Use only as directed

The products they advertise have names more difficult to remember than most networking protocols, and they come from companies that are anything but household names. They promise to deal with problems that most technology would be useless to solve. But there is one other major difference between

the ads offered by drug companies and their counterparts in IT: when they make a promise, they take plenty of time to mention the possible side-effects. 

As I was watching TV recently I saw a lot of these ads on a U.S. station that boggled the mind in their attempt to avoid the scandal that Merck has faced with Vioxx. One 60-second spot for an arthritis medication, for example, spent about 20 seconds extolling the virtues of the drug and the other 40 seconds with detailed warnings about where and when not to use it. Although these cautionary statements came later in the ad, they often sounded like the preamble chief operating officers make on conference calls where they discuss their firm’s most recent financial results with investors. They go something like this: Here’s what we made, but don’t blame us if the SEC finds something completely different a few quarters from now.

What most interested me about the drug ads were the visuals the commercials used to fill in the background as they were warned of using the medication during pregnancy, if they were beyond a certain age, in conjunction with other medications and for prolonged periods. In the arthritis ad they showed pictures of butterflies fluttering in a meadow. In another add for a similar drug, they simply jumped to a series of smiling, happy faces of people who apparently had no problem with the dangers being discussed in voice-over. As a viewer, it felt as though the dangerous consequences of the drug were being told in confidence only to me, not to the oblivious victims grinning from the screen. 

There is not a single vendor in the IT industry that’s willing to market the risks along with the rewards of using their products in this fashion. Unlike the drug industry, no one’s forcing them to. But before the U.S. Federal Drug Authority cracked down on big pharma, the result of ignorance was comparable. What seemed like a quick fix made unhealthy people feel even worse. Today, corporate enterprises continue to purchase hardware and software that promises to cure their network ills, then discover the products will require significant integration work, or the installation of a new operating system, or a migration to a different database platform, or the purchase of additional middleware components.

So far most of the big governance scandals have centred around numbers, not the computers that help store and crunch them. After a year filled with IT glitches at almost every major Canadian bank, however, it’s not hard to see a future in which customers are going to demand more accountability from their vendors about the risks they are about to take, and they’re going to want to know about them long before a contract is signed. That means at the trade show booths, in the customer briefing sessions, and yes, even in the advertising. That doesn’t mean all technology ads will one day have to include lengthy disclaimers, but responsible messaging that outlines what potential customers may need to do to avoid catastrophe. I don’t know what kind of visuals they’ll use, but I’m pretty sure the CIOs they’d turn to won’t be smiling.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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