|The Scourge of Advertising|
Technological progress, economic growth, and globalisation of production mean that more and more of the goods and services we consume are produced on a high overhead low unit cost basis, which is only viable if the producer can sell an awful lot.
So it is more important then ever for producers to spend huge sums on marketing, to invade our mindspace and make us aware of them. Huger sums than are to be spent on developing new and better products. We learn to tune it all out. We throw away junk mail, delete spam, make a cup of tea or channel hop while the adverts are on. Marketers find new ways to advertise in places where we do not expect to have to tune out.
This is not a question of blame. Companies have to sell their products or go under, and we all buy stuff. But surely there must be an alternative to this arms race of mind-invasion and mind-insulation. Start a conversation if you have one.
But what is the harm?
There is substantial harm in the advertising arms race, both to producers and consumers. Producers need recognised names and need to spend large sums of money to stay recognised. This creates barriers to entry for new innovative producers, cuts into profits, and takes money away from product development. This wouldn't matter if the money was well spent. But it is spent shouting at us while we have our fingers in our ears.
As individuals, we are spending a great deal of time listening to and trying to ignore messages that are hostile to out better interests. It makes us blind out of habit. An experiment in web site usability recently found that part of the web site navigation structure was not being used by visitors because it made to look eye-catching - it was being tuned out as if it were a banner advert.
Because we must always be ready to push away the marketer's approach, a whole class of human social interactions that could enrich our lives are made more difficult. The person outside the shop begging and the person inside trying to sign you up for the store card both teach us that unsolicited conversation is best rejected.
Perhaps this is also related to the problem of disengagement in politics. Engagement in politics requires a person to listen critically to a politician's arguments that their policies are good for us. But we learn to tune out advertisers claiming that their products are good for us. Unless we have very fine tuning, politics can be lost.
The amount of mind-space
That advertising competes for mind-share tells us something. If everybody spent half as much on advertising the effect on product sales would be minimal, but we would all have to lock down our minds rather less and could be happy free-thinking individuals rather more.
Of course it won't happen, advertising is competitive. The world we see and hear is a finite advertising space which marketers each try to dominate in a manner akin to the Tragedy of the Commons. Share of this advertising space is reflected in the mind-share the marketers have in our heads.
The realm of advertising
This suggests that if we could reduce the size of the advertising space and have a larger advertising-free space, the competition for mind-share would be effectively unaltered, but that producers would save money, and we would have more time to think about truth and beauty, or getting on with our lives.
And we have some good examples. The BBC is fantastic value for the license compared to the cost of subscription TV channels, with better quality programmes and (almost) no adverstising. Schools, for the most part teach understanding, and only sometimes use sponsored materials - although when they do this, it is particularly dangerous.
Perhaps other areas could be made advertising-free by law? Spam email should of course be illegal, but the problem is international. Some countries have adopted a limit on the broadcast time used for advertising of 10% during childrens programs. This makes sense, if not as good as CBeebies. Surely advertising, like religious indoctrination, has to be kept out of schools, which have to earn and deserve the trust of the children they teach.
But how do we get the message out?
The trouble is that is very difficult and expensive to make people aware of a new and better product. Advertising occasionally does contain new information about products, but more often it contains what looks and sounds like information but isn't. Frequently this is deliberately misleading, but in any case we have learned that apparent claims in advertising are best ignored. They certainly aren't worth looking into too see if there is any substance. This means that when a genuine claim is made, the medium of advertising doesn't work.
One might think, then that project lik Which? magazine would be more popular. Certainly the attempt to buy products based on reviews of actual performance is much more sensible than going by image or mind-share. But to get unbiased information you have to pay for it - there is nobody else paying for the benefit of you hearing their version. And few of us want to pay fot it. Honest coverage of products, like politics, is difficult to find.
In any case advertising fails the better product. If we can think of a way to escape the advertising arms race, we should not forget the necessity for stuff to be sold, and we should try to give better products a better chance.
What about free speech?
This question presumes that we are talking about the possibility of legal restrictions on advertising, which isn't necessarily the case. If say, more people had access to impartial product reviews and bought on that basis, this may divert money from advertising to product development, benefiting everybody except the advertisers.
In any case we will never be free of people trying to obtain our money by deception, mild or otherwise. We should not seek to free ourselves of advertising completely, or we may become gullible.
In fact advertising is regulated already. How can this be consistent with free speech? The right of free speech entitles us to say our piece to anybody who will listen, subject to various other laws - defamation, incitement of disaffection or racial violence etc. It doesn't entitle us to say our piece to people who don't want to listen. I can't stand outside your house with a megaphone at 2am reading this article, or offering to sell the contents of my car boot.
But how do we know if we want the message until we have heard it? Well here there must be a compromise, and reasonable measures to put out an unsolicited message must be allowed. And the extent of that reasonableness is precisely what we are discussing in this article.
Destructive of value?
An advantage of the free market is that new market niches can be found and filled by entrepreneurs, giving us in the process a huge choice of products and services, and increasing prosperity. We have discussed how advertising seems to hinder rather than help this process, but as advertising itself is also a service in the free market, perhaps it is generating prosperity in the same way.
However, unlike bread or motor repair, advertising is not bought by individuals for its benefits. It is bought by companies dependent on it (addicted one might say), and imposed on individuals. The consumer pays for it through prices and surrenders mind-share to it. To the company it is another overhead, another cost of business, which for the most part increases trade only at the expense of competitors who must then spend more in turn.
Not every product that is bought and sold is considered to be contributing positively towards prosperity. Addictive narcotics are one example. Anything that significantly damages the environment is another. Attempts to pollute our consciousness with warm feelings about junk...?
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