in weird environments more appropriate for romantic photography and using many of the same icons – the loosely hanging tie, the power differentials of looking and looked at, a rich evening light. After a while I come to view them as a strangely subversive public gay photonovella. I therefore present the four photos that they had in the window—the only four (this is not a case of selective editing)—under the title, The conquests of a Silver Fox and posit that their clothing is now mostly being marketed at older gay men of phenomenal wealth who are looking to buy gifts for their younger male companions. Or at least I’m contending that this reading is at least equally plausible as the father/son reading and that it may be intentional that both can be supported by the same imagery.

Apologies about the reflections in the glass.


On super-bizarre BBC Adword placements…

It’s probably the context that weirds me out, but still. I was watching this completely freaky acid-trip of a Simpsons parody (imagine David Lynch directing and you wouldn’t be far off) made by the Something Awful crew and being slightly creeped out by the whole thing when I notice something even more puzzling:

Click on the ad and it does, in fact, take me to the BBC, specifically to the Hereford and Worcester page of their local TV console thing. The page doesn’t really work on my Mac, but it does resize the window which is nice. Anyway, that wasn’t the point. The point was… wtf?! Probably more weirded out by the connection of BBC Kidderminster with dirty parodies of The Simpsons than anything else, but still. I didn’t even know the BBC did Google Adwords. I suppose someone else could have done it. Not that it’s necessarily bad or anything. Just freaky weird.

Advertising Net Culture Personal Publishing Technology

What has been killing my server?

Today I was at work when Barbelith went down. MySQL errors everywhere, the community in uproar, IMs and e-mails. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough to do. So I explore in more depth. First step, see what’s actually happening on the server – so I launch Terminal, ssh in to the Barbelith Superserver over at Pair, find the directory with my logs in and type in tail -f access-log. Immediately, I see each request coming into the server in roughly real-time, scrolling down the page like I’m looking at The Matrix. Unix is not my strong-point, so thanks to Simon for that little trick. It’s moving too fast for me visually get a grasp on what’s going on, but I start seeing some recurrent patterns after a minute or so – HTTrack, which I do a quick search for and turns out to be a piece of software that you run on your computer to download complete versions of someone’s website. Given that Barbelith contains nearly six hundred thousand posts across twenty five thousand threads (each paginating ever forty or so posts), this is not a small job. And given that the software is dragging down a bunch of pages each and every second, it’s not really a surprise that the MySQL server was having some trouble.

So I banned the user’s IP for a bit by adding a couple of lines to my .htaccess file and waited for the site to start working again. But no luck. Exploring the database through the PHPMyAdmin interface that Cal set up for me, I note that all the activity has resulted in one table in the database getting corrupted. So I dig around online a little longer, and work out how to login to MySQL directly through the Terminal and run a repair table command and hope for the best. It all seems to work. Everything’s back to normal. Cheers all around. I’m very proud of myself.

Except then half an hour later the site is down again. This time it’s so bad that people can’t even connect to my server at all. Every site that I run off the server is completely inaccessible to the outside world. and Barbelith stop working obviously, but also other little-known ventures like Everything in Moderation and bought-for-fun-after-seeing-a-Penny Arcade strip-and-maybe-taking-the-joke-a-little-to-excess are out of action. I can’t even ssh in to my server any more. I can’t send urgent support e-mails to my hosts, or receive replies to them. I am, to all intents and purposes, dead in the water.

I ring them up – half a world away – to find out what’s going on. They’re initially mystified – MySQL is running so hot it’s a wonder that the rack-mounts aren’t melting. When they try and login, the server basically falls over completely. A forced restart, and I hold my breath a little. When it comes back, they dig into the logs and it becomes immediately obvious to them what’s going on. Hundreds – thousands – of requests every minute for a file called mt-comments.cgi – the part of Movable Type that deals with incoming comments to my weblog. My entire site has been quite directly, and clearly spammed to death.

So I’ve had to make a short-term choice while I explore my options in more depth, between a site with no comments and no site at all – and I’m afraid the answer is no more comments, at least for the time being. I’d been thinking of looking into Akismet, but there’s simply no point. That still means that MySQL is going to be dealing with all this crap-peddling evil purpetrated by money-grubbing parasites, and that means regular meltdowns. I’ve come to wonder whether the problems I’ve had with MySQL errors on Barbelith over the last couple of years have been more to do with comment spam than anything else, and – while I want to make it clear that in no way do I blame Six Apart or Movable Type or anything and while I’m sure there’s a way out of this situation – it has started to feel like having the mt-comments.cgi script sitting on my server is like having a bullseye painted on my chest. In the meantime, any advice people have on how to deal with this kind of activity would be very much appreciated indeed. Would moving to Typekey authentication only help? Should I be looking into throttling on the server? Can anyone help? The e-mail address (I’m afraid) is tom at the name of this site – or you can write your own post and link to this one and I’ll find you via Technorati.