The most important property to remember about advertising (and the basis of its pervasion of modern society) is the fact that there is a finite level of attention and memory in each viewing individual. Therefore, the greater the number of advertisements, the lesser the impact of each one. This does not result in fewer and well-considered advertisements, but simply a huge, buzzing mass of product placement and namedropping that attempts to implant a product at just the right point in the awareness of enough individuals so that it is foremost in their mind when they're ready to buy. Advertising is, of course, the primary weapon of marketing.

I hate advertising. I go to some effort to avoid being in situations where I am forced to consume advertising. I take issue, however, with the extremist rhetoric spewed by some people who seem to think that advertising turns people into shambling zombies who will buy whatever they are told.

Personally, I think these people are giving advertising much, much more credit for effectiveness than it deserves. Several studies have been done by marketroids which indicate that banner ads are stunningly ineffective. Now, it's very easy to assess how people are reacting to internet ads, because clickthrough can be directly monitored. On the other hand, it's pretty hard to figure out how people are really reacting to television or print ads, because interest in a product or service cannot be automatically traced back to the ad. With those two facts in hand, it really makes me wonder why companies haven't made the logical leap to the idea that maybe all other advertising is as miserably ineffective as banner ads on the internet. That would mean that their whole marketing budget is colossal waste of money, wouldn't it?

I also dispute the assertion that somehow it is the seller's fault if a consumer buys something they don't really want or need. What ever happened to individual responsibility? And who the hell are you to say what other people want or need? Just because you think Britney Spears is a worthless piece of crap doesn't mean there aren't people who think she's the cat's pajamas.

To hear the anti-consumerist zealots tell it, you'd think their were marketing SWAT teams roaming the streets, busting down citizen's doors and marching them down to Wal-Mart at gunpoint. Let's inject a little common sense into this debate, eh?

Caveat emptor. People who uncritically accept the claims of advertisers (or the media, or the government, or the church...) get what they deserve when they reap the harvest they have sown of their own laziness and ignorance.

Proposal: Prohibit All Advertising

Advertising (defined as commercial speech intended to induce others to engage in a commercial transaction) should be forbidden. The government would not prosecute violations but would instead allow anybody to sue violators for punitive damages in civil court. The specifications and prices of products and services could still be listed in yellow-page style compendiums, and products and services could be reviewed by publications such as Consumer Reports.


1. Aesthetics

Advertising is propaganda which pollutes the mental realm by repeating the mantra

Buy more stuff and you'll be happy!

Many ads are insulting: "We know that you don't care about the safety ratings of this car. We know that you don't care about the price of this car (even though you do like to hear about a cash-back). We know that you don't care about the mileage you get out of this car. We do know that you will be more likely to buy this car if we play some nice music and show you this happy family traveling in our car. You are a stupid fuck, and now go to the dealership."

Most ads consist of lies, half-truths and distortions. These things are not beautiful, and our world is filled with them.

2. Capitalism

Capitalism is built on the principle that the best product should win in a Darwinian manner, where "best" is defined by consumers taking price, features and quality into account.

For this concept of capitalism, advertising is a hindrance: not the best product wins anymore, but the best advertised product wins. Bigger companies are better able to launch successful advertising campaigns, even though their products may not be superior. This distorts the system.

The resources spent on advertising are wasted and don't help Darwinistic capitalism along.

3. Environmentalism

The rich countries are using up too much stuff. Advertising is the motor behind the unsustainable rat race of "work more, produce more, make more money, buy more". Switch off the motor, and more people will realize that there's more to life than this.

4. Homogenizing and paralyzing effect

Suppose you want to advertise a car. Of course you need the picture of a woman. Do you pick a thin one or a fat one? Well you do a survey and find that the majority of men prefer thin ones, so you pick a thin one. All other advertisers do the same. As a result, fat women get the impression that something is wrong with them, men who like fat women are slowly conditioned to like thin ones, and the cultural standard of beauty can never change. (For more on this, see the excellent writeup She's so cute, Exhibit B.)

Legal Considerations

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that local ordinances against begging are constitutional. Just like begging, advertising is annoying commercial speech intended to induce the listener to enrich the speaker. There is no First Amendment protection for such speech.

This writeup is in the public domain.

Advertising is an action performed by businesses. It involves the business buying exposure time in a medium where they are free to say pretty much what they want. The time is typically used to promote their products in some way.

There are two main poles of advertising:

It is, of course, possible to combine the two, and most adverts are a combination of these two poles.

Businesses spend a lot of money on advertising, but relatively few people are employed in the advertising industry. Most of this money goes into buying the exposure time in the media - the most popular mediums are newspapers, television and radio. Advertising is often done through an agency - there are many advantages of this, such as the ability to fire your agency at any time and use it as a scapegoat if things go wrong.

Why advertise? There are numerous reasons. The most common two are related to branding - more specifically, brand loyalty and brand awareness.

Brand awareness, or product awareness, is a neccesary precondition to the sale of many products. A brand like McDonalds and the Golden Arches has 95% brand awareness in the United Kingdom. And when people know about your product - what it is, where they can get it and how much it costs - they are more likely to buy it. Many companies that are involved in selling their services to other businesses actually advertise to consumers to increase awareness of their name, so that other companies will be more likely to employ them. A case in point is the IT security firm Integralis, which advertises itself to consumers as "The best kept secret" in IT.

Brand loyalty is a serious competitive advantage. When people are loyal to a brand, they are willing to pay a little more for it and carry on buying it for a prolonged period. In technical terms, the product is said to have a lower price elasticity of demand - this means that the relationship between the increase in price and decrease in demand for the product are not proportional.

Advertising builds brand loyalty by helping create a certain image for the brand. For instance, the image of Clarks the shoeshop is sensible and pragmatic, and this image is strengthened through advertising. Mothers who want sensible shoes for their children are encouraged to shop there for this reason.

Moving away from branding, another more direct effect of successful advertising is to simply increase demand for a product. On a graph of supply and demand, the demand curve moves to the right - more people want the product at a higher price, and the supplier wants to supply more because of this. A useful way to calculate the effectiveness of an advertising campaign intended to increase demand is with the formula -

                     % change in quantity demanded
                     % change in advertising expense
By increasing sales in this manner, a company also helps approach its most efficient level of production - the point at which its average costs are as low as they can get. Increased sales lead to benefits such as economies of scale.

I've noticed significant differences in the advertisements directed towards women and men.

There are millions and millions of ads directed towards women telling them that they are inadequate until they buy certain products. Cosmetic advertisers must convince women that they are ugly in order to sell their goods. We're bombarded by these ads constantly, on TV, Radio, print, the web, everywhere, from birth.

On the other hand, ads directed towards men are more along the lines of how much more adequate they will be if they buy this pickup truck, SUV, tool or that gadget. There's no cosmetics industry for men, so no reason for advertisers to convince men that they are ugly, horrible beings.

In a different vein, I noticed advertising on my bananas the other day. Wow - any surface is fair game!

"Advertising is the nonpersonal communication of information, usually paid for, and usually persuasive in nature about products, services or ideas by identified sponsors through the various media." 1

As a noder above commented, it's estimated that the average American is exposed to 15-16 thousand advertisements a day. These insidious little memes infect our daily lives unconsciously, creating unrealistic images, encouraging us to be dissatisfied with ourselves, evoking emotionality, and forcing us to hum stupid little tunes or unknowingly recite catch phrases in our normal conversation.

Advertising and Consumer Psychology

Essentially, all successful advertising creates a perceived need where none previously existed.(also see marketing). A great deal of effective advertising is based on eliciting unconscious impulse responses or imparting information to the subconscious - through techniques such as slogans, catch phrases, name recognition, jingles, word associations, distinct logos and brand identity, and the ever-effective presence of attractive actors and sexual suggestions - all working to essentially bypass the rational , judgmental faculty of the mind.

The alternative is to attempt to get the mind's attention through an appeal to reason, a demonstration of product benefits or testimonials, or by rhetoric and emotional appeal. Advertising often relies on cultural norms, stereotypes and caricatures to simplify the customers' identification of a target market and to help him determine very quickly whether he is included in that market.

Less benevolent tactics also exist. They include showing powerful emotional images with little relation to the product, literal use of subliminal messages, buzzwords, fear and scare tactics (do you want to be this fat? do you want these children to starve to death?), celebrity endorsement by stars with strong referent power, deliberate appeal to prejudiced or bigoted reactions (i.e. homosexuals deserve AIDS, God hates abortions), and overtly sexual messages or images unconnected in any way to the product or service being advertised. Many of these tactics are also political devices .

Advertising and Ethics

It's important to note that some degree of "advertising" is necessary to human beings in any case where resistance to an idea or contentment with the status quo exists. It has to do with the way our mind works. Being basically survival-oriented, the psyche tends to be homeostatic and will ignore the message that is being communicated unless it elicits a definite "shock". You need to get the attention of the person to overcome mental inertia, whether you are attempting to teach them something new, introduce them to a new technology, or trying to sell them a product.

Advertising is a tool, and a very dangerous and powerful one. In many cases, you are attempting to affect the mind at a lower level than rationality, in order to get past its natural self-protective barriers and comfort zone, either to make it consider something it wouldn't normally consider or to force a particular idea or behavioral suggestion past its censorship. The ethical issues of making subliminal suggestions which short-circuit free will and autonomy should be obvious.

Advertising as a Form of Communication

In terms of sense-data, advertising relies very little - as an industry - on scent, touch, or taste because its primary vehicle is mass media communication. Because of this, sound and sight are of primary importance. Pictures are an extremely efficient way to convey information, and the subconscious effect of various graphic and aural techniques has already been mentioned.

From an informational standpoint, advertising is almost always incomplete, by design. What should appear are the points that the advertiser feels are most important in conveying the central idea and selling the product. What can be conveyed include outright lies, extremely biased views, or deliberate attempts to manipulate perception through exaggeration of the benefits and capabilities of a product.

Advertising is not and was never meant as a substitute for objective documentation or consumer research. In a commercial, this is simply not what either the viewer wants to see (thinking is not generally considered a leisure activity, research is tedious and time-consuming, and a balanced perspective requires careful consideration of the claims of both sides) or what the advertiser wants to convey. Bias is very hard to avoid because of this.

In Summary

"If you tell a big enough Lie, and keep on repeating it, in the end people will come to believe it"
- Josef Goebbel, Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda for the Nazi Party (yep, that's an actual title!)

The focus in any sort of sales is rarely a sale of product, but is rather a sale of a collection of values which that product, and often also the company that created it, represents to a potential consumer. Values have emotional as well as rational repercussions, and effective advertisers are well-acquainted with both types of response mechanisms.

It's important to realize that advertising, which is perhaps one of our oldest arts, can and does have legitimate uses. It is only abuse of this technology by the unscrupulous who are not content with producing a good product that consumers will value, which creates most of the problems, combined with the naivete of consumers uneducated about how they can be unconsciously manipulated and lied to about a product through advertising.

  • 1Arens and Bovee, Contemporary Advertising (5th Ed.). Burr Wood, Illinois: Irwin, 1994.
  • see also Fravia's "reality hacking" pages.

The print publishing industry has been under siege by the Internet for some time now, and once a viable electronic replacement to paper becomes available, paper will eventually disappear, only used for the most basic applications. Depending on the speed of technology developement, that time may be 5 to 15 years away, but it will come.

That's not the real crisis. Publishing companies are more than ready to move their content online, making their information available to anyone anywhere willing to access it. Whether you read their articles on a CRT, an LCD, a sheet of electronic paper, or a piece of newsprint, they are ready to deliver content to you. With some exceptions, writing articles for the web differs primarily from writing for print in ways that have mostly to do with immediacy and a shortened development cycle.

So what is the problem? Advertising. Even if people wanted to buy subscriptions (and most don't), that is only a small part of a publication's revenue. Advertising is the primary source of income. The problem is, some web developer told someone long ago that web advertising was trackable, meaning that an advertiser could pay based upon the amount of customers delivered to them by the referring site.

What advertisers forget is that is takes money to generate interesting, intelligent content. Until the paradigm of internet advertising returns from the tyranny of trackable results, we will suffer from ever-shrinking levels of quality as the money is leached out of advertising. The print version of Time magazine still charges you full boat for an ad, no matter who flips the page without reading it.

The really sad part is that the marketing money isn't going anywhere. Since the new paradigm is delivered customers, publications are forced to pimp their mailing list to generate income. The more scrupulous publications dress it up a bit by issuing a "targeted newsletter" with articles dealing with a specific subject, usually one near and dear to the advertiser. For example, a decorating magazine could send out a "targeted newsletter" to the readers who identified themselves as gardeners with recent articles on gardening, with the newsletter sponsored by a trowel company. This means that your inbox will start to fill up with interest-oriented spam, the most insidous kind.

The really, really sad part is that these efforts still don't bring in the advertising revenue print demands.

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