Richard G. Epstein






Should Virtual Advertising

be Regulated?


Al Sharpe: Good evening and welcome to J'Accuse!, television's hottest talk show property. If you are watching passively, then just sit back and relax. If you wish to join us in our virtual studio, then don your self-projection suit and come on down! Several thousand people are projecting into the studio right now, but there is still room for more. And remember - at the end of the show you will be asked to vote on our controversial issue of the day.

For those of you who might have had your heads buried in the sand for the past year, let me explain how J'Accuse! works. Anyone who has a grievance can bring that grievance to the attention of our producers. If your grievance is of general interest, then you might be chosen to present your grievance to our audience right here from our virtual studio.

Today's guest is Michael Wordsmith from Chicago, Illinois. Michael Wordsmith is a student of philosophy and he is working on completing his doctorate in philosophy at Northwestern University in Chicago. Michael Wordsmith has a complaint to make about a common problem, those annoying virtual advertisements that have become a plague in cyberspace. After Mike explains his complaint, two experts will join us to discuss the merits of his complaint. In addition, all members of our virtual audience are invited to join the fray.

Mike is projecting in from the Windy City.

Welcome to J'Accuse!, Mike. What is it that has got you all hot and bothered?

Michael Wordsmith: It's those annoying virtual advertisements!

Sharpe: Could you tell our audience the story that you told our producers?

Wordsmith: Certainly. I am a student of philosophy and I cannot tell you how useful the Global Landscape and cyberspace are for my research. I spend a lot of time visiting various virtual places in cyberspace where people gather to discuss the issues that fascinate me, things like twentieth century viewpoints on epistemology, logical positivism and the philosophy of science.

Sharpe: Try to keep it simple, Mike. Most of my audience is not studying for a Ph. D. like you.

Wordsmith: The point is that I love to meet people like myself in cyberspace who can discuss these issues intelligently.

Sharpe: Of course, all of this is happening in what is technically called "virtual space", the latest incarnation of what is more commonly called "cyberspace". I just want to make clear that these interactions all occurred with the latest in self-projection technology.

Wordsmith: Yes.

Sharpe: Tell the audience what happened.

Wordsmith: Well, I struck up this relationship in cyberspace with a guy that called himself "Burt Ridgefield". What I mean is, I finally met a person who could discuss Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Sartre, the great minds of the twentieth century, which is my specialty, really from the heart, or so I thought.

Sharpe: How many meetings did you have with this Burt fellow?

Wordsmith: I arranged to meet Burt in a private virtual meeting room where we could discuss Heidegger's theory of being and time and its relationship to the logical positivists, especially in light of Wittgenstein's own epistemological premises... .

Sharpe: Hold on, don't forget who you are talking to.

Wordsmith: The point is, this guy Burt seemed to be more knowledgeable on Wittgenstein, Heidegger, the existentialists and the logical positivists, more than anyone that I ever met, even more than my dissertation advisor. What impressed me about Burt was his passion. He really cared about the limits of language and the limits of knowledge and the existential dilemma at the root of our being. Burt really cared about these things. Before I met Burt, I had never met anyone who felt as strongly about these issues. I felt that Burt was becoming my best friend, a friend for life.

Sharpe: You still haven't told us how many times you met with this guy.

Wordsmith: Once a week for over three months - three months of the most intense, passionate, philosophical discourse that I had ever experienced. Burt knows his philosophy. He became my soul brother.

Sharpe: But, there came a time of disillusionment. Tell us about that.

Wordsmith: Well, one day, this was about a month ago, all of a sudden Burt asked me if my house had a carpet. I told him that I didn't have a carpet, and then, slowly, right before my very eyes, he morphed into a spokesperson for United Carpet Outlets, you know, that obnoxious carpet retailing chain.

Sharpe: So, this great philosophical mind that you were conversing with, was just a virtual advertisement.

Wordsmith: Right. Burt was a non-entity. Burt was not the projection of a real person. In technical terms, Burt was merely the outer shell or user interface for an expert system. In business terms, he was the projection of an advertising campaign launched by United Carpet Outlets. Burt, the brilliant philosopher, morphed into an obnoxious, aggressive, spokesperson for United Carpets. He was programmed not to take "no" for an answer.

Sharpe: You mean, you bought a carpet from Burt?

Wordsmith: Yes. I was in a state of shock. My defenses were down. This image that I had been talking to for months about the most pressing and passionate interests in my life, turned out to be a complete phony. I hate when that happens.

He was merely a clever marketing device cooked up by some advertising agency for United Carpet Outlets.

Sharpe: How did you feel when you realized that your discussion partner was totally fake, an image created by some advertising firm on Madison Avenue?

Wordsmith [his voice trailing off, choking back tears]: I felt, I felt...

Sharpe: That's okay. Take your time.

Wordsmith [sobbing]: I felt violated. I felt as if I had been violated. My best friend was a non-entity. Nothing. Zero.

Sharpe: I see that Mike is having some trouble controlling his emotions. This might be a good time to state the obvious. Who hasn't fallen victim to one of those clever virtual advertisements at one time or another? At issue is whether sophisticated advertising agencies should have the right to project "non-entities" into virtual space using the Global Landscape. Now, a non-entity is a virtual person who, like Burt, is purely virtual. There is no real person beyond the virtual reality projection. So, we need to discuss non-entities with our panel of experts and with our audience.

The first expert is Mabel Jones, chief executive officer of the Atlantic Advertising Agency in Manhattan. The Atlantic Advertising Agency created Burt and thousands of non-entities like Burt for the purpose of selling carpets for United Carpet Outlets. And United Carpet is just one of Mabel's accounts.

Mabel Jones: United Carpet is our largest customer. It takes money to create sophisticated non-entities like Burt Ridgefield.

Sharpe: But is it fair? Is it ethical? Is it fair to mislead someone, like Mike Wordsmith, leading him on for months before you reveal the true nature of the non-entity that you are projecting out there, onto the Global Landscape?

Jones: Of course it's fair! Mr. Wordsmith himself admitted that our non-entity gave him some of the most passionate and intense intellectual stimulation that he ever enjoyed - ever! This is just a new form of advertising. In the old days, Mr. Wordsmith might watch a television program, like this one, and he would be willing to sit through commercials in order to get the benefit of watching the television program. So, Mr. Wordsmith got the benefit of interacting with a world class expert on philosophy at the slight cost of having to hear a pitch for United Carpets at the end.

Sharpe: But, watching commercials on television is voluntary.

Jones: Mr. Wordsmith could have stopped his interaction with Burt at any time.

Sharpe: But, Mike didn't know that Burt was a non-entity. He thought he was interacting with a real person with real human interests and concerns.

Jones: Mike might feel hurt now, but I am sure that one year from now he will view things differently. He will realize that he actually had the opportunity to interact with a genuine world-class expert in twentieth century philosophy. All of our non-entities are world class experts.

Sharpe: Could you explain how your advertising campaign works?

Jones: Everything we do is state of the art. No other advertising company is doing what we are doing at the level of sophistication at which we are doing it.

Sharpe: Yes, but we are talking about the future of advertising. What you are doing today your competitors will all be doing in the future.

Jones: Yes, but, we have a head start.

Sharpe: Please explain how your advertising campaign works. I think it is fascinating, although I have some reservations concerning the ethics of it all.

Jones: At Atlantic Advertising we know that some of the world's most affluent people are going to meeting rooms in cyberspace for intellectual stimulation. Now, we just focus on the intellectual meeting rooms, what some people are calling virtual salons, because that's where the money is. We don't go to the sleazier places on the Global Landscape.

Sharpe: You send non-entities into these meeting rooms?

Jones: Yes, we project non-entities into these meeting rooms to gather information about people. This is a perfectly legal form of marketing research. People reveal a lot about themselves at these meeting rooms.

Let's look at it from the perspective of our client, United Carpet Outlets. We try to identify young, affluent people who might be open to the idea of buying one of United Carpet's expensive oriental rugs.

Wordsmith: That's what I ended up buying, an oriental rug.

Sharpe: But, Mike is a graduate student. Graduate students are not normally considered affluent.

Jones: Mr. Wordsmith revealed, at one of the meeting room discussions, that he comes from a wealthy family. That's when we really started to gather information about him.

That brings us to stage two of our marketing strategy. Once we identify a likely customer, we create a non-entity who shares that customer's most passionate interests. Listening to what Mr. Wordsmith had to say about Heidegger and Wittgenstein and the logical positivists and Karl Popper and all of those folks, we were able to create Burt Ridgefield as a genuine world-class expert on twentieth century philosophy, on logical positivism, existentialism, and scientific paradigms.

Wordsmith: Burt seemed to know the monographs of Kuhn and Popper by heart.

Jones: Burt did know those monographs by heart. The expert system behind Burt possesses a huge database on all sorts of subjects, including twentieth century philosophy. We spared no expense!

Sharpe: I can see how that is easy to do. You just gather the key words from the prospective customer and then you can build a non-entity who is a genuine expert on that person's favorite subjects. In virtual space, the customer has no way of knowing that the non-entity is a non-entity, a total illusion. A non-entity looks just like the projection of a real person.

Jones: Exactly. Stage three is then to lure the customer to a private meeting room so that the non-entity and the customer can become, well, passionate friends. In this case, Burt Ridgefield fulfilled Mike Wordsmith's most passionate dream, that he might find a friend who would share his love of philosophy with him, someone intellectually his equal and equally committed to the pursuit of truth. Burt Ridgefield was the fulfillment of one of Mr. Wordsmith's fundamental dreams and desires - to have a friend of that sort.

Sharpe: But, then Burt morphed into a carpet salesman.

It looks like we have a comment from a member of our virtual audience. Please state your name and where you are projecting from.

Stan Dentley: I am Stan Dentley and I am projecting from Knoxville, Tennessee. I have been morphed on more than one occasion, and frankly, I think it should be illegal. I can't tell you how many hours I invested in establishing a relationship with this beautiful woman who then morphed into a religious fanatic hell-bent on saving my soul. If she had been the projection of a real person that would have been bad enough, but to realize that you've been had by one of these non-entities, it's - . I think Mike stated it accurately when he said that he felt as if he had been violated.

Sharpe: Mabel, is it fair for advertising agencies to do this to people, to send out these non-entities that are just advertisements in disguise?

Jones: Stan, you certainly had some positive experiences with your non-entity friend.

Dentley: She was like a dream come true: a woman who knew more about sports than any guy. She was like a walking sports encyclopedia. To find a woman who loved sports as much as me - I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was really thinking in terms of a long term relationship when she unexpectedly morphed into an advertisement for the United Assemblies of the Risen Christ - you know, that new fire and brimstone spin-off of the Southern Baptists. There we were - one minute she was telling me little known facts about Cal Ripkin, whose record of consecutive games played has never been broken, and the next thing I knew she was singing this gospel hymn and trying to save my soul.

Jones: But, you got something out of it, didn't you? You learned something about sports.

Dentley: That's not all I learned about.

Sharpe: Our next guest is Senator Susan Cornstarch, Democrat from Connecticut. Senator Cornstarch has introduced a bill that would require that all non-entities be clearly identified as non-entities in cyberspace.

Jones: Senator Cornstarch's bill is clearly unconstitutional. It violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Senator Cornstarch: Deception and lies are not protected speech.

Jones: Those are interesting words coming from a politician.

Sharpe: I must remind my guests that J'Accuse! insists upon civility and mutual respect. Let's discuss the issues without getting personal.

Cornstarch: People need to be able to distinguish between projections of real people and projections of these non-entities in cyberspace. Otherwise, we will just have to assume that everyone in cyberspace is a non-entity.

Jones: And what's wrong with that?

Cornstarch: People do not want to waste their time and energy with non-entities.

Jones: Both Mr. Wordsmith and that fellow from the audience ...

Sharpe: Stan ...

Jones: Yes, Stan. Both Mr. Wordsmith and Stan benefited from their interaction with the non-entities. Burt Ridgefield knew as much about twentieth century philosophy as any living professor - no more! - and I am sure that Stan learned a lot of new facts about sports data from the non-entity that he was interacting with.

Wordsmith: May I jump in?

Sharpe: Of course.

Wordsmith [to Mabel Jones]: You don't understand the pain and hurt of being deceived by a non-entity. Ever since Burt morphed into his true identity, I have not been able to venture out into cyberspace.

Sharpe: Maybe that's good. You are being forced to meet real people in ordinary space.

Wordsmith: But, there aren't that many interesting people in ordinary space, I mean, in my actual environment. All of the interesting people are out there on the Global Landscape.

Cornstarch: All I am asking for is that non-entities be identified as such. Mrs. Jones would still be able to create non-entities for advertising purposes. For example, suppose Mr. Wordsmith knew in advance that he could learn more philosophy from a non-entity than from his professors at Northwestern. The price would be that the non-entity would morph into an advertisement for Burger King or United Carpets once in a while. I think that someone who is interested in philosophy would be willing to interact with a non-entity on this basis. It would be like watching television or listening to the radio or buying a newspaper.

Jones: It wouldn't have the intensity of the kind of interaction that we are trying to generate with our new advertising campaign. I don't think Mr. Wordsmith would have bought that oriental rug ...

Wordsmith: But, I didn't need the damn rug!

Cornstarch: If advertisers would just be a bit more forthcoming, there would be a lot less resentment and bitterness. Do you think that Mike's experience is good publicity either for your firm or for United Carpets? I think people would be willing to interact with your non-entities in order to engage in a challenging discussion with an expert system even if it means that they will have to endure some advertisements. I am just asking that the intention of a non-entity, of a virtual advertisement, be made up front.

Jones: I am fundamentally opposed to making any kind of distinction in cyberspace between projections that derive from non-entities and projections of real people. Where do you draw the line? That's the question the Supreme Court will have to decide if your bill ever becomes law. People are deceiving one another right and left in cyberspace. Everyone knows that people are not projecting their true emotions and their true thoughts, so what difference does it make if you are interacting with a non-entity or an actual person?

So, where do you draw the line? Are we going to pass laws that will regulate all forms of deception in virtual space? Do you think the public will stand for that?

Cornstarch: People have the right to know whether they are dealing with a real person or not.

Jones: The Founding Fathers never asserted such a right. Show me in the Constitution where it says we have the right to know whether we are dealing with a real person or not.

Sharpe: Let's have another comment from a member of our virtual audience. Please state your name and where you are projecting from.

Rita Kimble: My name is Rita Kimble and I am projecting from Houston, Texas. It is difficult for me to speak on this topic without losing my temper.

Sharpe: Give it your best try.

Kimble: These morphing non-entities should be banned entirely from cyberspace. The only reason I spend so much time in cyberspace is that I am sick and tired of real people morphing on me. When I was a kid, my father used to morph all the time. One minute he'd be all happiness and cheer and the next minute he would be an exploding volcano. Cyberspace gives me a refuge from all of that unpredictability out there.

Sharpe: So, you are a "control freak".

Kimble: Call it what you like, but I know that my life is much happier now that I have a regular circle of friends out there in cyberspace. I have a circle of five, I would say, intimate, friends that I meet regularly. The idea that one of these friends could morph on me is extremely upsetting. I don't think I could survive a blow like that.

Sharpe: There are a lot of fragile souls out there in cyberspace.

Cornstarch: They are fragile precisely because they spend so much time in cyberspace, instead of interacting with real people.

Jones: Finally! The Senator has finally shown her true colors! All of this talk about identifying non-identities is just a smoke screen for her basic opposition to cyberspace and all that it stands for. I was just waiting for her to tip her hand.

Cornstarch: I frequently use cyberspace to meet my constituents.

Jones: But, you have no other choice. The virtual town hall has become a necessity for political candidates.

Cornstarch: With all of this talk about virtual advertising and deceptive non-entities, let's not forget the unfortunate incident that took place last winter in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where a young man fell in love with a non-entity who morphed into an ad for Radio Shack. He was so devastated when he discovered the truth about this obsessive love of his, that he committed suicide. Now, that's real.

Jones: Well, the opponents of virtual advertising have sure made a big deal over this one little incident in Kentucky. I'm not saying that it was not a tragedy, but it was one tiny incident. Cyberspace is vast, and we have this one tiny incident, and people like Senator Cornstarch have made such a big deal out of it.

Sharpe: Well, that just about does it for this evening's program. It is now time for you, the audience, to cast your vote on the issue of the day: Should the federal government require all non-entities to be identified as such in cyberspace? Let us know how you feel by voting now. Just say yes or no in a clear voice in response to this question: Should the federal government require all non-entities to be identified as such in cyberspace. Yes or no? You have fifteen seconds to cast your vote.

Well, that's 55% in favor of requiring all non-entities to be identified as such in virtual space and 45% opposed. Many households did not vote and they are not included in these results. And, Sam Bottman of Yonkers, New York, didn't your mother tell you not to try to talk with food in your mouth?.

I would like to thank my guests for sharing their thoughts with us this evening.

I would especially like to thank Michael Wordsmith for sharing his gripe with us this everning. I am happy to report that Mike is making progress on his doctoral dissertation at Northwestern. Mike, what is the title of your thesis?

Wordsmith: Being and Nothingness.

Sharpe: Well, good luck with it.

Wordsmith: Thanks. I've already told my committee that I refuse to defend my thesis in cyberspace. I've seen too many cases where a professor is out on a vacation somewhere and then when it comes time to defend a thesis, the professor projects in using self-projection technology. I want to see my dissertation committee face to face when I defend my thesis.

Sharpe: I wonder how it is that reality now requires the qualifier "ordinary" or conventional. "Reality" would seem to be a word that shouldn't need any kind of qualifier.

I would also like to thank the thousands of people who projected into our studio and those of you who are watching passively at home. Please tune in for tomorrow's J'Accuse! which will present another person with a grievance that needs airing.

Good night.


1997, 1999 Richard Gary Epstein

Click here to return to the AI Stories Web home page:

bulletAI Stories

Click on one of the following links to return to a higher level in this web site:

bulletSunday, May 14, 2028
bulletTable of Contents
bulletBusiness and Commerce