Together, we make Superfish
As usual, the advertising world seems blissfully oblivious to a scandal of its own making. In this case, venerable laptop maker Lenovo is circling the drain because of an action so monumentally stupid, it beggars the imagination. PC’s are a low margin business. Lenovo apparently decided to goose its profit margins by agreeing to pre-install Superfish on its Windows laptops. Superfish is an adware product that injects its own shopping results into user searches on Google, Amazon, or other websites. This allows Superfish to sell search words to advertisers and fool users into believing they are getting search results from a trusted source. Which is dumb and sleazy, but not unexpected as far as adware goes. However, Superfish didn’t just mislead Lenovo customers about their search results, it was also a massive security risk. Users of Lenovo laptops were susceptible to a relatively simple hack that would allow anyone sharing their Wifi connection to silently hijack their browser and steal personal information. Because of its prior association with IBM, Lenovo has enjoyed a good reputation with enterprise customers who buy the majority of laptops. That’s finished now. How is this the fault of the advertising industry? Well, Superfish (and to a lesser extent Lenovo) were just meeting a demand that the advertising industry makes of its vendors all the time. Namely, we want to game the system. Advertisers are unable to see that the contemporary media landscape is a shared resource that we should be looking to protect by reinforcing trust, objectivity and accuracy. By undermining trust for the short term benefit of individual clients, we create contempt for our industry, our clients, and for the media outlets that rely on us for revenue. It’s a tragedy of the commons situation. Forging search results is a parasitic act. But in this case, the parasite isn’t Superfish or poor, hapless Lenovo. The parasites are the brands that gave Superfish money and the agencies that facilitated these actions. We made this mess. And we’ll end up paying the price.