Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who does a Yellow Pages Ban serve? Who profits?

Last post I highlighted the assault on the Yellow Pages industry currently underway in the city of San Francisco and the connection its main advocate, David Chiu, has with rival media, that being a possible factor in his desire to use policy to favor one advertising medium over the other.

I do not know President Chiu’s motivations.  I make no claims of any psychic powers.  It is commonly believed that he hopes to run for Mayer of San Francisco and I believe this legislation is an attempt to influence the less educated members of the environmental lobby.  A cynical attempt at manipulation or not, this blog will highlight how Yellow Pages stacks up against the competition when it comes to serving not just the advertising media itself, but the environment, the advertisers, and also the local community.  It will show that, contrary to popular misconceptions, Yellow Pages is far better for the environment than many of its competitors.  I’m not going to go into usage statistics, or conversion rates of various industries.  This is not a blog to promote Yellow Pages but rather to discuss it in the context of declining energy availability. 

A term I want to introduce to readers who may not be familiar with it is “externalizing costs.”  When a cost is externalized it means that the corporation is no longer footing that bill. Instead it falls on either the consumer or, more often, on society in general.  The most prevalent example of externalized costs is the banking industry, which made billions gambling on the markets, and when they lost money, came to the taxpayer, who bailed them out with trillions of dollars borrowed from the future earnings of American workers.  The oil industry also externalizes costs; gas prices would be significantly higher if the American military were not deployed in the gulf to protect our business interests.  From the rising cost of insurance against maritime piracy to the sale of discounted military hardware to Saudi Arabia to the industry subsidies from the government, the cost of oil is far more than what we pay at the pump.

Externalizing costs also happens on smaller scales, often without people realizing. Who pays for the delivery of the advertising  you see each day?  In a number of cases, you as the consumer pay the bulk of delivery cost.  Some forms of media share the costs between advertiser and consumer and a few forms of advertising expect the seller to pay the total cost of distribution.  

Online advertising is one of the mediums where the majority of the cost of delivery is placed on the consumer.  In this case, the cost is externalized on the person paying for the internet connection.   If you do not have an internet connection or cannot afford one, then you are excluded as a customer. 

Online advertisers will not reach you unless you pay for the internet connection so that advertising can be delivered to your computer, your tablet, or your phone.   While it may not be obvious, when you see an advertisement digitally, (be it a website, a banner ad or a spam email in your inbox) you as a consumer subsidized the delivery of that advert. 

This is not a new model. Newspapers and magazines have long charged readers as well as subsidizing the production and distribution costs with advertising rates.  Even television and radio cost the consumer the price of the equipment and the power to run it.  Unsolicited mail is perhaps the closest distribution model to Yellow Pages.  Paper, delivered to the door, is free of direct costs to the user but the public still pays for distribution in the form of subsidies to the post office.

Yellow Page is a medium that is wholly paid for by the advertiser.  It does not cost the consumer anything for production or the delivery of the product.  The publisher pays for the delivery.  It is free to everyone who has not ‘opted out’ of delivery.   Every other media externalizes some or all of the costs onto the public or the taxpayer.  So who benefits from banning the Yellow Pages?  Certainly not the consumers or the taxpayers.  The only ones who benefit are the other advertising mediums who, we have shown, are subsidized one way or another.

Beyond the question of who pays, let us take a look at the wider environmental impact of the various media.  Most people in the delivery areas for our book, the Valley Yellow Pages (Disclosure:  I am the Information Systems Manager for this publisher) get their electricity from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).  The current rate for electricity varies depending on use, but most consumers end up being billed at the highest rate (the lowest rate will not cover the cost of running a fridge and a couple of  light bulbs for a month)  which currently is 40 cents a kilowatt hour. 

PG&E, like many companies, also externalize costs.  Power stations produce a massive amount of pollution.  More often than not, it is the public who pay the cost of dealing with that pollution, because power corporations have the resources to lobby to limit any regulations that would require them deal with the pollution themselves.  Every time a consumer requires electrical power to search for a product or service they need, they have added to the environmental impact of the power generation. 

The power is not only used by the consumer switching on their computer or charging their phones and tablets.  One of the biggest users of power today is the internet itself.  In fact, the internet uses more power than all but the five biggest countries use, far more than even India or Germany uses.   Google and other providers consume huge amounts of electrical power to run their data centers, executing more than a billion searches each day; and each search engages around a thousand servers as it scans its various data centers for the information you are looking for.  Google uses so much energy that it tries to keep the exact amount a secret.  

The switches and other parts of the infrastructure, invisible and rarely thought of by most internet users, also consume power. From the advertiser going online to select his Google Adwords to the users searching for what they want, the power companies are an additional winner when a city bans the phone book.

I’m not going to talk about the actual production of the Yellow Pages beyond saying that it is printed on paper made from recycled materials and wood chips from the lumber industry.  Not a single tree is cut down to produce the Yellow Pages.  Almost every publisher has adopted the use of recycled materials, often at a higher cost than ‘virgin’ paper.   The inks, glue, etc used in the book are biodegradable and free of toxins.  More information on how green the Yellow Pages is can be found here.

Let us return to oil, this being a blog that merges Yellow Pages with the impact that Peak Oil is having -  and will have  - over the coming decades.  The telephone book is delivered once a year by a private distribution company.  The number of books delivered is well known and publically available since advertising costs are predicated on the number of consumers the book reaches.  In the past there have  been challenges to the delivery numbers and the industry responded by taking part in independent audits – validating the value of the Yellow Pages long before the internet became a part of our everyday life.

Delivery of the book does take energy, in the form of gas used to deliver the printed books to the doorstep of everyone who wants one.  That delivery occurs once per year, on routes that are designed for both efficiency and energy savings; after all, the delivery company wants to save costs just as much as we consumers do.  Compare that with unsolicited mail the post office delivers to our doors six days a week.  While the routes are equally optimized by the post office, you, the consumer, subsidize the cheaper bulk mail rate with higher costs on first class stamps and public bailouts of the postal service.  

Next post, I will deal with other ‘green’ aspects of the Yellow Pages,  how Yellow Pages plays a part in sustainable and resilient communities and give some insider secrets on how the industry is changing to meet the demands of resource depletion.


  1. One of the biggest users of power today is the internet itself.

  2. Indeed.

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  3. I liked this post very much as it has helped me a lot in my research and is quite interesting as well. Thank you for sharing this information with us.
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