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I don’t like advertising.

I resent the exorbitant amounts of money that are spent to convince people to buy things that, in all likelihood, they probably don’t need. I resent the pathetically transparent appeals to human pride and vanity that accompany most commercials, and I resent the level of intelligence that most advertisements implicitly assume of their audiences—as if I am really expected to believe, for example, that shaving with four blades (or is it five now? I can never keep track of how close a shave I ought to be demanding from the manufacturer of my grooming products…) will transform me into a ravishingly handsome fighter pilot, barely able to fend off the hordes of gorgeous women who will inevitably be lured my way by the extra micro-millimeter of hair that I have managed, with the benefit of “fusion” technology, to harvest from my face.

From an ethical perspective, I find a good deal of advertising troubling because its explicit goal is to convince people who quite likely already possess too much stuff, to buy even more. The economy must keep growing, and if people don’t continually buy more than we need, our “whole way of life” might be in jeopardy. Perhaps even more troubling is the apparent belief by those in charge of selling us things, is that we ought to expect or even embrace this proliferation of advertising as a normal, healthy sign of progress in a high-tech society such as ours. This is the perspective I came away with after reading this disturbing article (in my view) from Monday’s New York Times.

The article discusses, in a very matter-of-fact almost affirmative manner, what we can expect in the not-too-distant future from the world of advertising given the latest corporate amalgamation:

The plan is to build a global digital ad network that uses offshore labor to create thousands of versions of ads. Then, using data about consumers and computer algorithms, the network will decide which advertising message to show at which moment to every person who turns on a computer, cellphone or—eventually—a television.

More simply put, the goal is to transform advertising from mass messages and 30-second commercials that people chat about around the water cooler into personalized messages for each potential customer.

Personally, I’m a little disconcerted by the knowledge that right now, as I write these words, there are legions of advertising consultants poring over the details of my online activity, spending habits, and who knows what else with the expressed purpose of selling me more stuff. I realize that this kind of thing goes on already, and I know that I am already far from a gloriously unfettered consumer, and that I probably contribute to the efficiency of this whole absurd system in more ways than I can even imagine…

But still, when you actually stop to think about it, doesn’t it all seem just a little bit stupid? Even immoral? All around the world, people struggle without some of the most basic things that we (I) take for granted, and our society still finds it perfectly acceptable—even obligatory—to spend disgusting amounts of money devising ever-more impressive and efficient techniques to sell more things to people who already, in all likelihood, have more than they need. And this is held up as a sign of progress—something we ought to expect as our technological expertise grows. Far from being presented as a regrettable but necessary evil that we should just grit our teeth and put up with, this future personalized advertising is actually claimed to be a service—and one for which we ought, apparently, to be grateful:

Digitas executives say that consumers end up with a better experience—even a service—if the ads they are shown are relevant and new.

Well that’s good. As long as my “personalized” advertising, designed to appear in my face the “moment I turn on a computer, cell-phone, or television,” is “relevant and new.” As long as I have a “better experience.”

You know, I was just thinking…. Five blades really isn’t going to cut it for me anymore. I’m going to need at least six or seven (What would one call that? If four blades = “quattro,” maybe a “hexo” or a “hepta?” But the one with five blades is called “fusion” which has no obvious numerical designation…. Hmm, well not to worry—someone is undoubtedly hard at work on this vexing matter right now). I look forward to the (personalized!) delights that the advertising gurus are currently labouring to bring to a screen near me.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reminds me of the movie Minority Report. Have you seen it? It has the personalized advertizing you mentioned.

    August 9, 2007
  2. Yes, I’ve seen the movie. I remember thinking it was disturbing then and taking comfort in the fact that it was only a movie…


    August 9, 2007
  3. There is a stat, that says, ‘The wealthiest fifth of the world’s people consume 86% of all goods and services; while the poorest fifth consume only 1%.
    I found your blog, through a blog, through a blog…thought provoking writing…thanks.

    August 10, 2007
  4. I’ve come across statistics like this as well – they are depressing indeed. Kind of puts an exclamation point on the morally problematic nature of the enterprise of advertising to the wealthy (although complaining about advertising hardly seems to scratch the surface of what an appropriate response might be…)

    (Thanks for the kind words, by the way.)

    August 10, 2007
  5. jc #

    for the record i have a gillette fusion myself. it works quite well. while i don’t think it will turn me into a fighter pilot, it does give me a good shave. since i am one of those guys who gets five o’clock shadows, i appreciate a good shave. i fail to see how the above statistic points to anything morally problematic about advertising. while the amount of charity given to africa over the last 40 years has not raised standard of living there, reducing taxes and increasing trade between countries has been correlated to a better standard of living. it would seem to me it would be more beneficial to start looking for ways to expand trade in those poor countries and encourage more free economies there would be better use of time.

    August 13, 2007
  6. Well, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone a good shave! I’ve always found the “razor wars” to be very strange and almost comical – that was the main reason I used the example in the post…

    Re: the statistics. Assuming that you think that the reality described by the statistic is morally problematic (which I do), I would argue that the advertising industry, which is directed primarily to the wealthy (at least on a global scale) and is geared toward making sure that these people continue or increase the spending habits which contribute to this imbalance, is implicated in maintaining or exacerbating an unjust situation.

    I don’t doubt that better trade policies would be more effective than continuing to pour aid money into Africa, but I’m far from convinced that “raising” the rest of the planet to North American consumption levels is what we ought to be aiming for. I certainly think that in some cases this needs to happen, but in others I think that we ought to be going in the other direction.

    I’m not an economist by any means, but from a theological perspective reducing people to units of consumption (as the advertising industry most certainly does) is troubling. No matter how much “sense” it might make economically, any system that depends on over-consumption for its continued existence is morally problematic, from my perspective. I suppose that I see the ridiculous lengths that advertisers go to as a symptom of the disease, rather than the disease itself.

    August 13, 2007
  7. jc #

    What is your definition of over-consumption? Should we ought to be setting laws against whatever goes beyond this definition? How is it you plan to go in the other direction.

    I disagree we need to go in the other direction. I am more inclined to get poorer parts of the world to come in our direction. But I am interested in hearing how you would approach trying to solve your perceived problem.

    August 13, 2007
  8. I don’t think that we ought to be legislating defined levels of consumption – people ought to be convinced for moral reasons or even for utilitarian ones that the planet can’t sustain 6 billion people consuming at the level of the average North American.

    Re: going in the other direction. As I alluded to in my previous comment, I’m not advocating relinquishing all of the advantages that accompany democratic capitalism. But I think that developing countries should incorporate these benefits wisely and critically. For example, the rampant consumerism and obsession with trivial entertainment is something that I think the developing world could do without (as could we!). And I think we could learn from other countries how to make do with (and be happy with!) less; how to be defined by more significant things than the products we buy (which is what the advertisers would have us believe).

    I’m not sure how to interpret your designation of this as my “perceived problem.” Do you not think that there is anything morally problematic about the statistics cited by Lyla? Do you think that the planet could (or should) sustain everyone consuming at the level of the average North American? Do you think that the excess of the advertising industry (Ron Sider has pointed out that in the USA, more money is spent annually on advertising than education) is a perfectly normal and acceptable component of the Western way of life?

    August 13, 2007
  9. jc #

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with people buying products that they believe will provide them with a means of obtaining happiness. I don’t have a problem with the makers of these products advertising, providing its not fraudulent, their wares as a means to this happiness. If a person was to indulge in a little escapism by watching the latest Bourne movie then I don’t think there is anything immoral about that. If the companies have to spend more than the country spends on education to sell there ways I don’t know that they are doing anything immoral. I am not sure if there is a moral ratio of dollars spent on advertising to dollars spent on education that is optimal. I think the Earth could sustain quite a bit more people living a North American lifestyle. I don’t really believe that[according to the statistic] fact that the rich fifth of the world’s people consuming that percentage of the worlds goods and services inhibits the poorest fifth from consuming those goods and services. I suspect the reason they are not consuming at a higher rate is, as I have alluded to, due to some sort of lack of free trade and rule of law.

    I am still wondering what you consider over-consumption. Is it purchasing anything beyond what one needs for basic survival? Is it purchasing an 8 cylinder car when you could make due with a 4 cylinder? What sort of purchases does a reasonably consumptive person make as opposed to an over-consumptive person make?

    Anyways my two cents, so far.

    August 16, 2007
  10. I don’t have a specific definition of over-consumption – I suppose it’s a subjective thing, in some ways. Perhaps economists have ways of measuring these things, but I don’t know what they are. My sense that we are an over-consuming nation/culture is more of a general one, I guess. The phenomenon of “recreational shopping” strikes me as one obvious case where consumption has gone overboard, and advertising presents this not only as acceptable, but normal and even worthy of emulation. Happiness is presented as just another product (or twenty) away.

    My problem is with a culture that presents “things” as the means of attaining happiness. It’s a cultural mindset, and one that I think is problematic. I just read an interview where Miroslav Volf calls it the “Hilton-ization of culture,” by which he means a “kind of fleeting life of self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure.” I think I would agree.

    I disagree that the cut-off line re: the morality of advertising is whether or not they are making fraudulent claims. Fundamentally, advertisers are attempting to manufacture desire. Often this is done by making people feel incomplete and inadequate (this is especially the case with young women, but I think it’s more widely applicable as well). Once this is done, various products are presented as the means of unlocking untold realms of happiness. From my perspective, advertisers present a deficient (and unbiblical) view of what it means to be a human being, and the products they are selling cannot possibly deliver on what they implicitly promise.

    I don’t think we should be recommending that people draw the line at bare subsistence, and I certainly don’t think that people shouldn’t be able to enjoy themselves or buy things that make life more enjoyable. I spend a lot of money on books and music, after all – maybe I’m being hypocritical in looking down on someone who prefers clothing or some other thing…

    One more thing – I remain convinced that it is morally problematic to spend more money on advertising than education. Maybe I’m being simplistic here, but the message to the average citizen seems to be, “It’s more important that you become a good consumer of products and a contributor to the economy than a good thinker.” I find this kind of a message troubling.

    (sorry about the length… again)

    August 17, 2007

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