Advertising Is A Con Game — And You’re The Mark

Saturday, I posted a long essay about the essential misogyny of the Republican Party. (You can read it here.) Within minutes of that post going live, I started receiving comments from friends, most of them pointing out the specific irony of the advertising that popped up at the bottom of the page to accompany the story — thumbnails showcasing hot female models in provocative clothes.

It was a perfect demonstration of the inherent misogyny of our culture, evidence of how the advertising industry has become the enemy of self-esteem.

It is impossible for young women to develop a healthy body-image when the media bombards them with impossible standards of attractiveness. And young men are equally conditioned to see women as objects, as arm-candy, as trophies — as anything but partners.

The purpose of advertising is to convince you that you’re broken, that you smell bad, that you’re not good enough — and that the only way to fix yourself, the only way to stop stinking, the only way to fill that feeling of emptiness is to buy this toothpaste, this shampoo, this deodorant, this phone, this car, this whatever. The purpose of advertising is to make you want something. The advertiser does it by creating the illusion that where you are is just not as good as where you should be.

It’s a con game. It’s a cultural mugging. It’s an assault — and it keeps getting worse.

Back in the early days of television, you could watch a show like Star Trek, and you would get 56 minutes of entertainment and only 4 minutes of commercials. Somewhat tolerable. Today, you get 44 minutes of show and 16 minutes of commercials. Plus, there’s a network bug in the lower right corner, and frequent popover ads for the show that follows. And there are now six interruptions per hour instead of four.

Think of it this way — we have gone from one rat turd for every 14 corn flakes in your spoon to 4 rat turds for every 11 corn flakes. Those news and traffic station you listen to on your drive to work? There, the ratio is even worse. On some stations, it’s minute of advertising for every minute of news. A 1:1 ratio of rat turds and corn flakes.

And we still keep eating the corn flakes.

The advertising industry doesn’t believe in silence, it doesn’t allow for emptiness. Every blank space is an opportunity for more advertising — if you don’t use it, the next guy will, so you’d better grab it right now and to hell with appropriateness.

Once upon a time, the sides of buildings weren’t hung with flashing billboards or giant TV screens. Once upon a time, buses weren’t painted with ads for this week’s blockbuster movie. Once upon a time, movie theaters had elegant curtains in front of the screen — now, the screen is filled with commercials — and you’re a captive audience while you wait for the movie. By the time the movie starts, you’re already exhausted.

Once upon a time, we had visual silence. We could see our cities, we could see our environment.

Banksy, the graffiti artist has nailed it in four short paragraphs:

“People are taking the piss out of you every day. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

“You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.

“Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

“You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

And as wholeheartedly as I endorse this manifesto, that advertisers are abnegating our ability to have our own conversations about our lives, there’s an much more pernicious truth that we cannot escape — it’s the ads that pay the bills. The internet depends on ads to function. Google, Facebook, most blogs, this website….

Now…as the newest participant here at American News X, if I get paid, then I’m one of the beneficiaries of those ads. But if have no control over what ads might pop up, then I end up not only associated with products and websites that do not reflect my own views, but a beneficiary of their sales as well.

Unfortunately, the ads are here because they have to be here, and I suspect that they are tuned to various key words in the articles, so an article about the role of women in society will trigger on the word “women” and will likely bring up ads with pictures of women in provocative clothing and poses.

I’m afraid to write an article about hemorrhoids, who knows what pictures will show up? Ted Cruz, Donald Trump?

But it is precisely this relentless avalanche of advertising that has doubled the number of people using ad-blockers to filter their internet experience. And that number is likely to continue increasing for some time to come — because too many advertisers have behaved abusively. You look for content and a popover gets in the way, you have to click it to get rid of it — or an ad has to play for fifteen seconds before you can see the video you asked for. The ads are holding your computer hostage. Either you cooperate or you decide that the content isn’t worth waiting for.

The current state of advertising is based on a false assumption — that ads must serve only the needs of the advertiser — he needs customers, so the ad has to be put in front of as many eyeballs as possible. That assumption treats the person on the other side of the screen as an object, not a person. It’s disrespectful.

Several years ago, Robert Sawyer and I were both invited to participate in a conference about thinking outside the box. The conference was held in Istanbul and the organizers asked us if we could make ourselves available to speak to a gathering of Turkish bankers.

Now, I pondered this for a bit. What could I — an American science fiction author — say to a group of Turkish bankers that would be useful to them? Eventually, I came up with this:

“Whatever business you think you’re in, you’re not. Whatever business you think you’re in, you’re really in the business of providing service. When you figure out what that service is, you will create a relationship with your customers — and as long as you maintain that relationship, the customer will give you his loyalty.”

Additionally, a company must also serve it’s employees. Service has to be transparent throughout or it’s little more than a performance, another buzzword that some companies use to disguise their hypocrisy.

This was the kind of insight that continues to resonate with me today. I’ve had many opportunities to see it in practice in the years since then. It’s been demonstrated two ways — by various businesses that continue to succed and grow, and also by a few comnpanies that have impressively bellied-up.

Now apply that to advertising. Advertising is a company’s public face — it’s the first impression, it’s the continuing impression. It’s the creation of the realtionship. A company’s relationship with the customer has to be one of service. The ad must serve the customer.

Ads are designed to capture your attention. It should serve you in some way. It needs to be entertaining, informative, and useful, not just to the target demographic, but to everyone else as well. Otherwise, it’s just more noise in an already overloaded environment.

I wish I could conclude with a powerful insight, a course of immediate action. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is one. We live in a consumer-based economy. Advertising is a necessary part of consumerism. Therefore, we are the problem, not the solution.

But we do have one defense — skepticism. Question everything. It’s not a lot, but it’s a good start.

Over here, I have my own system. Whatever the product is, however much I think I need it, I wait at least three days. If I’m no longer wildly excited, I didn’t want it in the first place.

It’s not a perfect system, but it works for me.

Feature image courtesy of advertising



About David Gerrold 4 Articles
David Gerrold writes books. He also wrote a script for Star Trek once.

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