The bads of ads

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet/meteuphoric.

In London at the start of the year, perhaps there was more advertising than there usually is in my life, because I found its presence disgusting and upsetting. Could I not use public transport without having my mind intruded upon continually by trite performative questions?

London underground

Sometimes I fantasize about a future where stealing someone’s attention to suggest for the fourteenth time that they watch your awful-looking play is rightly looked upon as akin to picking their pocket.

Stepping back, advertising is widely found to be a distasteful activity. But I think it is helpful to distinguish the different unpleasant flavors potentially involved (and often not involved—there is good advertising):

  1. Mind manipulation: Advertising is famous for uncooperatively manipulating people’s beliefs and values in whatever way makes them more likely to pay money somehow. For instance, deceptively encouraging the belief that everyone uses a certain product, or trying to spark unwanted wants.Painting an ad
  2. Zero-sumness: To the extent advertising is aimed at raising the name recognition and thus market share of one product over its similar rivals, it is zero or negative sum: burning effort on both sides and the attention of the customer for no overall value.subiyanto-nestle-ad.jpgweir-coke-ad.jpg
  3. Theft of a precious thing: Attention is arguably one of the best things you have, and its protection arguably worthy of great effort. In cases where it is vulnerable—for instance because you are outside and so do not personally control everything you might look at or hear—advertising is the shameless snatching of it. This might be naively done, in the same way that a person may naively steal silverware assuming that it is theirs to take because nothing is stopping them.London underground
  4. Cultural poison: Culture and the common consciousness are an organic dance of the multitude of voices and experiences in society. In the name of advertising, huge amounts of effort and money flow into amplifying fake voices, designed to warp perceptions–and therefore the shared world–to ready them for exploitation. Advertising can be a large fraction of the voices a person hears. It can draw social creatures into its thin world. And in this way, it goes beyond manipulating the minds of those who listen to it. Through those minds it can warp the whole shared world, even for those who don’t listen firsthand. Advertising shifts your conception of what you can do, and what other people are doing, and what you should pay attention to. It presents role models, designed entirely for someone else’s profit. It saturates the central gathering places with inanity, as long as that might sell something.Outdoor ads over darkened figures
  5. Market failure: Ideally, whoever my attention is worth most to would get it, regardless of whether it was initially stolen. For instance, if I have better uses for my attention than advertising, hopefully I will pay more to have it back than the advertiser expects to make by advertising to me. So we will be able to make a trade, and I’ll get my attention back. In practice this is probably too complicated, since so many tiny transactions are needed. E.g. the best message for me to see, if I have to see a message, when sitting on a train, is probably something fairly different from what I do see. It is also probably worth me paying a small sum to each person who would advertise at me to just see a blank wall instead. But it is hard for them to collect that money from each person. And in cases where the advertiser was just a random attention thief and didn’t have some special right to my attention, if I were to pay one to leave me alone, another one might immediately replace them.1Underground ads over crowd
  6. Ugliness: At the object level, advertising is often clearly detracting from the beauty of a place.Ads overwhelming buildings

These aren’t necessarily distinct—to the extent ugliness is bad, say, one might expect that it is related to some market failure. But they are different reasons for disliking a thing-a person can hate something ugly while having no strong view on the perfection of ideal markets.

What would good and ethical advertising look like? Maybe I decide that I want to be advertised to now, and go to my preferred advertising venue. I see a series of beautiful messages about things that are actively helpful for me to know. I can downvote ads if I don’t like the picture of the world that they are feeding into my brain, or the apparent uncooperativeness of their message. I leave advertising time feeling inspired and happy.

Ads: we are building a new story

2 responses to “The bads of ads

  1. For reasons like those you articulate, I think it would make sense if some people started a purity religion in which they resolved to keep themselves untainted by advertising. There might be practitioners who are observant to different degrees, and the typical would allow themselves to be exposed to quite a bit of advertising, as long as it was reasonably polite. However, they would have their well-defined religious limits.

    The reason to make it a religion is that countries like the US only start giving a fuck about your weird preferences if these are a part of an organized religion. I was having these thoughts as I got off an airplane on which I watched various passengers get their respective kosher, halal, and vegetarian meals. But then as we were all in the painfully slow line for passport control, we had to stand under a huge, unavoidable monitor with a looping, flashing Hugo Boss ad. Orthodox Jews, veiled Muslim women, Buddhists, Mormons, a cringing me – no one was spared! That’s when I thought: Oh how I wish that some people here in line with me were religious objectors to intrusive advertising, because that’s what it would take before anybody in the US would ever reconsider the rightness of putting a captive audience in a public space into the blast zone of this kind of ad. And as far as religious purity traditions go, this one makes sense: keeping yourself clean of intrusive messages designed to literally hack your mind into desiring something that you don’t want to desire seems like just the kind of thing that belongs into a respectable religion. We already have all kinds of religious prohibitions on lust, covetousness, etc., and it’s hard to deny that many ads deliver their payload by deliberately triggering these vices. You can easily imagine the bronze age founders of the big religions having lots to say about ads if they had spent much time in 21st century airports or the tube. One thing that makes those places so toxic to peace of mind are all those intrusive ads.

    I’m not trying to convert anyone to any kind of religion. I’m just saying that if it somehow got established firmly enough to be able to negotiate credibly for specific ad restrictions in public spaces, the practitioners would do a lot good for society at large, not just for their own flock. There might even be a religiously sanctioned adblocker for browsers that websites couldn’t override without running afoul people’s religious liberty!

  2. You need to also take into account a following effect: advertising raises a ‘common knowledge’ that a particular product is cool in a particular way – so when you want to be perceived as cool in that particular way you can buy that product. There is a utility in this.


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