This is part of my series: American Zombie: How To Stop Being A Mindless Consumer.
Advertisements are evil. They make our lives materially worse. It’s a bold claim, I know. It might sound ludicrous given the ubiquitous nature of advertising in our daily lives. But before you dismiss my position, or send an angry email, consider my reasoning:
1. Ads cost you money
The pharmaceutical industry is expected to spend $11 billion on digital advertising in 2021. (That’s $20,000 every single minute!) But where does that $11 billion come from? It comes from higher-priced drugs for you and me. It comes from higher insurance premiums and co-pays. That’s right, you and I pay for the privilege of seeing viagra ads. (How dumb is that?)
And how much extra do we pay for our cellphone service because of advertising? Or food? Or car insurance? It’s hard to say for sure, but in 2019, companies spent $243 billion on ads in the US. That’s $740 per person. You could argue that my family of four spends an extra $2,960 each year to cover the costs of the advertisements that bombard us. (Personally, I’d rather keep this money and not see any ads!)
2. Ads lie to us
If you’ve ever taken an economics course you know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. I don’t have to tell you, that’s not what’s done. If advertisers lived by market principles then some enterprise, say, General Motors, would put on a brief announcement of their products and their properties, along with comments by Consumer Reports magazine so you could make a judgment about it.
That’s not what an ad for a car is—an ad for a car is a football hero, an actress, the car doing some crazy thing like going up a mountain or something. If you’ve ever turned on your television set, you know that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to try to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices—that’s what advertising is.
― Noam Chomsky, Requiem for the American Dream
Advertisers know that a competitors’ product is likely the best. And yet they push their mediocre products anyway.
Advertisers know that refined sugars contribute to type 2 diabetes. And yet, they hook kids early with sugary cereals that claim to be “part of a balanced breakfast.”
Advertisers know that US consumer debt is nearly $14.6 trillion. And yet they convince us to take on more debt.
It’s almost as if advertisers don’t care about us at all!
3. Ads manufacture emptiness
Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?
― Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby
Who watches a Super Bowl ad and thinks, “I’m going to binge Doritos less often”? No one. Who sees a magazine ad and says, “You know, I’m happy with how I look”? Not a soul. Who browses Amazon and tells their spouse, “Let’s cancel Amazon Prime because there’s just nothing left to want.” Not anyone, ever.
Advertisements persuade us that we need an all-inclusive Disney cruise or the latest iPhone with 37 cameras and a microchip that’s a whopping 5% faster. Ads manufacture a craving for things we didn’t even know about beforehand. This craving hides from our view the dozens of good things in our lives (yes, literally dozens!). And this craving beams a spotlight on the one thing we don’t have.
Now, if we’re honest, we who live in the United States have an overabundance of food options, entertainment options, and education options. We have everything. We should be the happiest people in the history of humanity—and we could be!—if it weren’t for ads constantly convincing us that our lives suck.
4. Ads can install malware on your computer
Malicious advertising, aka malvertising, can install malware on your computer. Here’s how it works: a criminal organization pays to include their malware-laden “ads” in online ad networks. Their ads get mixed in with legitimate ones and show up on millions of legitimate websites. As a result, malicious ads may be viewed by a billion people.
Clicking on one of these ads can install malware. Hackers may gain access to your computer, install keyloggers, steal your identity, install ransomware, and use your computer to send email spam.
When you see ads online, you need to adopt the mindset of being in a dangerous part of town. Thanks to the ad networks, every website is “a dangerous part of town.”
The antidote is to use an ad blocker (in addition to the usual stuff: keep browsers up-to-date and install security updates on your computer).
Ads are harmful in a variety of other ways. They:
- Educate our children with consumerist messages
- Connect politics to special interests
- Drive political extremism
- Pollute our public spaces
- Burn up the climate for no good end
- Promote and sustain monopolies
- Promote harmful stereotypes and discrimination
We must excise advertising from our day-to-day experience. I recommend you:
- Install AdBlock in your browsers
- Watch TV without ads (or not at all)
- Unsubscribe from promotional emails
- Stop physical junk mail
- Add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry
- Stop surfing Amazon, Slick Deals, and Ben’s Bargains.
(Find a better way to handle boredom!)
- Run a Pi-hole DNS-based ad blocker
(Requires technical capability)
- Get off social media and connect with people in real life
Now I know some people will object to using AdBlock and say, “How will websites make money if no one sees their ads?” I understand this argument, but I’m not going to allow criminals and their malware-laden ads on my computer just to support a random website. And because I can’t tell which ads are dangerous, I block them all.
Lastly, I recommend you ask these questions when you see an ad:
- Does it make you feel better about your life?
- Does it promote the very best product?
- Do the advertiser’s interests align with your personal interests?