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Advertising has been a fixture of humanity since the beginning of civilization. Ancient Babylonian texts describe criers, who would shout at passersby about new goods, and crude illustrations that functioned as storefront billboards. Over the millennia, advertising has evolved along with the invention of new technologies: from the printing press to radio to television to the internet and into the new frontiers of experiential advertising, social media influencer marketing, and future digital billboards of augmented reality. Despite dramatic changes in the form, the basic premise of advertising has remained unchanged—strangers with an agenda attempt to co-opt your attention and guide your thoughts.
But technology has fundamentally changed the extent to which we experience advertising. Empowered by technology’s inexorable expansion into every facet of our lives, modern advertising has become so ubiquitous that it is unavoidable. Every new technology has advertising potential, and the brands of our brave new world hate nothing more than wasted potential.
Ancient Babylonian society surely had its own problems, but I bet the market criers didn’t follow citizens home or chase them on their morning jog barking about the best deals at Balthazar’s Bazaar. I suspect it was possible to go several hours (maybe even days!) without seeing an advertisement. Today though, advertisers give no quarter.
If you turn on the radio, the call to consume will vibrate your eardrums in minutes. Open a newspaper (or its website) and a host of spending summonses will wiggle the rods and cones in your eyes. Step outside and you’re sure to see billboards, posters, and teenagers being paid minimum wage to dexterously toss, flip, and spin a giant arrow that will occasionally point in the direction of the closest pizza chain or cellphone shop. Maybe you even commute inside a vessel of corporate propaganda:
In addition to the superliminal advertising the artist Banksy once compared to a “rock thrown at your head,” modern advertising can also be subliminal. A gentle whisper that lulls you to sleep rather than an unignorable BOOM accompanied by flashing lights. As we traverse the advertising spectrum from unignorable to subliminal, we pass through radio show and podcast underwriting (“This show is brought to you by…”) to branded micro-podcasts, such as The Road to Hired by ZipRecruiter, that have replaced or augmented traditional underwriting in some shows.
If you started 30 seconds into one of these micro-podcasts, you might not even know you were listening to an ad until the end. There are elements of storytelling, interviews, and an overall high production value. It doesn’t demand your attention, it attempts to seduce you by mimicking the format it appears in. It’s a camouflaged predator waiting to strike.
Even subtler is product placement, the planned and paid-for appearance of specific products in movies and TV shows. It’s a form of advertising that’s still acceptable even in an “ad-free” space like Netflix. Characters drink a particular whiskey, play a particular video game, or use a particular perfume. Is the plot point an ad or is the ad a plot point? Who’s to say? Jessica Jones has to drink, alcoholism is central to her character; she might as well get paid to ensure the label faces the screen.
In an era where headlines are dominated by allegations of fake news, advertisers seem happy to fan the flames.
And then there’s “content marketing,” a strategy where companies produce articles or videos with the primary purpose of driving sales, or web traffic, or [insert business goal]—without appearing to be an advertisement. It’s a truly sublime form of advertising where the product itself is an advertisement for yet another product. A company blog is the prime example of content marketing. The blog isn’t a core product, but a good post can create better brand awareness, especially if it goes viral.
Content advertising’s cousin “native advertising” turns the dial just a bit further. In this format, sponsored content appears in the same “native” format. Instead of a blog post on the company blog, a company writes a blog post that appears in a newspaper. A University of Georgia study found only one in 10 people could identify an example of this native advertising content as sponsored content. In an era where headlines are dominated by allegations of fake news, advertisers seem happy to fan the flames.
Finally, all the way down subliminal lane, we find ourselves at “influencer marketing,” where your friends become advertisements themselves. Influencer marketing is essentially real-life product placement. “Real” people post “authentic” content and are compensated when that totally genuine selfie includes a particular bottle of champagne or happens to be in front of a particular hotel.
Marketers reach out to specific social media personalities and offer free services or cash for promotional posts. But they’re also hard at work manufacturing “Instagramable” experiences, such as Kimpton’s Room 301, a room in a boutique hotel where guests are explicitly encouraged to tweet, ‘gram, and otherwise share their experiences. Don’t forget to #Kimpton.
It’s even better than a product that is simultaneously an advertisement: It’s a product that causes clients to create more advertisements for free. Better yet, some of the less famous customers are paying for the pleasure of creating free advertisements. “Instagram factories” that harness the power of narcissism are appearing everywhere from museums to random pop-ups to custom installations on trade show floors.
Advertising is so ubiquitous we hardly notice the impact it’s having.
To steal a bit of wisdom from writer David Foster Wallace, advertising is water. Being surrounded completely and utterly by advertising is the default state for much of modern humanity, the same way being utterly surrounded by water is the default state for fish. Advertising is so ubiquitous we hardly notice the impact it’s having, but it isn’t benign.
Advertising relentlessly challenges our ability to choose what to think about. Whether by hiding in plain sight, hypnotizing us with soothing sounds and calming beach imagery, or bombarding us with unignorable sirens and flashing lights, advertisements are constantly demanding our attention and, therefore, guiding our thoughts.
Christopher Lasch wrote, in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, that advertising “manufactures a product of its own: the consumer, perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious, and bored. Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life.”
In his 2013 book Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, Michael Schudson argued that we are being driven toward a consumer culture…
…in which human values have been grotesquely distorted so that commodities become not ends in themselves but overvalued means for acquiring acceptable ends like love and friendship … [for some] there is no longer an obsessive striving after things but a mindless indulgence in them, and the problem is not so much the quest for [consumer goods] but the assumption that all values inhere in or grow out of these objects. In this image of consumer culture, narcissism runs wild, the unguilty desire for objects and experiences to “pleasure” oneself runs free.
It is hard to imagine a more apt expression of a narcissistic consumer society than the Instagram model phenomenon. But Lasch’s book cuts to a more important idea. The ubiquity of advertising creates a restless and unsatisfied population—one that believes satisfaction will be found in little more than a plane ticket, a bottle of champagne, or the latest smartphone. All too often we discover that when the trip is over, the bottle empty, and the next smartphone announced, our dissatisfaction returns and the vicious cycle repeats itself. This mindless indulgence is water; through the force of the advertising behemoths, satisfaction through consumption has become our unexamined default state.
The fundamental offering of social media enables and encourages our worst narcissistic tendencies.
With evidence mounting that social media use is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, it seems obvious that advertising plays into that equation. Surely, the fundamental offering of social media—shout into the abyss of the internet in exchange for validation through likes and shares—enables and encourages our worst narcissistic tendencies. It preys on our innate vulnerabilities and insecurities. The whole format forces us to compare our real life to the highlight reels of our friends and family. And advertisers turn that ethos all the way up to 11.
As Banksy put it,
…[advertisers] 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.
Gently nestled in between joyous vacation snapshots and engagement announcements are the subtly suggested cures to your feelings of inadequacy: Buy an even bigger ring for your soon-to-be-fiancé. Visit a luxury resort. Purchase a new razor.
They Live in the Information Age
The 1988 sci-fi horror film They Live tells the story of George Nada, an everyman who discovers a pair of glasses that lets him see the world the way it truly is. Through the lenses, Nada sees the bigger picture made plain. He also sees the true shape of Earth’s leaders: an alien race puppeteering our institutions, elections, and daily lives through an omnipresent subliminal messaging campaign orchestrated through media and advertising.
The movie is based on the 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, and both works insightfully describe a society where advertising is water. Where the rich and powerful carefully control mainstream narratives. Where society as a whole is guided through both subtle manipulation and overt social control. One of the more striking features of the film is its depiction of advertising through the lenses of the reality glasses.
Both the 1963 story and the 1988 film depict bombastic, in-your-face-all-the-time advertising as subliminal messages from an alien race to consume, conform, worship, reproduce, stay asleep, and obey. They ultimately ask the audience to “wake up” and see the world for what it really is, to see who really benefits from our collective hyperconsumption.
While clearly, advertising and media have been the subject of criticism for quite some time, the information age has brought some genuinely new and troubling innovations. The unholy union of near-constant surveillance and algorithmic microtargeting from corporations and governments has thickened the water. By constantly collecting data—often through surreptitious mechanisms, such as tracking cookies and offline data sales—advertisers are able to slip their messaging in between pictures of our friends and family, disguise it as genuine content, and increasingly tailor the ads to our individual habits and interests.
This tracking (and probably a little luck) is how an advertisement for Freshly (one of several meal delivery services) came to be tucked in between the pictures my wife took of her last two meals in my Facebook feed. Freshly, with the help of Facebook and big data, is begging me to think, “See how much your wife loves food? Doesn’t she deserve a hot meal worthy of a picture every night?” The advertisement is complete with options to like, comment, or share, so that I can become part of the advertising machine or provide feedback to Facebook’s advertising algorithms. Only a faded gray “sponsored” label indicates this was paid content, rather than a suggestion from a friend.
On Google, a company and brand so well trusted their name has become synonymous with “look it up,” advertisements frequently appear at the top of the results page. These too are based on what Google knows about you and your browsing history (which is a lot). A subtle boxed “ad” label is the only indication that this first link is paid for, rather than a result that Google’s search algorithm thinks you’ll find useful based on its content.
Not so long ago, that subtle green box was yellow, bold, and solid instead of being an outline that blends in neatly with the URL. Before that, ads appeared entirely inside a box with a different background color. In even earlier versions of Google, ads appeared off to the side, separate from the regular search results.
The continued blending and obfuscation of what is or is not advertisement has reached critical mass. Government agents deploy massive botnets masquerading as “real people” to spread propaganda and disinformation. Corporate entities use their marketing department to simulate grassroots activism in a phenomenon called astroturfing. Just like advertisements, propaganda appears ever so subtly between (or as) the pictures and posts of your friends and loved ones, lulling you into a false sense of authenticity.
I have no doubt that advertising will continue to play a powerful role in modern society. As former Facebook executive and venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya has cogently described, major advertising platforms are at the center of the modern Ponzi scheme that is venture capital. Palihapitiya argues that the constant purchase of unprofitable growth is absolutely central to a business model that most venture capital funds push onto their portfolio companies:
Almost 40 cents of every venture dollar goes right back into the hands of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. That’s there to fund your superficial growth. Just because the VC gives you a million bucks and tells you to grow faster do you have better product market fit in that moment? No. Then what do [the VCs] do? They turn around to their buddies and say: you should do the [next round of funding]. So they do, they mark it up 4x or 5x and fund A, their returns look genus—it’s all on paper—but it looks amazing. Fund B comes into the board meeting now and says, “How fast are you growing? … You need to grow faster.” Do you have better product market fit in that moment? No.
And so on and so on. Startups are pressured to grow by their board and, to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to investors, they pump money back into the advertising industry. This is one of the many ways our media feeds become clogged with products and services that people barely want or need. It’s also one reason so many VC-backed companies ultimately fail. The advertising business is central to the (artificial) hypergrowth model pushed on startups by their investors.
The advertising industry won’t collapse, but like George Nada in They Live, we can wake up. As David Foster Wallace suggests, we can choose to resist our default state of consumerist dissatisfaction. As advertisers continue the inevitable expansion into every new space—whether it’s augmented reality, an advertising blockchain, or (in a far future version of hell) direct brain-to-brain ads—we can choose to recognize that these products and services constantly begging us for attention are not (by and large) created with our best interests at heart. They are pushed on us to enrich the fat cats of this modern gilded age.