Rebirth of Reason


The Ad Culture and Its Enemies
by Francois Tremblay

There is no doubt that advertising has changed our daily landscape. Everywhere we look and read, we are saturated with ads competing for our attention on many different media. That much is obvious. Where there is disagreement is on how good it all is.

Ads have a singular advantage, in that they pay for product (as in television and radio programming) instead of making the actual consumer pay. In effect, the advertiser becomes the consumer in an indirect way--this relieves the consumer of part of the burden of paying for the product. Example: most commercial television channels. While television commercials may be annoying as a general rule, not everyone would prefer to pay instead.

The opponents of this "ad culture"--anti-ad activists, we might say, would rather fight against this. But to join their fight, we must actually be convinced that it's worth our being a bit poorer for their cause. There are usually three arguments used in advancing these claims:

1. Anti-corporatism. Some advertisements may be considered fraudulent, and it is also pointed out that advertising gives too much power to advertising agencies (rather than manufacturers) in terms of how to manage a given product. This argument may have merit. However, its proponents usually assume that claims of fraud should be taken as gospel. But anti-ad activists must demonstrate such fraud on a case-by-case basis before we can grant them credibility.

2. "Culture jamming" and anti-consumerism. One may propose that ads are distorting the culture toward material needs. It is not certain why this is a bad thing. While consumerism may damage some people's situations in the long run, surely satisfying material needs is not bad as a general rule. Once again, it remains to be demonstrated that specific problems are inherent to the consumption of goods.

3. Control of the public. The intent of advertising is to change minds. This always carries with it certain risks of memetic conditioning. As such, it may seem a danger to free will and social cohesion in general.

This last point is more complex than it seems. Indeed, it brings into light the whole discipline of memetics--what makes some memes convincing and others unsuccessful. Superficially, it may seem that there is no place for free will in the equation. But this is not true: the mind is always active in processing information from the senses and from past information, and we cannot arrive at a proper understanding without this fact.

The proper question, I propose, should not be "Should we let ads continue to control us?," but rather, "What makes some people suggestible, and some not?" I would say that this is in no small part due to one's epistemic habits. Someone who accepts readily the beliefs of the people and the media surrounding him will be more likely to "buy into" marketing rhetoric. Someone who is more rational would be more likely to see advertising information through a more objective light.

Ads exist because they create profit, and they create profit because people buy their premises. Yet they often do not provide much information on the product itself, but, rather, concentrate on attitude and brand recognition. Why this situation exists is a psychological and memetic question, not a social one.

Case in point: banner ads on the Web. We all thought it was the solution, that the internet was going to remain free forever. We now know that just ain't so! The internet is just not as passive, and people quickly adapted to banners. According to usability studies expert Jakob Nielsen, clickthrough rates plunged below one percent around 1998, and are now slushing around the low decimals.

There are solutions to this problem, like focused banners, text ads, or micropayments, but that's another issue altogether. What is relevant is what the internet is now becoming: a proliferation of pop-up ads and spyware. This is the kind of situation where the issue of advertising does become social, even political.

There are three kinds of problematic internet ads: spam, spyware and other hidden programs, and popups.

The issue of popups, I realize, is controversial, because it gets to the heart of what consent means on the internet. A question to the effect of, "When I go on a site, what do I explicitly consent to and not consent to?" We obviously consent to having text and pictures displayed onscreen, but not to having our hard drive deleted. And the question is whether popup ads belong to the first or the second category. That is a question worthy of its own article.

Spam and spyware (hidden routines which "spy" on our systems and send back statistical information) are more of an issue of bandwidth and privacy, respectively. It may seem that spam doesn't cost anything, but that is not true: it costs bandwidth, and lots of bandwidth at that. That's why you have basically the entire internet hierarchy (to the extent there is one, anyway) fighting against it. As for spyware, well, it's just wrong to have anyone install programs on your computer without your consent, let alone steal your personal information.

So my point is not that there are no social issues at all related to our ad culture. Rather, like any other factor in a free society, it must be based on mutual respect, and an understanding of the human mind. Without these agreed-upon premises, we will forever be caught between actual predatory marketers and anti-consumer activists.

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