Why I consider advertising to be harmful

I was just having a discussion with my friends about If I Were You adding an extra pre-roll advertisement to their latest podcast, and it inspired me to write about my moral opinion of advertising in general.

Selling consumers

By choosing to add an advertisement to a magazine article, TV show or podcast, the content creator is choosing to sell a portion of their audience’s attention. The audience has devoted their time to watch the actual content, but they are instead subjected to watching an advertisement for a random product.

Now you could argue that everyone who watches any media with ads knows that this is the deal. They are choosing to watch the show, knowing it is ad-supported, so they should be allowed to make that choice. Where’s the harm?

My problem with it is the insidious effect that it has on that audience, and society at large. The advertising space is up for sale, often simply to the highest bidder. That means that whoever is willing to pay the most gets to subtly manipulate that audience. Are all those audience members aware that that’s what they’re signing up for? And even if they are, what about the wider effect on society?

Advertising contributes hugely to obesity, the most serious health problem facing western nations, eating disorders and other psychological problems.

Societal capture

While it is true (and a great thing) that we are all becoming wiser to the tricks of advertisers, adverts still carry a huge amount of power. We all know that campaign finance for US election races basically decides the outcome. If you can spend billions on your campaign adverts, you will almost certainly win.

While possibly not quite as harmful as campaign adverts, I believe the same theory applies to advertising at large. The biggest companies can afford to buy more of these random advertising slots than anyone else, and it has a huge effect on society. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Coke or McDonalds? How many women don’t feel a constant pressure to look slim and beautiful? And this advertising also helps the massive corporations keep their monopolies.

Society is genuinely shaped by the media, and the media is made up of a huge amount of advertisements. This means that the corporations with the most money get to shape society in a way that suits them. And that model for society is always based on bigger profits for those companies, not the interests of society.

If there were fewer media spots up for sale, I believe the whole of society would benefit immesurably.

Advertising is a major culprit in runaway climate change

The biggest and most obvious problem is that advertising, beyond a shadow of a doubt, fuels consumerism and therefore over-consumption. And this consumerism is terribly bad for the climate - the number one danger facing humanity. We are at a point where developed nations are producing emissions at a catastrophic rate. And there’s no one culprit - our societies are simply structured to be wasteful. We consume more food than we need, and buy a lot more than we consume. We all fly all over the planet all the time. We buy new clothes, and throw out old ones, far more often than we need to.

And all of this is because bit corporations, who are solely interested in us continuing to consume in ever greater quantities, get to be constantly manipulating everyone within society with their money through paid advertisments.

Financing without ads

The problem is, so many free services that we currently enjoy would simply not exist without ads. Most of the digital services we rely on are entirely ad-sponsored (Facebook, Google and Bing’s myriad services, Twitter, Youtube). To be fair, Google have worked to make ads a bit less intrusive, and I do think that’s a good thing, but it’s not like the corporate influence on society seems to have reduced at all since 1998.

If advertising were somehow less profitable, or just too morally odious to justify, then these digital services would have to be based on considerably different profit models, and they may well not exist at all. The obvious alternate model is to simply charge directly for these services, but only a tiny fraction of the people who use these services today would have signed up to pay even a small amount for them. I can’t pretend this isn’t a difficult problem.

I would genuinely like to see more companies try different profit models. For example, Github provide a full free service for open-source work, but charge for privacy, Humble Bundle let you “pay what you like” for content, and Wikipedia are financed purely through donations.

I also believe that if more companies were more honest and open with their finances, the fans would be more happy to help out by paying donations or subscriptions.

Ethical advertising

Okay, let’s be honest, advertising isn’t going anywhere. But I still hope that we can try to limit the damage by requiring content creators to be more ethical with their advertising.

I think any advert on any website, TV show, magazine article or whatever should be considered an endorsement. Any criticisms leveled against the advert or the company that made the advert should also be applied to the organisation that chose to give the advertisement air-time. This does happen to some extent (e.g. the This World advert in the Guardian), but I think it should happen more. This would hopefully force organisations to take more ethical responsibility over who they sell advertising space to, which would do a world of good.

It would also be nice if content-creators were choosing adverts, rather than the media company that distributes the content - e.g. adverts in the breaks in the middle of TV shows should be chosen by the TV show authors. This would mean that the fans of the show would at least be watching adverts that the creator chose.

Installing Ad-Block

Some think it’s un-ethical to install Ad-Block, as then you are potentially depriving the good content-creators of their revenue.

Given my ethical position on ads, I disagree with this. I think that one of the ways people can help to shape society for the better is to deliberately (and hopefully, vocally) reject things they find obnoxious. Therefore, the very existence of Ad-Block, and the number of people who have installed it, are a statement in opposition to ad-based financing models. And I hope that it might have some small effect in discouraging organisations from choosing to go that way.

By @nottrobin