Monday, November 28, 2011

Kindle Ads

While I was at my mother’s home on Thanksgiving, I caught a new Kindle advertisement on television. In previous weeks, I’d seen the other installments in the same campaign, where a man holding a Kindle passive-aggressively debates its merit over paper books with a woman whom we are evidently supposed to think is stuck in the dark ages because she still reads things that take up physical space. Each commercial ended with the woman tacitly acknowledging that the Kindle owner was right to ridicule her, even though I as a viewer never found his explanation of the equivalence between books and e-books to be persuasive.

In the latest entry into the campaign, the dinosaur lady has evidently accepted the superiority of e-book readers completely, and she now appears as a fellow Kindle owner, sloughing off the last of her reluctance to the change. I am guessing that this development means that the advertisers are confident that e-book readers have handily won the competition, and that no further convincing is necessary. Perhaps they’re right; perhaps people like me will never be convinced, but everyone else has already gone over. It doesn’t quite seem fair, though. It’s not as though a coalition of print publishers and booksellers have been running ads in favor of the other side.

I earnestly wish that there was such creative competition going on. Whenever I saw those advertisements, I was fascinated by how ineffective they were for me personally, and it repeatedly occurred to me that the difference between an argument for and against physical books is just a matter of different interpretations of the same information. For instance, one of the Kindle commercials began with the Kindle owner commenting on the size of the shoulder bad that the woman was carrying. Beaming, she explained how many books and magazines it was capable of holding. When the man responds by pointing out that his Kindle holds 3,500 books and only weighs eight and a half ounces, we see the physical equivalent of that much literature piling up in the space around them.

I recall thinking when I originally saw that ad, “wait, are we supposed to take it for granted that having that much literature in one device is preferable to having it in the form of books?” From my perspective, the ad was presenting two distinct alternatives and essentially inviting me to choose the one that the advertisers are competing against. Given the choice between an eight and a half ounce piece of plastic and circuitry, and a personal library in my home lined with 3,500 individual volumes, there’s absolutely no contest. I would much rather have an array of books that I can keep on display, take down off a shelf when I need them, lend out to curious friends, and generally appreciate. That seems like the obvious choice to me, but I’m sure that there are a great many consumers who don’t think that much about it, and do accept the assumptions of advertisers. So I really wish I had the means to run advertisements disseminating the opposite angle on the same scene.

Another thing to consider is why holding 3,500 books in one place is considered an advantage for the consumer. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to or should, but are other people typically plowing through 3,500 books in a year? If not, why the hell would they need to carry that many with them on a daily basis? Again, if one owns that much literature, it seems to me that it’s far better off in a personal library. The only reason I can see why a person would own thousands of books, unless he was an antiquarian, is because he has been collecting them over the course of a lifetime. And of course people do just that with their paper books. But how many people hold onto and use the same piece of technology for decades? What, then, is the point of trapping decades’ worth of books in a single electronic device? Considerations like this leave me with the impression that if anyone is impressed with the fact that a Kindle holds 3,500 books, it’s purely because it’s a big number, not because of any practical advantage of that feature. Unfortunately, it would probably take a snappy television ad to make that fact known.

Another of the Kindle ads consists of the man smugly showing the woman that a Kindle can be read just like a real book, being unaffected by glare from the sun, and saving one’s place in the text just as well as one would save her place in a book by folding down the page. She feebly protests that he doesn’t get “the rewarding feeling of actually folding down the page,” then demonstrates, realizes that’s a ridiculous advantage for books, as asks to see the Kindle. This one strikes me as straightforwardly disingenuous. The woman starts by saying that she only reads real books, and the man casually responds that he is reading a real book. At that point I wish I could chime in and tell him, “shut up, douchebag, you know what she meant.”

I don’t think anybody who maintains a preference for physical, paper books does so on the basis of some misconception that you can’t read the words on a Kindle screen, or that you have to go to night school in order to navigate one. But there is a distinct, obvious difference between reading a physical book and reading an e-book. There really isn’t any argument to be made against that. Each individual is free to decide which one they experientially prefer, but to say that they’re the same and that technological convenience is therefore the only consideration is just demonstrably false.

I don’t dog-ear the pages of my books. In fact, I like to try to keep them in as pristine condition as possible. So I don’t get any rewarding feeling from actually folding down the page of a paper book. But I do like the fact that books are capable of acquiring personal character in that way. Again, there’s a place for a contrary advertisement here, emphasizing that there is an advantage to being able to manipulate and even manhandle your physical books. Every dog-eared page might remind a person of a time and place, or mark off personally meaningful passages so that they are more easily accessible than they ever could be while lost in the binary code of countless other passages in three thousand other books on an e-book reader.

And indeed, real books will take much more abuse than mere folded-down pages. If there was a market for advertisements promoting the simple practice of reading physical books, I would like to design one that depicts a single book being dropped and an entire library shelf shattering. The scene would ask the audience if such a thing has ever happened to them, and remind them that if they store all of their books on one sensitive piece of technology, it just might.

But unfortunately, there’s no one to present an alternative ad campaign, no unified front against the advance of unnecessary technological replacements. The fact that the Kindle has been selling itself by striving to undercut not its competitor e-book readers, but the actual concept of physical books strikes me as fairly unprecedented. It is as if internet service providers had run ads championing the obsolescence of television, or television manufacturers had produced commercials prompting people to throw out their radios once and for all. But if either of those things had happened, one would assume that television networks or radio broadcasters would push back against it.

Presumably, in the case of books, large publishers and distributers would stand to profit more from the sales of electronic downloads, given low overhead. Barnes and Noble seems to have no interest in safeguarding the future of its physical stores, seeing as every time I go into one, I am confronted with a kiosk promoting their own e-book reader just inside the door. It almost seems to implore people to walk in, avoid the bookshelves altogether, walk out, and do all their future shopping from home.

Meanwhile, small print publishers and local bookshops have no resources with which to try to change the public perception of the divide between e-books and print books. I think that if there was not such an imbalance of resources, people could be swayed in either direction. It may be selfish of me, but I lament the fact that media pressure pushes people in favor of the high-tech alternative, as I know that if the trend moves quickly enough in that direction, it will eventually mean the virtual extinction of print publishing, and with it the beauty of constantly evolving personal and public libraries, and an entire category of human experience. I can’t accept that future.

As it stands, there’s no relying on commercial media to counteract dominant trends, so I have to merely hope for enough people to reach breaking points in their experience of the negative aspects of e-readers or in their understanding of the irrelevance of their ostensible advantages, so that this relentless advertising, which targets physical media and unique identity as competitors, loses some of its power.

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