Ads are changing, and we should be happy about it

We have come along way in the evolution of the advertising business. The Egyptians used papyrus to make sales messages and wall posters, while the Middle Ages made us transition to town criers and billboards. But even trademarks are much older than many would think – the first trademark dates back to 1300 BC in what is India today. Advertising is simultaneously a reflection of reality and a gross over-exaggeration of consumer expectation – they are flashy, they are gross, they feature musicians and actors. Some ads are so entertaining that viewers tune in to watch them, and they generate massive clicks on video platforms such as YouTube.

Terrestrial TV is a good example of how some service have only been ad-funded for a long time already. With the popping up of online advertising we’ve seen entire newspapers switch gear on their business models. The Guardian – which isn’t exactly the defender of modern capitalism – raises more money online than it does through print. No wonder – online advertising is better for advertisers and consumers. Targeted advertising tells the company that posts the ad if it is actually viewed and clicked on – something that you cannot guarantee in any way on TV or radio. On the video platform YouTube, the company says that you only pay for your ad if people choose to watch it:

“For example, when someone chooses to view your TrueView ad for at least 30 seconds or engages with your ad – like clicking on a call-to-action overlay, a card or a companion banner.”

This certainly applies to myself: as a craft beer enthusiast, Google and Facebook ads constantly tell me about the latest beer releases. Why should I be upset? I get to use a free online service, and in return I get informed about products I like? It would be strange to claim that this is somehow worse than the old days, when I’d be shown things I don’t actually buy, such as women’s hygiene products, or new car tyres.

There is also a common assumption that advertising is a form of brainwashing, constantly bombarding is with things we don’t want until we end up buying it. It poses the ancient old question: can you make someone buy something that they do not want? The American legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who was Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under the Obama administration published an essay entitled “Fifty Shades of Manipulation“, in which he labels conventional marketing as manipulation. He writes for instance: “It is important to acknowledge that in the commercial realm, manipulation is widespread; it is part of the basic enterprise.”

Yes, when companies advertise health benefits of their products that cannot be proven, then they are intentionally misleading their customers. However, this is miles away from advertising a product as being cool, refreshing, comfortable, or trendy. Are we to define the mere fact that a product is being described by the producer as “good”, as manipulation? Because by this same standard, I could feel equally manipulated by the fact that Sunstein calls a book he edited himself, “relevant” (which he did).

You couldn’t sell anyone a candle as a means of replacing electric bulbs, but you can advertise products in a positive fashion. Of course advertising works, otherwise there would be no point it. However, the assumption that it is bad having ad-based services, and online and offline users being exposed to them, that is retrograde thinking. Many careers, including those of free-lance journalists, have been made possible through modern advertising. Many consumers happier about having specific targeted ads online, as opposed to being bored by their TV.

Advertising is changing because we are changing as consumers.


This article was first published by Comment Central.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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