The FSF needs a new approach to advertising

Ah!  A fresh issue of the “Linux Format” magazine.  I rip off the plastic wrap and open up to a random article.  This article is about the newest piece of proprietary Grubby Games software.  I immediately realize something isn’t right.  My eyes slowly make their way to the bottom right side of the page.   There is an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation staring right back at me.

When I saw this, I was shocked!  I had never seen an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation before!  I have been reading incorrectly-titled “Linux” magazines for a long time, and never once seen an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation.  I feel that most GNU/Linux users who care about GNU/Linux enough to go buy a magazine on it already have an opinion about the Free Software Foundation.

There aren’t too many GNU/Linux users I have actually met in person.  One of these users had never even heard of software freedom before.  He had been using “Linux” since the middle 90’s.  When I wished him “Happy Software Freedom Day“, the conversations followed:

Him: “What is that?  Is that a day for pirating software?”

Me: “No, software freedom as in Free Software”

Him: Blank stare

Me: “The Free Software Foundation?”

Him: Blank stare

Me: “It’s kind of like Open Source, but…”

Him: “Oh, Open Source!”

At first, this surprised me.  How could someone who used GNU/Linux for that long not know about software freedom?  Well, I figured that there really were a handful of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and did not know anything about software freedom or the FSF.  But I never assumed that a large number of people were like this…  until I learned about the stereotype “Ubuntu user”.

By no means am I saying that all, or even most Ubuntu users know nothing about Free Software.  I personally use Kubuntu.  Even Richard Stallman and the rest of the FSF use gNewSense, a derivative of Ubuntu.  The reason I am making the reference to Ubuntu users is because so many of them believe that Linux=Ubuntu, and have no idea what GNU/Linux is. Just do a Google search on “Best Ubuntu Applications” and see how many come up.  Now take a look at how many of them don’t mention “Linux” anywhere on the page, even in the comments.  It’s shocking.

In my opinion, the users I am talking about use GNU/Linux for one of four reasons:

  • They want to make themselves seem really geeky
  • They are trying show off to their peers
  • They need to save money
  • They have no choice

Some people think that these people should not use GNU/Linux in the first place.  I firmly disagree.  Originally, I tried “Linux” back in ’05 because I heard it was free of cost, and I had a computer that wouldn’t run anything other than Windows ME.  I thought it would be a good experience to try to get this computer to work.  I played around with it for a year or so, until I did my History Day project on it.  When I started, I didn’t even know the name of the OS was GNU/Linux, let alone what GNU was.  This was my introduction to software freedom.  Most of what I know now came from the research of that project.  After learning the history behind Free Software, I became an instant advocate, and immediately made a presentation to my school’s Tech Coordinator about why Free Software should be used in our school.  (Even though it didn’t work very well – when you are in middle school, you don’t exactly have that much power…)  If I hadn’t been drawn into GNU/Linux by the initial cost factor, I would have never even tried it in the first place.

I do think that it is a good idea for the Free Software Foundation to advertise.  It is important that new users are inaugurated into the world of software freedom.  I don’t, however, believe that the magazines are the best way to reach the target audience.  “Linux” magazines have already left a bad taste in Richard Stallman’s mouth (see “The GNU Project“), so why would he allow the Free Software Foundation to advertise there?  Almost all of the people who read those magazines either already know and love the FSF, or have conciously chosen to ignore it.  At a level that requires buying an expensive magazine, you won’t get many newbies.

So what are my suggestions for where the FSF should advertise?  If they could pay to include a chapter in “Linux for Dummies”, that would be a much better outlet for the pennies the FSF makes every year.  Obviously that isn’t possible, so my suggestions are as follows:

  • Answer posts relating to proprietary software on and, and talk to these people about the benefits of Free Software
  • Create media, including videos, music, etc that people would enjoy listening to (that means this doesn’t count) that they would enjoy sharing with others
  • Start Free Software User Groups
  • Make an effort to get schools to switch to Free Software

Think about it: would it better if everyone in the world heard the name “FSF” mentioned once, or if a small group of first time “Linux” users were educated about why Software Freedom is important.  One trip to the Free Software Foundation’s website probably won’t get anyone to change their ethics regarding computer software.  I admit that I went to both the FSF website and the GNU website after I first used “Linux”, but didn’t really take the time to understand any of it.  The FSF needs to hook people.  The advertising techniques I mentioned above (and certainly ones I didn’t think of as well) would greatly enhance the publicity of the FSF.  The goal is to get people hooked, not to try to tell people to go to and make a donation.  You can’t get people hooked by showing them a generic advertisement; you have to get down to the personal level.

I love the Free Software Foundation dearly, and appreciate all the work they are doing to spread software freedom.  I just hope that they can improve their advertising to better spread the word of Free Software.

6/30/08 Update: I just received a comment from Paul Hudson, editor of “Linux Format”.  He informed me that “Linux Format” gives that advertising space out to the Free Software Foundation for free.  That’s really nice of them to help out the FSF.

Unfortunately, this also reveals another problem.  The Free Software Foundation doesn’t do any advertising or publicity!  They do all of this great work, but don’t spread the news beyond their their cronies.

Published in: on June 28, 2008 at 8:22 pm  Comments (10)  
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