I hate advertisements

October 25th, 2009

I consider being straightforward about what an ad’s intention is to be the foundation of basic decency in advertising. Anything less is predatory. Modern advertising is based on being fun and obfuscating who’s paying for it.

I have a certain respect for an advertisement that says, essentially, buy this product. Those that try to act like they’re just a fun game or PSA created selflessly for public good when their true intention is to manipulate your feelings for profit are truly offensive.

I know a lot of people “ignore” ads, but I don’t believe it’s as effective as they like to think. First off, you have to see something, and process enough of it to recognize that it is something to ignore. That is plenty of time to see a logo or get the gist of what it’s trying to sell you.

It’s said that the purpose of advertising is not so much to sell you on a particular product as it is to build brand awareness so that when you realize one day you need new shoes, the first thing you think is of a specific brand or store. If this is true – and I believe it is for at least some advertisements – then by the time someone has decided to “ignore” it, they’ve already absorbed enough information to accomplish the advertiser’s goal.

Everything on the Internet these days is ad-supported, and many sites are data-mining supported: by visiting, you either give them data about yourself, either implicitly by visiting the web site, or explicitly by entering your name, e-mail address or other information, identifying or not. This data can then be sold back to advertisers to let them know how effective their advertisements are. When a web site takes on advertisements, they’re effectively selling access to their visitors’ eyeballs. You, as a visitor, pay for a site by yielding your headspace to them.

While I have a special hatred for Internet advertising because of its privacy implications and the practice of selling data, I don’t have a problem with a person agreeing to yield their headspace in exchange for a free e-mail account or entertainment. The user has given their consent to be advertised to. A person walking past a bus stop, selecting produce or using a urinal has not entered into such an agreement.

Revently, the FTC declared that bloggers “must disclose the receipt of free merchandise or payment for the items they write about.”

I am unpleasantly surprised by how many voices on the Internet are expressing severe butthurt over these rules. I’m not at all surprised by advertisers’ butthurt, but I do hope companies that feel this way will identify themselves clearly so I can avoid doing business with them.

Noting the new guidelines have created a “firestorm of controversy within the ad-supported interactive-media industry,” Interactive Advertising Bureau President Randall Rothenberg suggested the FTC rescind the new guidelines.

What a great suggestion! I bet the CEO of Chrysler or GM wishes he’d thought to suggest to the EPA a loosening of environmental restrictions. I welcome this firestorm: Based on their own description, “the ad-supported interactive-media industry” seems to be based primarily on deceiving consumers. I would love nothing more than to watch it crash and burn.

Many sources have pointed out, accurately, that these rules are unfair because who write reviews in print media don’t need to declare their alliances. I don’t see why we can’t rectify this by imposing these rules on more traditional media as well. Advertisements are often embedded right in a TV show or movie, and unlike a commercial break, many viewers may not even realize they’ve seen an advertisement. There’s no reason radio time purchased to play songs alongside unpaid content should be exempt. If it makes sense for the FTC to impose rules about full-disclosure for product placement in a blog post, there’s no reason it shouldn’t also carry over to any other instance of product placement.

I rather doubt that will happen, in part because I suspect that advertising and media are already so intertwined it’s difficult to draw a line between them. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no “unpaid content” on the radio, or, instead of movies where advertisements are snuck into the plot, movies are advertisements with a plot tacked on as an afterthought. Increasing amounts of advertisements feed the need to compete for consumers’ attention, which in turn feeds the need for more intrusive advertisements.

I don’t have an alternative for how a business should let potential customers know about their offerings. The need goes both ways: People in capitalist societies need to know where to purchase necessities as much as businesses need to sell them. I’d like to see consumers and businesses (which are made of of consumers) work together to bring about a mutually agreeable solution that doesn’t involve intrusive advertising or lies.

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