The Ad Culture and Its Opponents
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: [November 17th, 2002]

There is no more doubt that advertisement has changed our daily landscape. Everywhere we look and read, we get saturated with ads competing for attention, sometimes on different mediums. That much is obvious. Where there is disagreement is on how good it is.

“Someone who accepts readily the beliefs of the people and the media surrounding him, will be more likely to 'buy' into marketing rhetoric.”

Ads have a singular advantage, in that they make advertisers pay instead of consumers. In essence, the advertiser becomes the consumer in an indirect way. This relieves the consumer of part of all the burden of paying for the product. An extreme example of this would be most television channels. While television advertisements are annoying as a general principle, not everyone wants to pay instead.

The opponents of the "ad culture", "anti-ad activists" we might say, would rather fight against this tendency. But we have to actually be convinced that it's worth being a bit poorer for their cause. There are usually three arguments used to accomplish such a task :

  1. Anti-corporatism. Some ads may be considered to be fraudulent, and it can also be argued that advertising gives too much power to corporations in terms of how to manage a given product. This argument has some merits. However, it is usually assumed that claims of fraud of power must be taken as gospel. Anti-ad activists must demonstrate such problems on a case-by-case basis before we can grant them credibility.
  2. Culture jamming and anti-consumerism. One may propose that ads are distorting the culture towards material needs. It is uncertain why this is a bad thing. While consumerism does damage some people's situations in the long run, surely fulfilling material needs is not bad as a general rule. Once again, it must be demonstrated that specific problems are inherent to the consumption of certain goods.
  3. Control of the public. The nature of advertising is to change minds. This always carries with it certain risks of memetic conditioning. As such, it may seem like a danger to free will and social cohesion in general.

This last point is more complex than it seems. Indeed, it brings into light the whole science of memetics - what makes some memes convincing and others unsuccessful. Superficially, it may seem that there is no place for free will in the equation. But this is not true : the mind is always active in processing information from the senses and past information, and we cannot arrive at a proper understanding without this fact.

The proper question, I propose, should not be "should we let ads continue to control us ?", but rather "what makes people suggestible, and some not ?". I would say that this is in no small part due to one's epistemic beliefs. Someone who accepts readily the beliefs of the people and the media surrounding him, will be more likely to "buy" into marketing rhetoric. Someone who is more rational would be more likely to see advertising information thru a more objective light.

Ads exist because they profit, and they profit because people buy their premises. Yet they do not provide much information, but rather concentrate on the superficial. Why this situation exists is a psychological and memetic question, not a social question.

Case in point : banner ads. We all thought it was the solution. That the Internet was going to stay free forever. We now know that just ain't so. The Internet is just not as passive, and people quickly adapted to banners. According to Jakob Nielsen, clickthrough rates plunged below 1% around 1998, and are now slushing around the low decimals.

There are solutions to this problem, like focused banners, text ads, or micropayments, but that's another issue altogether. What is relevant is what the Internet is now becoming - a proliferation of pop-up ads and spyware. This is the kind of situation where the issue of advertisement does become social, even political.

There are three kinds of problematic Internet ads : spam, spyware and other hidden programs, and popups.

The issue of popups, I realize, is controversial, because it gets to the heart of what consent means on the Internet. A question to the effect of, "when I go on a site, what do I implicitly consent to and not consent to ?". As in, we obviously consent to having text and pictures displayed on our screen, but not to have our hard drive deleted. And the question is whenever popup ads belong to the first or the second category. That is a question worthy of its own article.

Spam and spyware are more of an issue of bandwidth and privacy, respectively. It may seem that "spam doesn't cost anything", but that is not true : it costs a whole lot of bandwidth. Lots and lots of bandwidth. That's why you have basically the entire Internet hierarchy (as far as there is one, anyway) fighting against it. And as for spyware, well, it's just wrong to have people install programs on your computer without your consent.

So my point is not that there are no social issues at all related to the "ad culture". Rather, like any other factor in a free society, it must be based on mutual respect, and an understanding of the human mind. Without these concessions, we will be forever caught between predatory marketing and anti-consumer activists.

Further Research

  • Guardian: Ad Nauseam
  • AlterNet: Slamming Ad Culture
  • Google: Society: Activism: Media: Culture Jamming

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