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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


I saw a video podcast recently that made reference to a book all about 'information overload' that evidently had quite a discussion of advertising and ad pollution. The quote from the book referred to ads as a type of 'information smog.' Not having read the book as yet, it's not quite clear to me that this is a good description, except insofar as smog makes it difficult to see and smells bad. If the author's point is that advertising is not information, then we may not be so far apart. My position is that advertising is fundamentally anti-information. In other words, advertising is one of the dubious technological gifts of the second world war; it is propaganda.

But let's be semi-methodical here, and test this idea. First of all, let's try retreating to the dictionary and see what we get. I like to use an Oxford's English Etymological Dictionary (OEED), and here is what it says about propaganda:

  • "committee of cardinals charged with the foreign missions of the church; systematic scheme for the dissemination of a doctrine or practice..."

It's both fascinating and somehow unsurprising to see a catholic church connection to the origins and meaning of the word. For 'advertising' the participle was not listed, but 'advertise' was:

  • "take note of; direct the attention of; give notice of"

So advertising would be the act of taking note of, directing attention to, or giving notice of something. By this definition, a stop sign is advertising. I smell a public relations person, don't you?

It's true enough that most of what we could call early advertising was simply about attention-getting. Effectively, this is the butcher's, that's the baker's, the religious pantomime will be this afternoon. This was reasonably useful, and not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it was a key means of providing information in towns and cities to a population that was not yet widely literate and was spread beyond the easy range of word-of-mouth information sharing. But what we call advertising now has little to do with these uses, except in the highly specific sense of 'diverting attention.'

What we typically call 'advertising' now is in fact a systematic scheme for the dissemination of the one true faith: consumerist patriarchy. It follows three rules that should be familiar to anyone who has encountered a used car salesperson — or a cell phone company representative.

  1. Never shut up.
  2. Never tell the customer anything that could be challenged later.
  3. Never respect the word no.

Capitalism and democracy both are optional, although less democracy is usually assumed to make propaganda more effective by cutting off other sources of information. Whether this is actually true is debatable, because not only is it incredibly difficult to absolutely control information, it's impossible to absolutely control what people think. (An excellent source of more information on how advertising, capitalism and democracy intersect in the current socioeconomic state of the world is Naomi Klein's book No Logo.)

However good or bad propaganda may be considered, there is nothing about the OEED definition that demonstrates that advertising is anti-information. Propaganda or the most basic 'look here' sign is actually providing information even if it's wrong. 'Anti-information' is a term that doesn't just imply no content, it implies something that drives out or overrules content. This is a much bigger claim.

Probably the most striking feature of advertising currently is that nothing is actually any good, even previous products in the same series from the same company. Nothing at all. A new one is always better, always new and improved, even if the only change you can find is the old one is green and the new one is blue. But ads are never just about the product. They are about your life, which is always lacking, you always need a new thing to fix it up, a bit like an old jalopy. If you'd just get the new and improved laundry soap, your laundry will smell and feel like it was dried on a line in the country. This will of course neutralize the fact of your real life in a big city with a smog problem. If you buy that brand of alcohol, you'll be the life of the party, as opposed to the effect of the brand you drink now that merely makes you drunk. Or become a success by emulating the purchasing habits of your betters, rich, white, mainly male individuals.

There's no real information about any of the products such ads are meant to sell. Instead there is an entire compressed narrative meant to pluck the chords of human insecurity so that ideally you don't think about the product at all. You think about what it will do for you, whatever it is, and how to get it. Ideally, you'd find the ads so compelling that you would pursue whatever the most persuasive ads tell you to. But don't expect to see this spelled out in any ad; after all, that's potentially litigable, so, for heaven's sake don't tell the potential customers anything! Subtlety is their mantra. And if the product doesn't have the implied effect, well it's like medication, different ones work for different people.

If that's not anti-information, I don't know what is.

But of course, according to what most of us were taught in high school, surely this is ridiculous. North America is a free market, and that means supply and demand. Supply responds to demand. Demand can't happen if nobody knows about the supply, and no one can tell good products from bad products without additional information. That's what advertising is for. If there is no demand for a product, it isn't profitable to make it, so production of it stops and producers move on to other things. This sounds reasonable on its face. The trouble is, the shifts in the nature of advertising since world war two and its omnipresence suggests that rather than a free market with a working negative feedback mechanism, we have a glut of products that almost no one wants or needs. Manufacturing is keyed to produce these products specifically because they are perishable and can be made at rock bottom costs and sold for tremendous profits. The trouble is, people simply won't buy most of the stuff. So advertising began to mutate into something to convince people to buy things that were shoddy, cheap, and unwanted. Needed items are gimmes.

As of November 2008, few human creations are as obnoxious and intrusive as advertisements. Ads are placed on the doors of stalls in public washrooms, the ceilings of buses and trains, even the sticks that separate batches of groceries at the supermarket. They are projected onto the ground at train stations, programmed to literally pop up in the middle of articles you read on the web. Right now so-called 'free newspapers' are the new rage, filled with ads including ads masquerading as articles, purveyed by people who will literally step in front of you and try to force you to take one. It seems like the permissible number of commercials per hour of programming on television increases every year. Corporations spend fortunes on anthropologists and psychologists to help them make more effective ads, and aim their ads at younger and younger audiences.

The implications are obvious. The ads don't work. Or if they do, they don't work for long. It's probably one of the craziest arms-races ever, this desperate corporate run against the human brain. We've managed to survive all this time by being able to figure out what is relevant and what is useful, and then ignore the rest. So when people express frustration with the ads that are everywhere, far from experiencing overload, they are experiencing information anemia. Their information needle gets painted yellow and thrown into an advertising hay stack. Under these circumstances, people can and do give up, but that doesn't mean they give up and buy. They give up and return to old fashioned word of mouth and making their own purchasing choices for their own reasons. I've observed this trend among a wide range of people I know, not a few of whom have complained about advertising and then gone on to say that they are exhausted and broke from having too much stuff. The stuff is a burden, so much so they are getting rid of it and thinking harder before they purchase something. I should add that among these people are indeed folks who can fairly be described as fully faithful members of the capitalist church, and they are making such statements as clearly as anyone you would be inclined to call 'granola.'

Obviously I'm a web nerd, so it's easy to point to manifestations of backlash against advertising there, from software that prevents ads from loading to RSS feeds. Yet this is far from a new phenomenon. The almost instant popularity of VHS in North America likely had more than a little to do with reaction against the level of advertising on television, as has the rapidly shrinking traditional newspaper and magazine markets. The magazine and newspaper publishers claim that they need more ads to pay the bills, which must evict content from the publication since it isn't going to get more pages (anti-information again). It doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them that more relevant information might just improve circulation in established publications, or at least nobody seems to have tried it. What a radical idea!

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 00:27:09 MDT