This started at a train station.
I was watching ads play on a gigantic TV built into the walls of the train line. I didn’t think about it at first, but then I realized what I wasn’t thinking about. It felt like I’d been put to sleep.
When I started thinking about that, I realized it was a deliberate decision someone else had made, that I was supposed to feel like that. Which got me thinking, and the more I thought about how deliberate that feeling was, the angrier I got. First I was disgusted about what was being done to me. Then, horrified when I realized the scale of the problem.
It wasn’t what was being advertised - I don’t even remember. It was the realization of what it meant that I was being advertised to. Someone had figured out that people get bored waiting for trains, and they had a blank wall there. So thousands of dollars were spent on electrifying it, commissioning huge television screens and surround sound speakers for it, because I was a captive audience.
And because of that, they’re never going to put anything more meaningful there. No artwork. No music being played on the speakers. No cartoons or music videos on those big screens. Because any alternative would make the advertising less effective.
It was important that my life was made worse, because all the alternatives were less profitable.
Advertising is an aberration, and one of the greatest cumulative atrocities of the 20th century. That is not hyperbole: It has started wars, been one of the most enthusiastic agents of neocolonialism, and accomplished censorship at a scale that makes Orwell look naive.
Advertising is making your world worse in more ways than I can count, but I’m damned well going to try.
It might seem weird to get this angry about something that’s probably just a bit annoying most of the time. We’re born into a world already filled with advertising, so it’s hard to imagine what the world would look like without it - if you think to imagine that at all.
Trying to think of a world without advertising is like trying to think of what your city would look like without roads. You probably do what I do, and just imagine the empty space where roads would be. It’s too hard to imagine what could fill that space instead - almost impossible to imagine how much would need to change to make your city work without them.
Think about what advertising is, though, and it’s impossible not to realize the tragedy it represents, in time, in treasure, and in human costs. That it shapes our culture like roads shape our cities.
Listen, billions of dollars every year are spent on advertising. A truly absurd amount - The standard ratio of television airtime is 8 minutes of advertising for every 22 minutes of feature, with the ads often more expensive to produce than the shows.
In dollar terms, the amount of money spent on advertising would be enough to end world hunger. Instead of being used to feed the hungry, shelter the unsheltered, that money is being used to pressure you to buy things you didn’t want.
It’s waste in the service of waste.
I know that not everything can be reduced to a utilitarian equation like that - how many people could I have fed with the money I used to buy the laptop I’m writing this on? How many vaccinations and mosquito nets? That’s not the point I’m trying to make though.
Instead, I want you to think of that number as a sense of how much human effort is wasted by the advertising industry in that direct cost. People that could be doing anything else, but instead having to try to sell you something. Think of those dollars spent in terms of wages and working hours.
I know incredibly driven, talented and creative people in advertising. All of them would prefer to be doing other things, but it can’t pay the bills. Some of them take a heavy psychological toll from what they do, because they feel uncomfortable about the implications of their work.
It’s one thing to say that advertising creates an unrealistic standard of beauty, one that causes a lot of harm. It’s another thing to be the Photoshop artist who airbrushes the smiles, tightens the waistlines, smooths the skin - they do amazing work, but they can’t be proud of it. It’s hard to be proud of work you think is hurting people. There’s no paid alternative, and they can’t survive doing the kind of work they would be proud of.
Advertising, then, is something made by people who’d rather make something else, for people who don’t want it.
I mean, you don’t enjoy being advertised to, right? You’d never pay to be advertised to. Hell, I’m guessing you’ve probably paid for a subscription that took ads out of another service, or installed an adblocker, or risked piracy to avoid it.
This is because advertising is unique. It’s a product made for consumers who do not want to consume it, and would actually pay to avoid it. What advertisers get paid to do is figure out ways to make you see advertising anyway.
In this way, advertising tries to justify its existence by funding the arts - not just in the artists who make the ads, but also most television, radio and journalism. These are things people want to pay attention to, and advertising can subsidize the costs of making art by purchasing the attention it generates.
This is a parasitic relationship, and the disease that the parasite brings to its host is catastrophic.
When advertising brings money, it doesn’t mean artists are paid more. Instead it means that the end product can be made cheaper, since sales stop being the only way to make a profit.
Advertisers push this, too: A cheaper product means more people getting it, and what advertisers are buying is attention. Google and Facebook have become two of the richest companies in the world by offering free services.
You can see this creating new business models around this idea. This is the business model behind services like Reddit and Tumblr, etc, whose business model is to offer an ad-free service until it can create a large userbase, and then bring ads in later. Their business model is to generate attention - your attention.
Listen: If you aren’t paying for something, then you are the product being sold.
The effects this has are disastrous, because what an advertiser wants, and what the end user wants, are at odds. Most obviously, the end user doesn’t want to be advertised to. But there are less obvious levels too.
Let’s look at a newspaper. When you buy a newspaper, you’re trying to buy informative news. What an advertiser wants is your attention, and it wants that attention to be positive. Again, there’s an obvious effect here, in that the newspaper isn’t going to report negatively on companies that purchase advertising - that’s the more obvious level of influence.
But then we go more subtle, too. When advertisers become the dominant source of income - where a newspaper gets most of their money - then their interests get more priority. The quality of the news changes - it’s more important that your attention is held. What you want from your news becomes less important. You have become the product, not the consumer.
It turns out that substantial investigative journalism is a very cost inefficient way of keeping your attention. The incentive models have changed.
What’s so important about this is that other newspapers can’t compete with advertiser-supported ones. The Sun used to be a brilliant newspaper, its circulation beat out The Economist and The Guardian combined. It was the most trusted newspaper in the UK, it was reliable, it did fantastic reporting, it went bankrupt.
The vast majority of the Sun’s readers were poor. As a result, the Sun was bought by Murdoch press, and made into the Herald Sun, Britain’s worst tabloid.
This is very effective censorship of non-advertising newspapers. But once corporate influence becomes the normal, we see - or rather, don’t see - deeper kinds of censorship become normal and accepted with it.
The Washington Post’s byline is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. Do you think it’s unaffected by the fact that it’s owned by Jeff Bezos? Do you see the conflict of interest that happen when Bezos also wants to accept deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the CIA?
Again, when advertisers get involved, they create situations where not advertising isn’t an option. They try to become the only viable business model. The issue isn’t with any one newspaper’s biases, but that you can’t avoid this influence in any mainstream publication.
It’s not just journalism, either; television and radio are also heavily affected by this. Kids shows popular with all genders get cancelled for being too difficult to sell ad space, which has done a lot of damage - boy stuff has to be only liked by boys, to sell boy toys. Girl stuff has to be only liked by girls, to sell girl stuff. In this way, ‘correct’ gender norms are both created and reinforced at the youngest ages.
This is why shows with strong mixed-gender casts like Teen Titans would get cancelled, but to this day it is hard to find any kids’ Avengers merchandise with Black Widow in it. We don’t know how many amazing shows are lost every year because they can’t support merchandising.
Advertisers support the arts like a noose supports a neck.
So again, advertising is making your life worse. Not only do you not want to deal with it, it poisons a lot of the things that make your life enjoyable in order to force you to deal with it. And alternatives that refuse to advertise get choked out.
I accused it of some pretty extreme stuff though. None of that covers wars or colonialism.
This is where we get to Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays was a student of Freud’s and went; How can we bring psychology into the field of marketing? Eventually, this led to cyberpunk, but it really helps to walk through the middle steps.
See, there’s two ways to interpret ‘makes you want something you wouldn’t otherwise’. The first is a bit more innocuous - it puts an idea in your head. But ‘wouldn’t want’ can also be read more intensely - changing your associations of something you’d dislike.
Bernays really pushed this hard by telling advertisers to associate cigarettes with feminism to exploit a new market. This worked, and ever since, advertising has become more than just ad spots on TV and radio. It’s been an engine to try and get ahead of public opinion on things.
It’s likely it would have happened anyway, but Bernays can really be credited for marketing going down avenues like think tanks and public policy institutes to really push cultural phenomena. He can also be credited with the invention of product placement and celebrity endorsements - that is, tying Hollywood to pushing brands, making sure celebrities were photographed with certain products and not others.
This goes out in two insidious directions, both of which are basically how colonialism gets accomplished these days.
On the public policy end, this includes buying off doctors to say that cigarettes don’t actually cause cancer, or energy firms suppressing global warming stuff coming out before it makes headlines. Advertisers understand that they’re working against your interests when they decide what your interests should be.
Marketing has also been one of the biggest forces for war in the last a hundred years.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘banana republic’–ever wondered where that comes from? In the early 20th century, United Fruit Company - a US conglomerate - was following a blueprint in Central America left for it by the East India trading companies of the previous century.
Let’s look at Guatemala. The company built railroad networks and elaborate company towns, choking out other infrastructure projects and leaving land undeveloped and uncultivated. It blocked the government from building highways, which would weaken its railroad monopolies, and even destroyed a railroad after the company pulled its influence out of the area.
The government said enough is enough. Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán is elected, with the support of labor unions. He had fought bravely just a few years before in the 1944 revolution, and was appointed as defense minister to a government that had won 85% of the vote in fair elections.
The objective of the new government was land and labour reform, reforms that not only hurt United Fruit, but would threaten its role in Central America entirely. These reforms were massively popular.
So United Fruit decided to bring marketers onto the payroll to deal with problems in their chain of supply caused by, uh, local land reforms and revolutions, since a lot of their product was grown on plantations. So United Fruit hired this guy, named Edward Bernays -
Seriously, same guy.
Anyway. Bernays works out he can tie fruit to freedom, and pitch that idea to the public. An intervention in Guatemala meant defending against communism at home.
The US government can then take the support of these private interests – because let’s remember, this is all about the supply chain of a fruit company – and use it as a justification for war to overthrow these countries. Then they can simply replace their elected officials with new governments, chosen by the US, who will be more friendly to both American foreign policy objectives, and to the private interests of a fruit company.
In 1954, Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán is overthrown by forces armed, trained and organized by the CIA, after Bernays had lobbied that Guatemala was trying to join the Soviets. There was no proof of this - there didn’t need to be.
The new CIA installed dictatorship dealt with trade unionists with incredible violence. Of course, the worst of this violence was saved for activists at United Fruits plantations
Guatemala wasn’t the only one. United Fruit was also heavily invested in the sugar industry of Cuba, benefiting heavily from the slave-labour and the fascist government of Batista, which led Castro to declare “We will not become another Guatemala”, shortly before United Fruit financially supported the Bay of Pigs invasion.
‘Banana republics.’ That’s where the name comes from.
The names of the companies have changed, but this is still happening. Right now the biggest think tanks and lobbyists pushing for heavier sanctions on Iran, on pushing for war with Iran, are from the Wonderful Company, and their main goal is to try to maintain a global monopoly on pistachios.
Likewise, Afghanistan soil is perfect for harvesting cotton; one of the only profitable ones. However, the US has used its occupation of the region to suppress their cotton industry because it’d be serious competition, and they want to maintain their monopoly. As a result, many farmers in Afghanistan have been forced to turn to producing opium for terrorists.
This is more broadly a problem of corporate interests rather than advertising specifically. It’s true that marketing agencies often write more detailed drafts for military action than the generals these days, but advertising plays a large role in how you’re made to feel about these wars, and how much you get to know about them.
I cannot stress this enough, news media is shackled to advertiser interests directly and indirectly. The organizations that should be informing us about this have been recruited to be the biggest cheerleaders for these wars, because the companies that profit from these wars are the ones that purchase the advertising that pays for the reporting.
The entire journalistic landscape already changed in the last few years when Facebook lied about statistics about video engagement, because videos were easier to monetize. The industry broadly adapted to this, which meant a massive cut in quality and a massive downsizing of personnel. Journalists simply do not have the ability to resist this kind of influence, as an industry.
But, okay, I mentioned another avenue of colonialism too, and that’s cultural domination. See, advertising - especially since Edward Bernays entered the game - wants to create or reinforce the cultural values that lead to buying more product. Ads themselves are cultural products, too. Heavily pushed ones, with their main objective to be seen, and a lot of money being spent to make sure that they are.
This is both active and reactive. Products like to tie themselves to positive ideas, associate themselves with lifestyles and mindsets. We can see this taken to offensive levels with that Pepsi ad from a few years ago, but it also means that brands have immense power and influence over how new trends emerge, and what cultural values are pushed as desirable.
Which is to say, domestically, a brand that wants to associate itself with an idea of manliness often creates the idea of manliness to tie itself to. Cultural values increasingly get shaped not by any serious introspection on our parts about what values are virtuous or good, but which are the most exploitable.
This isn’t just domestic, though. Advertising is very effective at pushing Western values globally, and in countries that don’t ensure a rich dubbing industry, Western culture itself. Think about KFC leading a marketing campaign so successful that KFC is now the Christmas food of Japan.
Australia’s also a great example for this, because you can actually monitor the weakness of the Australian accent - the Americanization of it - over the last thirty years, since a law that mandated US ads had to be redubbed with Australian actors was changed. Slowly, it’s eroded a lot of unique mannerisms, and made American expressions a lot more dominant.
But it can be a lot more aggressive too, as we see in things like the Gorbachev Pizza Hut commercial.
This is largely a case for American colonialism, since it has so much global industry to push and because it has such a dominant media empire in the form of Hollywood. But because of how supply chains work - poorer countries produce raw materials which are sent to more developed countries to turn into finished goods, which are then sold back to poorer countries at much higher prices - this means that most of the products being advertised are from wealthier nations, which bring their values with them.
The reason that the cyberpunk genre is so quaintly racist towards Asia is because of this observation and this fear. Before the missing decade - a period of thirty years of economic stagnation - Japan was set to dominate the world economy. The fear was that the West would become more Asiatic as a result of this.
To me, this fear largely reads as severe projection, but that projection comes from a very true place of what has been done to the rest of the world by these levers of power.
What we have today isn’t much better. Today I stare at a line of custom-built TVs, filled with coltan mined by child labour, powered by burning coal, all in the service of showing me an ad for an SUV I can’t afford. In a space designed to leave me as bored as possible otherwise.
Advertising’s a blight, yes, but it’s also a symptom of the way we’ve organized the world. The truth is that if we just kept giving the creators of ads their existing salaries and told them not to make ads with that money, the world would be a much better place for it.
There are a lot of ways to hurt people that are profitable, and there are a lot of ways to help people that nobody is paying for. Right now, the money can only come from employers, and employers pay based on how much they think you’ll help them profit - not on how socially necessary the work is. Not on how good for other people it is.
Advertising highlights that: All ads that exist, exist at the expense of something else. Every ad you see should make you sad for what could have been, instead - every radio ad is at the expense of music, every television ad takes from a show, and every billboard is at the expense of a mural.
Something is deeply broken that allows advertising, as it exists, to be such an important keystone and gatekeeper to all the things that we really should value in our lives: Art, information, expression… not profiting from genocide.
The damned thing is, we have the resources. Individually, we feel like we can’t afford to spend that much on art - games, movies - but we feel like it would be good if they got that money anyway. We want good journalism, but because it’s so important for us to be informed, we feel wrong about being made to pay for it.
Something like a universal basic income would probably do a lot to help with this - for one, artists being guaranteed a living income would mean that so many less of them would feel like they need to take jobs that they feel like are unethical. It means more journalists who don’t need corporate sponsorship, and the success of groups like bellingcat.com show the amazing work journalists can do with just time and dedication - as long as their food and rent is covered, somehow.
It means we could live more beautifully, more freely.
It just makes me sad to see so much public space monetized. Every bus and billboard. So much of the colour in my life when I go out reduces me to my wallet. And when it’s already so hard to find somewhere I can meet people and just hang out that isn’t monetized as well… it’s bleak.
It means that wherever I go, my basic humanity is constantly being reduced to my ability to consume and purchase. And as someone living with a disability that severely affects my ability to earn money, it constantly makes me feel like I don’t have value.
As it stands, of course I don’t. They’d only give me my bloody mural instead if they could find a way to make it pay out.