We’re Living in a Fake World

Advertising is the reason

Artist faithie /shutterstock.com

Throughout my life, advertising has supported the things I enjoy. Every cartoon — from Rocko’s Modern Life to Adventure Time to Steven Universe to Rick and Morty — wouldn’t exist were it not for advertising. Music depends less on radio for distribution these days, but until fairly recently, ad-supported radio was a total necessity for discovering music. Even now, with radio falling out of favor, musicians still receive direct support from advertising on platforms like Spotify, and they join a large pool of creative people who rely on YouTube to do the same. In other words, without advertising, it would be much harder for the things I love to exist.

But in recent years, it’s taken more effort to distinguish where advertising stops and reality begins.

In many ways, ads are reflective of a world attempting to hide its problems from itself. This is true both in the way they portray imperfect products and in their silencing effect on the platforms that shape the way we see things — platforms that rely on ad dollars to survive. The result is a sanitized, “ad-friendly” world, one that conceals injustices and real issues to evoke a false, temporary state of comfort.

Is the world we exist in — a world in which products and services are seemingly gifted to us by short, perfect vignettes we might even relate to on some level — the real world? Advertising is present in the vast majority of our media. It’s so normal that pointing out problems with ads is sometimes met with annoyance or even argument. On one of my YouTube series, Adversaries, we’ve received more than a few hostile comments because we’re “critiquing something that doesn’t even matter, which is kind of a weird thing to get angry about.”

This is a beehive I’ll probably smack again and again. This matters to me.

We’ve grown up feeling that we are individuals. We are perhaps the generation most free to be who we feel we are. But in some ways, our identity is just being defined by a new, powerful outside force. Understanding this means unlocking truth about what what I like to call “cultivated identity.” This isn’t just my opinion: There are numerous texts and studies on it. When it comes to who we are, we’ve become convinced it’s what we consume that matters.

As individuals, we’re all leaders. We make our own decisions, and we get what we want — sort of. But how do we know what we want? It’s often advertising that tells us.

If information is power, I’d assert the application of that power is in the distribution of information. We have seen an increase of this in the past year — with “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and other practices I’d simply summarize as “reality manipulation” — but this phenomenon has been present as long as any of us have been alive.

Advertising controls the distribution of information in the way it selectively withholds certain information. An ad presents you with the prettiest version of a product, service, or lifestyle, one that’s just believable enough to avoid scrutiny. But let’s be honest: McDonald’s hamburgers don’t look like that.

Imagine you’ve never had a McDonald’s hamburger before. The commercials really do make their food look appealing, and you might be inclined to try it. But once you’ve paid for the burger, it doesn’t matter to McDonald’s what that burger looks like — the company has accomplished the thing it was hoping to accomplish. The burger doesn’t have to be amazing. It just has to be good enough for you to maybe get another one sometime.

If the goal is getting the money and the possibility of retention, the only real obstacle for brands is scrutiny. Scrutiny starts as an act of the individual thinking critically and can grow into a group​ of people with similar observations repeating their criticisms to each other, their words always finding new ears, infecting them with aversion to the product in question.

To inoculate themselves from this criticism, brands try to control the information put out about them to make sure the narrative remains positive.

Cable news, for instance, is happy to air commercials for a slew of nutritional supplements they don’t generally report on. They don’t talk about the fact that the FDA has never regulated supplements. The most recent legislation passed regarding this, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, ensures this, but if you only watch cable news, you’d never know that lobbyists are the reason that law was passed, or that Senator Orin Hatch — who has close connections to lobbying firms from the industry — has been instrumental in defending this act .

This is one obvious example, but the effects of advertising can also be more subtle. Think of it this way: To continue earning ad money, networks have to encourage viewers not to scrutinize advertising. The best way to do this by discouraging us from thinking that scrutiny is necessary. I believe they accomplish this by giving people the comfort of perpetually feeling​ correct, which means catering to a specific demographic and reinforcing all of that group’s biases. The end result is a person who feels like the channel “gets them” and trusts the network not to show ads that would harm their viewers.

This brings us back to YouTube.

If you’re a fan of a content creator who regularly publishes their material on YouTube, you may have heard about the “adpocalypse,” a recent dilemma YouTube found itself in after advertisers became squeamish about user-generated content and began spending less on the site. The end result has been a big overstep: YouTube stepped up its catering to ad buyers and the companies they work for by creating a new filtering system and other tools that keep ads off any uncomfortable content. This means blocking ads from racist content, sure, but it also means that ads are being kept off videos from creators who are talking about current events or other taboo topics — like suicide or criticism of military action on the part of the U.S. government.

I am one of these people. I’ve had a channel on YouTube since 2006. I made cartoons, moved into sketch comedy and song parodies, and now make documentaries and daily current events analysis. My topics have always been centered on the less pleasant things in the world, and though my philosophy has evolved over the years, I think this category of content is vital. I don’t intend to stop anytime soon, but you can’t make money with ads anymore. Since these incidents, my revenue is around 30 percent of what it once was — and it hasn’t been much lately anyway since corporate media companies have moved in.

Saying “bombs” is not “ad friendly.” That is to say, if “bombs” is in the title or the content of the video, the video will immediately or eventually be “demonetized.” One can ask for the video to be reviewed, and most of the time after a review, the video becomes monetized again, but it will be categorized according to what it mentions. When companies are purchasing advertising, they can choose categories they do not wish their ads to run next to. This can mean hateful content (as well it should), but it can also mean uncomfortable content — anything that isn’t showing you an ideal world to consume in.

If just bringing up the bombing of other countries (something actually happening that people do not talk about enough) is too uncomfortable to run advertising against, brands and the platforms that profit from them are essentially telling content creators, “Do not put your labor toward this, because it will not be paid labor.” Though it’s fun to make videos, it’s also labor. And though many creators, myself included, will continue to talk about this kind of stuff regardless of whether they get paid for it, this model still discourages this kind of content. It’s like saying, “You’re not supposed to do this.”

This shift has several outcomes:

  • It designates what kind of company can bring up and talk about “the bad stuff.” Predictably, this privilege is mostly given to TV networks owned by huge media companies. This kind of media is much more predictable than an individual uploading content that goes out to users without oversight. Putting the issue out through a corporate lens will often scrub it of things advertisers find objectionable, as well as provide a predictable audience that doesn’t really have a means to participate in a direct backlash — after all, TV has no comments section.
  • It incentivizes lifestyle content. On TV, that means HGTV or TLC. On YouTube it means gaming content, makeup tutorials, family vlogs, unboxing and monthly subscription box openings, affiliate links, and so on. One is asked to upload content based around products and the lifestyles they revolve around. This is content that encourages consumption.

If you’re comfy, happy, and not averse to publishing consumption-driven content, lucky you: You’re ad friendly. If you mention uncomfortable reality, you’re not, at least on some level.

That’s not to say advertisers should be forced to run their ads on content talking about how kids were killed in a chemical attack somewhere. I get why killing kids is not ad-friendly material. I’m not obtuse. However, the very idea of ad friendliness exposes the central flaw in capitalism: The reality that is profitable is your reality.

Shaping your individual reality (as opposed to one we all experience) by controlling which content gets in — ensuring that it drives consumption — serves to keep us separated from a more collective reality.

I’ve always disliked the term “sheeple.” I believe people are making rational, intelligent decisions in a controlled environment. I also believe that when we’re alone with our thoughts, navigating our dreamscapes, digesting the information that we are constantly barraged with—I think we all feel some dread.

There’s an inherent contradiction between the massive overload of promotional content and the deep, serious things bubbling beneath the surface. The 24-hour news cycle is now essentially populated with political gossip and horse-race scenarios — with constant breaks to sell you medicine for constipation or other medical ails. From time to time, someone does or says something that breaks through the veneer, necessitating acknowledgement of the most recent atrocity that’s happened in some country we’re all supposed to forget exists, and we get footage of dead kids to watch while we eat our microwave dinners. But generally, we’re all given something packaged specifically to make the demographic the show is intended for comfortable.

For me, lately, advertising’s slick, curated messaging seems to be having the opposite of its intended effect. The more I see the flawless world, the less I believe it. It’s as if during every commercial, someone is shouting in the background, “There’s a horrible war over oil going on right fucking now!” or, “This product was made with slave labor!”

My brain sees this pretend world and reacts by calling up a thought that amounts to “people die so you can have this meaningless shit!”

The world has provided a context that continues to nurture an existential dread within me. Every time I see a representation of a perfect American life, something telling me that things will be great if only I get this product or go to this place for a day, I’m reminded that I’m meant to think that this is the full extent of the world. I’m meant to ignore so much terror in favor of the prepackaged, colorful world Old Navy created in the first years of this millennium.

I know I’m not alone when I say this: I can’t anymore.