Rage against the machine: Q&A with Ralph Nader

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Ralph Nader demonstrates an air bag.
Ralph Nader demonstrates an air bag. Credit: Bettmann/ Getty

Ralph Nader's new book, "To the Ramparts: How Bush and Obama Paved the Way for the Trump Presidency, and Why It Isn't Too Late to Reverse Course," covers precisely what the title says it does. The consumer advocate, who you should thank every time you buckle up, continues at 84 to rail against injustices ranging from the skewed electoral college (Nader was the Green Party candidate in 2000), hospital safety, corporate stock buybacks and, increasingly, the ills of online advertising. Our conversation has been edited for space and flow.

So what's on your mind today?
I'm a Yankees fan and the in-play radio advertising is so mind-bogglingly intrusive and stupid and destructive of listening to the spirit of the play of the game.

Well, we're always interested in hearing about bad ad experiences.
It's beyond caricature. In the old days, they never allowed in-play advertising. When Mel Allen did the Yankees, they had the advertising during the inning breaks!

A lot has incensed you recently.
[Laughs] It speaks to a lot of work over a lot of decades.

You recently wrote a piece arguing online advertising is corrupting American political discourse. Can you unpack that?
I don't think enough is made of the fact that advertising is 80 percent or more of the revenue of Facebook and Google. They don't like to brag about that.They don't like to say, "We'll sink or swim on your ads." That said, how effective are the ads? I've never met anyone who made anything based on those ads.

I bought socks once from a Facebook ad.
People are going to buy what they're going to buy anyway. The lack of introspection by the advertising business is remarkable to me. It goes to John Wanamaker—you remember that famous saying?

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."
The advertising agencies and the advertisers have a budget. They look at their competitor and say they have to advertise to the level of their competitor. And they don't really introspect. In an age of logo and brand-name mania, the introspection gets even less. They say, "It doesn't sell my product or service, but it gets my logo or brand name out there!"

Why the article now?
The power of Facebook and Google has reached such a runaway state. They don't seem to be affected by anything: Congressional inquiries, Russian spies, Cambridge Analytica. What is their vulnerability? I was looking for it. Aha, it's their advertising revenue! And the next question is, does their advertising work? Well, there's deep skepticism that it may not work well at all. If that's a widespread realization, then the revenue starts plummeting, and then maybe they'll start listening to demands on changing their misbehavior.

That sounds ultimately self-correcting. Do you want to see regulation?
The more attention paid to advertising inefficacy, the more the FTC is going to wake up, and the more they wake up, the more Congress may wake up. Because, believe it or not, what heads off regulation is often businesses that are succeeding like crazy. They're shoring up the stock market. They're producing a lot of profits. They're hiring a lot of people. When the advertising bubble breaks, they lose that cachet.

What was remarkable about when Facebook testified was how little our elected officials actually understand how any of this works.
That was quite amazing, wasn't it? They had plenty of time to bone up, but it was all like, "Gee whiz." When you get [IAB CEO] Randall Rothenberg saying technology has largely been outpacing the ability of individual companies to understand what's going on, that's scary right? And it's undermining print media. Look at Time magazine. You can slide it under your door! That's a collateral damage.

And Time magazine was bought by a guy who sells marketing technology.
[Laughs] That's right. And that's a terrible damage for communities around the country. Print is still extremely more impactful in terms of the non-advertising material than the same non-advertising material online. I'd rather have one op-ed in the print edition of The New York Times than 10 Times op-eds on their website.

Why is that? The Times brand is strong across print and digital. Is it just because print is a scarcer commodity?
Part of it is there's too much clutter. Even if a lot of people read it online, they're too distracted. The second is that the real decision-makers reverberate to what's in print in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. They don't say, "Hey, did you see that thing on Kavanaugh online?"

We see it here at Ad Age, which is interesting because the print publication reaches a much smaller audience in aggregate than digital, but people are more interested in being featured in print.
Any chance this gets into print?

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