Bill-bored: Have We Had Enough of Advertising?
The modern urban setting is awash with advertisements of every shape and size: the ubiquitous billboard, the inescapable tube poster, the piss-annoying radio jingle, that ugly leaflet on the doormat whose entire reason for existing was to move from the front door to the recycling bin– and they’re locked in a constant battle to illicit our attention. Big-name monoliths plaster their logos across every city landscape worldwide. Surfaces that were once subtle and uncomplicated have become readable texts that leap off walls and screens, offering ideas, values and morals that shape us as individuals. Whether we’re going out or going online, every activity is interspersed with increasingly bolder attempts by companies to become a part of the furniture of our everyday thoughts. But how much do we, as social and intellectual creatures, actually benefit? After all, the world’s largest corporations have grown to such monstrous sizes and embedded themselves so deeply in cultural and intellectual life that they’re beginning to resemble nations or governments, barely constrained by geographical boundaries. Already the American lobby system allows big business to directly intervene in the political process, which is but one of the many ways that profit-hungry ogres are able to manipulate international politics. Is it then morally responsible for companies that wield such huge and self-interested power to view our attention as a form of capital? Is advertising a necessary evil in modern society, or is there another way?
With ad removal services like adblock racking up more than 40 million downloads worldwide it’s clear that there is a collective feeling towards advertising on the internet, and it seems we respond in much the same manner to adverts on TV or the radio. Whether we’re flipping over the channel, making a cup of tea, or checking our phones, adverts are treated more like an unwelcome fact of life than a useful aspect of consumerism. They’re an interruption to our enjoyment of media, they break our concentration and drag us away to a headspace we never asked to be in. But advertisers don’t really care that we go to these lengths to avoid adverts because, on the odd occasion that the surprise attack is effective, they have succeeded in gaining a foothold in our minds that will help spread their brand image. No matter what we do to try and filter out the constant whining and shouting for our attention, we have to accept the fact that nobody can go through life without coming to recognise the Coca Cola cursive or Ronald McDonald’s shit-eating grin.
Imagine setting up a small business to pursue your dream of making extravagant sandwiches: the first thing your business needs is to simply exist, to have a physical or digital presence that people can interact with. Secondly it needs to justify its own existence by serving sandwiches, but unless you’ve managed to carve out a lucrative niche, simply existing is not enough to attract customers. You’ll need to interrupt the stream of information flowing into the minds of the general public to broadcast your own message that says “look at my sandwiches!” and then hope that your business will be seen, or better still, that it will be seen to have value. The only way to do this, it would seem, would be to advertise regardless of how you feel about advertising on a personal level. It doesn’t matter if you’re worried that you’ll upset the environment by carving thousands of leaflets from a far-away forest; or that you’re uneasy about the idea of approaching people in the streets with advertisements (personally or by proxy; a leaflet, a wacky outfit or a loud sign); or if you don’t like the idea of invading thousands of years with an infuriatingly contagious jingle. ‘That’s just bad luck’ they’ll say, ‘it has to be done if you want your business to survive.’
Well they’re right in a way. To imagine a society without advertising we’d have to imagine stripping away the channel of communication between businesses and the public, since that’s all advertising is. Or we could imagine a society without businesses, the facilitators of trade that have come to support the fabric of society, but a business is simply a functional component of trade and there is nothing in this life without trade. Whether it is the trading of minerals from water to soil or the exchange of gold for wool, trade is the only process by which change occurs.
So it would seem that on one hand we have the hounding audacity of the media to drag us away from our daily doing, and on the other hand a degeneration to pre-social systems where the concept of business is annihilated in favour of something inconceivable. Neither of these extremes present a workable solution to the problems we face today, but perhaps there is a middle way: instead of removing business from the equation, why not remove self-interest? Instead of removing the channel of communication, why not make it more efficient?
The major reason we find advertising annoying is not because it’s merely obnoxious (although that certainly plays a part ), but rather because it offends our sense of individualism when companies assume that we all think and act in the same way. Worse still, it threatens our lives as individuals by instilling ideas and values that convince us to think and act in the same way. Targeted advertising seems the natural opponent to the prevalent ‘mass feeding’ strategy that is employed by the majority of corporations today. It has already been employed for years by social media giant Facebook as its main form of advertising and is one way that we might find ourselves actually appreciating these imposed distractions for their ability to expand our horizons and keep the adventure of discovery alive. It’s difficult to see this working well in public spaces, but in digital space it’s an entirely functional proposition. If advertisers had access to information on our patterns of consumption they would be able to suggest things in a similar way that our friends already suggest media and goods to consume.
Imagine the next pop-up that interrupts you while you’re manically scrolling your favourite forum proves to be alluring, educational or even thrilling! But the concept of targeted advertising has been covered in muck for as long as the idea has been floating around. We’ve had the technology to pull it off for years, yet the fear of releasing our personal information into the vast unknown has never been more pronounced than it is today. Most of us are now acutely aware of the lurking eyes of the state and with the internet and computing technologies reaching such levels of complexity, it’s no wonder that we’re scared. But the fact remains that this process is already underway and it is up to each of us to take up the responsibility to pay attention to the way the world is changing, ensuring as we go that society is controlled by the majority and not the self-interested few. Until businesses begin to operate with a great deal more transparency, until there is a relationship of trust between consumer.