AdVon: Why So Much Traction and Angst?

May 14, 2024

dinosaur30a_thumbThis essay is the work of a dinobaby. Unlike some folks, no smart software improved my native ineptness.

AdVon. AdVon. AdVon. Okay, the company is in the news. Consider this write up: “Meet AdVon, the AI-Powered Content Monster Infecting the Media Industry.” So why meet AdVon? The subtitle explains:

Remember that AI company behind Sports Illustrated’s fake writers? We did some digging — and it’s got tendrils into other surprisingly prominent publications.

Let’s consider the question: Why is AdVon getting traction among “prominent publications” or any other outfit wanting content? The answer is not far to see: Cutting costs, doing more with less, get more clicks, get more money. This is not a multiple choice test in a junior college business class. This is common sense. Smart software makes it possible for those with some skill in the alleged art of prompt crafting and automation to sell “stories” to publishers for less than those publishers can produce the stories themselves.


The future continues to arrive. Here’s smart software is saying “Hasta la vista” to the human information generator. The humanoid looks very sad. The AI software nor its owner does not care. Revenue and profit are more important as long as the top dogs get paid big bucks. Thanks, MSFT Copilot. Working on your security systems or polishing the AI today?

Let’s look at the cited article’s peregrination to the obvious: AI can reduce costs of “publishing”. Plus, as AI gets more refined, the publications themselves can be replaced with scripts.

The write up says:

Basically, AdVon engages in what Google calls “site reputation abuse”: it strikes deals with publishers in which it provides huge numbers of extremely low-quality product reviews — often for surprisingly prominent publications — intended to pull in traffic from people Googling things like “best ab roller.” The idea seems to be that these visitors will be fooled into thinking the recommendations were made by the publication’s actual journalists and click one of the articles’ affiliate links, kicking back a little money if they make a purchase. It’s a practice that blurs the line between journalism and advertising to the breaking point, makes the web worse for everybody, and renders basic questions like “is this writer a real person?” fuzzier and fuzzier.

Okay. So what?

In spite of the article being labeled as “AI” in AdVon’s CMS, the Outside Inc spokesperson said the company had no knowledge of the use of AI by AdVon — seemingly contradicting AdVon’s claim that automation was only used with publishers’ knowledge.

Okay, corner cutting as part of AdVon’s business model. What about the “minimum viable product” or “good enough” approach to everything from self driving auto baloney to Boeing air craft doors? AI use is somehow exempt from what is the current business practice. Major academic figures take short cuts. Now an outfit with some AI skills is supposed to operate like a hybrid of Joan of Arc and Mother Theresa? Sure.

The write up states:

In fact, it seems that many products only appear in AdVon’s reviews in the first place because their sellers paid AdVon for the publicity. That’s because the founding duo behind AdVon, CEO Ben Faw and president Eric Spurling, also quietly operate another company called SellerRocket, which charges the sellers of Amazon products for coverage in the same publications where AdVon publishes product reviews.

To me, AdVon is using a variant of the Google type of online advertising concept. The bar room door swings both ways. The customer pays to enter and the customer pays to leave. Am I surprised? Nope. Should anyone? How about a government consumer protection watch dog. Tip: Don’t hold your breath. New York City tested a chatbot that provided information that violated city laws.

The write up concludes:

At its worst, AI lets unscrupulous profiteers pollute the internet with low-quality work produced at unprecedented scale. It’s a phenomenon which — if platforms like Google and Facebook can’t figure out how to separate the wheat from the chaff — threatens to flood the whole web in an unstoppable deluge of spam. In other words, it’s not surprising to see a company like AdVon turn to AI as a mechanism to churn out lousy content while cutting loose actual writers. But watching trusted publications help distribute that chum is a unique tragedy of the AI era.

The kicker is that the company owning the publication “exposing” AdVon used AdVon.

Let me offer several observations:

  1. The research reveals what will become an increasingly wide spread business practice. But the practice of using AI to generate baloney and spam variants is not the future. It is now.
  2. The demand for what appears to be old fashioned information generation is high. The cost of producing this type of information is going to force those who want to generate information to take short cuts. (How do I know? How about the president of Stanford University who took short cuts. That’s how. When a university president muddles forward for years and gets caught by accident, what are students learning? My answer: Cheat better than that.)
  3. AI diffusion is like gerbils. First, you have a couple of cute gerbils in your room. As a nine year old, you think those gerbils are cute. Then you have more gerbils. What do you do? You get rid of the gerbils in your house. What about the gerbils? Yeah, they are still out there. One can see gerbils; it is more difficult to see the AI gerbils. The fix is not the plastic bag filled with gerbils in the garbage can. The AI gerbils are relentless.

Net net: Adapt and accept that AI is here, reproducing rapidly, and evolving. The future means “adapt.” One suggestion: Hire McKinsey & Co. to help your firm make tough decisions. That sometimes works.

Stephen E Arnold, May 14, 2024


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