A place for new ideas to settle.

12 April 2017

Do people want to be advertised to?

So the lots of people (especially on the Internet) got mad at a video advertisement recently. Fair enough; I watched the ad in question and it's cringe-inducing, clearly the product of too many marketing meetings and too many focus groups from not the right demographics. But almost immediately after seeing the first think-piece headlines, a more troubling question came to my mind.

See, the narrative was overwhelmingly "the company really dropped the ball with this ad," "the company totally misunderstood the current political climate with this ad"... generally this ad was disappointing. But unspoken seemed to be an agreement that there is a hypothetical "good advertisement."

The question, then, that came to mind: Do people actually see advertising as a worthwhile element of their lives?

Apparently, yes; they jump at the chance to extol the virtues of "radvertising" but are just as quick to shame "badvertising." From the Gawker blogs (rad rad rad bad bad) and other random time-waster sites (rad bad) to mainstream media (rad bad), writers are meticulously comparing and contrasting ads.

But comparing and contrasting presupposes a spectrum of "good" and "bad" ads. Is there really such a thing as a "good" ad?

In my view, no. Advertisements are, at what might be called their "peak" if not their "best," a category of art that tries to associate certain feelings (generically, demand) with the purchase of a company's product, so that people go out and actually buy the company's product. Some people seem to have developed a mental model where noticing the feeling of "I want that" is called "good."

(Advertisement can become true art, but only once there's a safe distance between the advertising object and the product it's pointing to―say, for example, a hundred years later when the specific product is no longer available.)

At their worst, it's a company trying to short-circuit your brain to re-interpret "give us your money!" as "owning this thing will make you feel [cool/sexy/important/confident/competent/fun]!" through kludgy social engineering. We notice this influence, and we call it "bad."

That's not necessarily to say that market transactions have a "corrupting influence." But advertisement is a form of communication between a firm and a potential customer, and communication can be virtuous or vicious. Certain recognized forms of abuse are primarily communication-based, for example, and need not involve physical contact.

Bringing it back to the hot takes about this particular advertisement, I wonder: why bother getting extra mad about an advertisement that's muddled or even offensive? It's an advertisement, so shouldn't the default position be somewhat negative? Ads are already generically bad, an annoyance of living in the modern age. We don't need to be disappointed in any particular one...

... unless, of course, we really want them to meet some standard of what a "proper" advertisement should be. Which presupposes that we should consume advertisements (as advertising) at all!

When a firm is trying to say "here is a product; give us your money!" why should we also expect it to say "this company supports $SOCIAL_ISSUE!" in the same metaphorical breath?
Hello fellow Bernie Sanders supporter! I also supported Bernie Sanders. Help me move my couch?
Coming from a flesh and blood human person, the juxtaposition of an impersonal request with a possibly unrelated applause line would come off as deeply disturbing! I know that corporations aren't "people" in the same sense, but does that mean we can drop that particular expectation?

And to the extent that I even do this, I want to stop sharing advertisements with people. (Of course, once I try to notice and stop myself, I'll probably see that I do it an alarming amount.) Will I occasionally share product reviews? Sure. (I write my own reviews, too!) Previews, in the case of digital media? Maybe. But what use is a vaguely concept-driven short video with corporate #branding to anyone not in the business of producing said videos? What use is talking about the alleged "merits" or "disappointments" of a specific advertisement, as an advertisement?

What use, except to signal one's acceptance of the ideology of advertising? (And that's enough of that for one post.)

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