Dear MTNL. Stop taking sips from my broadband coffee!

It’s a fine Sunday morning, and you go to a cafe with your friends, and order a nice cup of large cappuccino.

While you’re chatting with your friends, you notice out of the corner of your eye, the waiter bringing your cup of coffee. You feel relieved, and excited for your kick of caffeine. Just then, you see the waiter lift the cup to his lips and take a sip from your cup.

How do you feel?

Apart from the initial feelings of disgust, you calculate your losses. You’ve paid for a certain volume of coffee & foam, and the waiter is taking away part of it, without either paying for it himself or compensating you (since technically now you’re the owner of that cup of coffee). And all this without your permission!

Thejesh GN had written about how Airtel was injecting an iframe in the pages served on its 3G connection, though Airtel defended it saying that it’s to track our usage to help us better. How is monitoring which pages I go to going to help me better, and how the telecom company providing me the connection can’t track the amount of bandwidth I consume without injecting iframes into the source of pages I visit is beyond my understanding.

We could still say this is expected of a private company. They are, after all, after only one thing, profits. But if a PSU starts one-upping them, it’s worrying.

Not only has MTNL been injecting code into the source of pages we view on their broadband connection, they have been showing ads as well. Large ones. Sometimes larger ones.

Here’s a sample:
ads on MTNL broadband

It raises quite a few concerns in my mind, and here they are.

  1. Permission: MTNL is a service provider. And we pay them for the service. We expect a certain amount of data transfer at certain speeds, and nowhere while signing up were we informed or our permission sought that they will serve ads on the connection.
  2. Money: MTNL charges us the amount for the specific amount of bytes transferred per month, and if we exceed that limit, our connection is downgraded, which is equivalent to Shadowfax being chained to a snail. We as consumers keep monitoring our usage and reducing our superfluous consumption of bytes (stop reloading that often, watch lesser cat videos, download 720p versions of videos instead of 1080p and so on). And now we realise that a certain amount of our bandwidth will be consumed no matter what, because MTNL wants to run ads on the pages we see.
  3. As a producer of content/platforms: I run a business where we create web properties. Our clients are people who produce content or provide a service on these properties. In addition, I run this blog, and my firm has a website. It’s highly likely that when normal users (which includes me) using MTNL’s broadband connection accesses these properties, they would see these ugly ads on the pages. None of us agreed with MTNL to let them serve ads off our platforms and on our content. Some of us run ads on these properties which help us fund the operation of these properties. MTNL’s ads which ride on the connection are diluting the effect of the ads run by our paying sponsors, and are in effect robbing us of our ad revenues, in addition to spoiling the face of our properties and businesses. And there’s apparently nothing we as producers of content can do about it.
  4. Privacy: Of course the concern here is the same as in Airtel’s case. Today they’re injecting ads, tomorrow they could inject spyware (like some small-time private cable ISPs already do), or could inject ads in all corners of the page (like those same small-time private cable ISPs already do). And they have no business doing it.

On the money front, you might argue that it’s still a little bit of content trickling through and shouldn’t bother us. But I did some back-of-napkin calculations, and here are the approximate results.

Every page I visit consumes around 1 to 2mB of bandwidth. With modern browsers and content caching etc., every time a page is reloaded, the marginal consumption of bandwidth per repeat page would be in hundreds of kBs. On a page load, the amount of bandwidth MTNL’s ad consumes is around 30kB. Even if we calculate on the basis of absolute size of a page’s content instead of the marginal consumption, the noise-to-signal ratio here is 30kB/1.5mB = 2%

If I have a connection of 50gB FUP, this amounts to 1gB. I am being charged for a full HD movie download extra because MTNL wants to serve ads on their connection to us. And not even making a profit off it, because so far I’ve only seen ads of MTNL services in this fashion 🙂

How is this different from websites running ads?

Some might argue that YouTube also runs ads on the content they’re serving. कोई उनको कुछ नहीं कहता! Well, YouTube doesn’t charge me for viewing videos there. When a paid service provider runs ads blocking their own service, and consuming the service that I as a consumer am paying them for, it’s outrageous.

People my age might remember an ISP called Caltiger who started operating in the late 90s. When VSNL’s connections were expensive (Rs. 5,000 for 500 hours of browsing), Caltiger came up with an industry-changing idea – free internet. It was dial-up internet, which means that we still had to pay the per-minute rates for phone calls, but then again, even VSNL’s connection was dial-up, which meant that the total outflow from a subscriber’s pockets were around Rs. 35,000 per year including the phone bill, and not just Rs. 5,000 that we paid VSNL. But Caltiger used to run ads on our screens using its dialler software in exchange for the free internet. In effect we saved Rs. 5,000 in exchange for agreeing to have ads running on our screens. Ads served, but no money taken.

MTNL cannot do both: charge us for bandwidth, but still serve ads. And that too without our consent – both as consumers and as the real creators/providers of content.

The Tech

How do we get rid of this nuisance? Well, if you just see the source of their ads, you can see the following code that is responsible:

<div id="__BULLETIN__bdiv" style="position: absolute; z-index: 999999999; visibility: visible; top: 654px; right: 20px; display: block; transition: top 0s ease 0s;"><style> img.scalable { max-width : 100%; height: auto; }</style><a id="__BULLETIN__bdivButton" target="_blank" href="http://mtnlmumbai.in/index.php/fixed-line/landline/tariff"> <img id="__BULLETIN__bdivImage" style="height: 300px;" src="http://203.94.227.140/bg/Creative1.jpg" scrolling="no" frameborder="0"> </a> <div style="overflow:hidden; position:absolute; right:0; top:0; z-index:9999999999;"><a id="__BULLETIN__button0" href="#"><img id="__BULLETIN__button0i" name="button0" class="scalable" src="http://203.94.227.140/bg/CloseButton.png" border="0"></a>
</div></div>

Temporary solution: Blocking the IP address 203.94.227.140 in your etc/hosts file or in your router’s firewall would provide temporary relief, but since I blocked a similar address last a few weeks ago, they’ve updated the IP address in the request.

Permanent solution? What remained common was the 203.94. part. As far as I know, blocking wildcard IP entries or IP clusters using etc/hosts isn’t possible. Can any of you nice people guide me on how to block this IP cluster either using etc/hosts or the router settings?

Notes on CommunityMatrimony TVC, or Let’s Be Regressive On National Television (1/2)

You might have seen this ad in the last couple of years on the television, and would’ve either cringed at it, ignored it, or (horror of horrors!) admired it and used their services.

Here’s my take on it (first of a two-post long ‘rant’):

The strategy/advertising/marketing/craft angle

Idea: Give them what they want
They want to “save their honour which their children don’t care about”. Let’s give them that. Let’s reinforce their perceptions. Let’s not fight anything. Let’s approach the parents, because they are the ones who give us listings in the first place. Let’s not approach a matrimony ad from the angle of the people whose life will be affected by the marriage, because we need to strengthen our buyers‘ idea that the end-users are not capable of taking the right decision, or are anyways on the “wrong side”. And that it is the right & duty of the parents to choose the life partner of their children, and whatever choice the said children have is not important for the overall happiness of the overall family.

Approach:
Classic before & after.
Before: Daughter was seen in public with undesirable different-caste boy.
Problem.
Solution steps in: CommunityMatrimony representative.
After: Photograph of a happy daughter happily married to decent same-caste boy. Relaxed parents. Please also note that the girl was happy in both the before & after scenarios. Our product does not affect the happiness of the end-user. It’s only the regressive parents we care about, and we’ve provided them (though in a simplistic process) with much-needed (though debatable) “happiness”.

Naming disaster:
As generic as it can be. It’s not an ownable name (only an ownable domain name). It’s a descriptor rather than a name. And then there are the various variants of it – the ones you are expected to use – like loharmatrimony.com in my case. Or do I use biharimatrimony.com? Who the hell is going to tell me that, huh?
Also, notice the smart usage of the euphemistic, almost modern social-economy word “community” instead of what they meant: “caste”.

The Execution
The acting is second-rate, the dubbing is third rate, the expressions are… well, the less we talk about it the better. The scripting/storytelling is anyway nothing to write home about.

Now on to the real WTF moment:
The enemy here, is not germs, pollution, old age, bad style, inefficiency, body odor, tooth decay, dandruff, stains, cholesterol. The enemy is other human beings, another community, and of course, our own children.

This ad takes just the opposite route from ‘catch ’em young’, where advertisers tailor their messages towards children so that they get early-in-their-life adopters (who can be addicts later on), or ads where the decision maker is an adult but the message is so tailored that their kids get influenced and then coerce them into buying that brand. Here, it’s just the opposite – attract the parents, because

  1. most marriageable youngsters would not be caught dead trying to find a life partner online, and
  2. in India, the society and parents have a sort of entitlement to choose any person’s life partner on the pretext of “wanting the best for our kids”, even though their prime concern is “is the other person from our community or not?”.

This concern is what CM taps. Do they say “we’ll find you an able suitor”? Or, “we’ll find someone who’ll gel well with your daughter”? Or, “your daughter will like him at first glance”? No. All they say is, “why let your daughter stay friends with that other caste guy she likes, when we can help you find a complete stranger (whom you can call your own because of his caste) and forcing her to marry him instead?”.

Another post about the societal implications coming soon…

I’ll be waiting for your comments 🙂

Savita Bhabhi banned

The Indian government has banned Savita Bhabhi. When you read through the article, look at the following lines:

One of them, Bangalore-based N. Vijayashankar, who describes himself as a “techno-legal information security consultant”, waged a sustained campaign against Savitabhabhi, complaining to the government’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) as well as the Director General of Police in Karnataka in October last year.

And then

“Cartoons are a more participative medium. Videos don’t do as much damage. When a child is watching a cartoon, he imagines himself as the character. This has a deeply corrupting influence on our youngsters. This, apart from the fact that an Indian name was being used in such an obscene cartoon, is what led me to make the complaint,” Vijayashankar said. “A child will see a Savitabhabhi among his relatives.”

So apparently, videos don’t do as much damage as cartoons would do. Which is why kids watching pianos falling on cats in cartoon strips go around dropping pianos on cats, while kids jumping off tall buildings because their (non-cartoon) superhero does that on television is a problem that does not exist.

I don’t understand how anyone would imagine himself to be a character in a still cartoon frame, but will not in a live video containing real human beings.

But the best part is that Vijayashankar is upset because Savita Bhabhi has an Indian name. What if her name was Susan Bhabhi, or Cindy Bhabhi? I guess that would have been okay. I shudder to think what the reactions would be if her name was Shakeela Bhabhi.

And then the icing on the cake is the argument that the child will see a Savita Bhabhi amongst his relatives!

Funny part:

When asked if there was any scientific basis to his thesis that pornographic cartoons did more damage to young people than pornographic videos, he said that was his own psychological interpretation. (Vijayashankar has no training in psychology.)

Don’t you think Vijayashankar should also wage a sustained campaign against Kamasutra and getting it banned in India. How could they show lewd graphical sexual content and package it with an Indian sounding name? He should travel back in time and sue the creators of Kamasutra for corrupting the minds of Indian children.

Even more hilarious is the observation I read elsewhere, that the “concerned parents” who have complained against Savita Bhabhi, would rather go to all these government bodies and get the site banned, but are not aware or are too lazy to use cybernanny software on their computers so that their children are not able to access any kind of porn, not just Savita Bhabhi. Such faith on the system! And the administration, which otherwise is superslow in matters like providing us with roads, water and electricity, takes instant action on such complaints.

Any chance that these are the same kind of people who would advocate banning jeans in colleges to prevent rapes? See the double standards?

Dress control

UP colleges to ban jeans, set dress code. The people behind this think this will help ‘strengthen discipline’ and check display of ‘indecent clothes’ worn by some of the college students.

If some students are wearing indecent clothes, you can outlaw indecent clothing. Why target jeans – which covers legs? How does jeans become ‘indecent clothing’? Is it because men get dirty thoughts when they see a girl wearing jeans? Some people get more turned on by seeing a woman dressed in saree. So would they demand that women not be allowed to wear sarees?

The other argument is that this will prevent rapes from happening. So this puts the blame for rape on the women themselves – dress stylishly and we will rape you. Oh wait, we won’t rape you, but somebody else will, and I would not bother with controlling that other person. We would rather control the women and how they dress.

Not much different from the approach religious authorities take towards women – dress modestly, and you will be saved from being raped.

On the other hand, Nicholas Sarkozy’s stand of banning burkhas in France is also a similar decision, though in the other direction. When will the people in power give up the illusion that they can and need to dictate what choices people can make in their own personal space? Why can’t the principals of UP understand that the problems of eve-teasing and rapes etc is a product of a sick mentality arising out of too much control and why can’t Sarkozy treat the burkha as another piece of clothing, and respect the choice of women who want to wear it without coercion?

Why copy (and why lie about it)?

Read this (courtesy afaqs!).

Right. The creative director of an agency working for Honda Siel is not aware of arguably the most popular words of arguably the most impactful movie of last year (one that displaced even The Godfather from IMDB’s alltime #1 for a few days!) spoken by one of the most appreciated characters of popular fiction played by arguably the most admired actor last year. If we are to believe Mr. Hola, there was no one around him to remind him that ‘Why so serious?’ would invariably be connected to the Joker – not the people at Meridian (creative people I presume – that don’t watch blockbuster movies), not the people at Honda Siel.

Yes we believe you. The ‘similarity’ between your tagline and the Joker’s refrain is “totally coincidental”.

Funny thing is that the line ‘why so serious?’ does not have any connection with the alleged brief (that the article mentions) of breaking down the hierarchy in the car segment (of SUVs and hatchbacks), or of positioning the Jazz as a car in a ‘league of its own’. Why would you use the line then if it doesn‘t connect with your brief? There can only be one reason then – to cash in on the buzz that line generated very recently.

Of course the Honda Siel and Meridian people have never read, watched or heard of the Joker or maybe even Batman 🙂

Fantasies can crash?

If Microsoft made cars, goes the story. And it’s been ringing true for so long.

I was reminded of this story, because I saw a web ad for MS’s masterpiece browser Internet Explorer 8 today. The storyline of the ad goes thus: a lissome damsel in a frock is busy eating a sandwich in such an engrossed manner that would remind you of good ol’ Liv Tyler, while our hero is busy watching her from a distance. In the midst of this, we see the worried hero trying to look around an insurmountable obstacle, followed by the text “Fantasies can crash”. And then we see a rather rotund gentleman just standing between the two, while all we and our hero can see is his posterior. Then the hero starts making faces, from which I can only guess that the rotund gentleman has just performed an act with his posterior which causes considerable noise & air pollution.

We then see the Vista-esque dialog box asking whether you want to restore your last session or go to your homepage. And then we are informed about the groundbreaking new innovation in the new IE8 – Automatic Crash Recovery (where is the ™ guys?)!!! Of course now you are dying to use the new & improved IE8 right? With this automatic crash recovery feature that was not present so far in the IE, IE is now complete and can take on the other browsers like Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome, which anyways used to restore crashed browsing sessions (they can even save sessions when you are closing the window, if you preferred). Heck, even MS’s Office software do a half-decent amount of crash recovery.

But the best part of the ad is the sort of self-aware admission that “Fantasies can crash”. Refreshing to see MS admitting in their promotion itself that their software crashes, and we have to just live with it. But look at the new shiny feature — Automatic Crash Recovery! Don’t you just love the IE, now that it can restore your session after crashing it? Make it more stable and reduce crashes you said? No sir, can’t do. We’d much rather advertise the most irritating thing we can show you — our crash screen telling you that your browser crashed last time you opened it.

Coming back to cars, wonder if cars advertised like this. “Your car can crash or break down, but look at this feature — it puts you back on the road you were going on (after 3 months in the hospital or garage maybe)”. Do you want to advertise that your product does not fail (or that you have made efforts to prevent it from failing), or do you advertise that your product can fail, there’s nothing wrong with it, just look what we have added — it remembers what you were doing when it failed.

And then there is the copy — “Let’s you start from where you had stopped”. Weren’t copywriters supposed to be good at language? But then maybe in the new age of freestyle apostrophe usage, I am a purist.

Seamless?

When an Idea customer dials 12345 from their phone, an exceptionally chirpy female voice tells them that they can “now stay connected while in roaming with Idea seamless coverage”. Of course you can. Ok, no sarcasm.

Problem began when I noticed that whenever I come to Bombay, I am unable to send text messages. In technical parlance, outgoing SMS is not working. Different days that I have come here. Different handsets. Different places in Bombay. No sir, can’t go. And lately, my GPRS connection also refuses to work when in Bombay.

How to solve it then? Call someone for help. Who else but Idea helpline? So I do. I dial 12345. I am greeted with the exceptionally chirpy female voice mentioned above, telling me about the alleged “seamless connectivity”, and then some human being talks to me. The moment I tell them my number and that I am coming from Pune, they respond as if I am a stepchild. How can Mumbai executives be expected to listen to Pune customers? Everytime I call, I am told that I need to call the Pune helpline at 9822012345. Other than that they cannot help me in any way, because procedures do not allow them to help me. These people hung up on me mid-sentence twice. Some customer “service”.

9822012345 is another story. The moment I dial it, select the language, tell the system that I am an Idea Maharashtra customer AND dial my phone number (in this day and age of CLI machines at homes!), I am presented a menu that is definitely a prepaid customer’s menu. Why would a postpaid customer be bothered with recharge options? The menu comprises of 4 options only, like PUK, value-added services, recharge options etc. but never did I hear a “to talk to a customer care executive…”. Once by fluke I got to talk to a human being on this number, and all he could help me with was “Sir please try again after some time, it will definitely go. If not, then try a different handset, it will definitely go.”, 5 times when I told him I did not think it would work. The second time I got to talk to someone, again by the rare coming together of five of the eight planets in one line, he politely tells me that he is a prepaid customer care executive and that I need to dial 9822012345 to reach a postpaid customer care executive! If you were not paying attention so far, that was the number where I reached this gentleman in the first place. He could not help me because he was a prepaid Pune executive, while I was a postpaid Pune customer. Wow!

Idea keeps telling us about “seamless connectivity”, while there are silos in their customer service setup. One area’s executive cannot help a customer from another area. One department’s executive cannot help a customer subscribing to another department. Let alone help me, they cannot transfer my line to the concerned persons!

Wonder when companies would really honour their marketing claims, and when customer care people would really care about customer’s problems and concerns.

Wasn’t just Gilchrist?

While millions of cricket lovers were rejoicing the Deccan Chargers’ win last Sunday, little did they know that their joy is not really due to Adam Gilchrist, or any of the other 10 Hyderabad players, but the “real reason” DC won is because of “water flowing in front of [Deccan Chronicle’s shops & offices]”.

Says who? Says Business Standard. Or someone who has just posted there. I can’t see any name (of a writer or a reader who might have posted this as an opinion). Just that it is under “Opinions & Analysis”. “[T]hose who know these things” they say…. Can anyone tell me what these “things” are? Is the writer of the piece so afraid to bring up names like “Vaastu” and “Feng Shui”, lest they be labelled as un-modern?

Feeling WTF? Of course I am. Last I checked, Business Standard was a business periodical, not an occult evangelist magazine.

Update:
Thank you Pallavi for enlightening me about the “Chinese Whispers” column in Business Standard, which is a satirical piece in the otherwise serious business daily. I’m sorry if anyone from BS or its readers/fans were upset with what I wrote. But then, there is one observation about the web version of the paper. The page’s contents do come across as genuine, and to read them as satire, one needs to be a Business Standard regular. Maybe something can be done there so people like me are not misled into believing that the paper actually endorses the views on the page.

TLA anyone?

TLAs, for those of you unaware of that acronym (which suprisingly isn’t an acronym itself), stands for Three Letter Acronym.

After the initial WTFness has subsided, I would just like to raise one simple question for marketers with the big brands out there – is OBA taught at whatever business classes you’ve attended? Now OBA, for those unaware of that too, stands for Obfuscation by Acronymisation — with that, I have scored double points for not only inventing an acronym, but also inventing a new word. Thank you, thank you.

First we had seen the ever-so-reassuring safe-for-my-health All Out mosquito repellent, which kills more mosquitoes in my bedroom because it’s loaded with extra MMR. After a big sigh of reassurance, I take another look at what the MMR stands for. It stands for Mosquito Mortality Rate. So let me get this straight — the liquid will kill more mosquitoes because it has extra mortality rate? Talk about causes and effects getting mixed up.

The second case-in-point is our good ol’ Parachute. With its misspelt (but a smart branding tactic) Advansed. You ofcourse are aware of the Parachute therapie (another one, but smart) hair oil. And its advertisements. They said their scientists have done research and found out the reasons for hair fall. Do you know what those are? They are (gasp gasp!) RDF!! Wow, you think! They have finally found what destroys the roots of hair to make them fall! This is great news! Until you look carefully to see what RDF stands for. Root Destroying Factors. Had the brand owners not come out with that advertisement, would you have known that hair roots are destroyed because of Root Destroying Factors? I am bummed!

The business world apparently loves acronyms, and those of us who have lived a part of our lives in the SGAs, the RTMs and the CRISPs, even swear by them. But such OBA leaves even the likes of us gasping for air.

And ofcourse, when the consumer gets curious and looks for the real meaning of your TLA, like I (and many others) did, do you think the brand would come across as honest and trustworthy? To me it looks like, the people developing the product did not do much work in research, but they still want to tom-tom their “efforts” and want to sound important by using acronyms and smart-looking animation. Can your brand afford such an impression?

What do you think? And do you know of any other such examples of OBA?