Modern Advertising is a Cancer

Published: 2023-03-04

The Joy of Not Being Sold Anything

Advertisements are everywhere and seem to exist in almost every facet of life, a seemingly integral component to the cultural identity of every market-based economy. They're excessively and annoyingly abundant online to the point that adblock becomes essential if you spend any part of your day online - and yet still get through to our perception via social media sites and SEO optimized websites that masquerade as "content" when they're really just ads. Traditional TV commercials aren't as pervasive as they once were, but are now injected before, during, and after YouTube videos, or the ad messaging is baked right into TV shows and movies themselves via product placements. They're on roadside billboards (sometimes literal giant screens) trying to distract us when we're doing the most dangerous thing we do everyday (driving). And for those of us that don't drive, they're all over the inside and outside of the walls on public transportation. And yes, even in the sky. I will oftentimes go to great lengths to avoid them because the last thing I want is advertisers beaming information into my brain and potentially altering my behavior.


How does advertising work?

I think most people are at least vaguely familiar and have a basic understanding of how advertising works. As someone whose professional career has primarily been in digital marketing (and most recently for one of the Big 5 largest international agencies), along with majoring in both psychology and sociology as an undergrad, here is how I perceive and describe it. First, advertising works via repetitive and subtle "nudges" toward a particular action or behavior. Repeated exposure to the underlying messaging of the advertisement is priming you to be statistically more likely to take an action, alter an opinion, or to change a behavior (similar to the learning technique spaced repetition). McDonald's Happy Meals are a shameful example of priming children. Not only is the association of positive feelings with the McDonald's brand being established from the sugary/salty meal, there is the physical reward of the toy that comes with the meal. The child will then be more likely to consume McDonalds later in life as an adult because of the subconscious association with positive memories and a reward is associated with the brand.

Familiarity breeds trust. The more you're merely exposed to a brand or product, the more likely you are to trust it, oftentimes before ever coming into physically exposed to the product. For example, walking down a grocery store isle and seeing a shelf full of different brands of peanut butter within the same price range, you're more likely to choose the brand you're more familiar with. Much of this cognitive processing is done subconsciously. There are other factors at work such as the avoidance of analysis paralysis, but generally speaking humans will fallback on the heuristic of familiarity. This is why large companies spend millions of dollars on an ad simply to expose you to the brand with with those subconscious connections with positive feelings.

Advertising is information. When you are continually subjected to information you can't confirm yet are repeatedly subjected to, you're significantly more likely to believe it over time simply due to merely being exposed to it. This is called the illusory truth effect. Advertisers make, oftentimes, outrageous claims about a product. This claim is made to us repeatedly through various ads. The reality is that most of us will never take the time to research most claims we're told and will gradually come to take them as fact over time.

Advertising is most effective by exploiting weaknesses in the human psyche. Not just through the examples above, but through fear, guilt, and shame. It also promises happiness due to purchase and ownership of products. Generally and simply speaking, advertising is the art of manipulation.

How do we know advertising is effective?

The subtle and repetitive "nudging" is a probability game designed to alter our long term perception and decision making, and an effective advertising campaign doesn't even need to have an immediate measurable impact. Impact can be measured through a variety of ways such as increased sales, changes in public opinion (usually measured via surveys), or some other quantitative or qualitative metric. However, measurement can be difficult and correlation does not necessarily imply causation. With network TV it was possible, though difficult, to ascertain viewership and had to be approximated through methods like surveying a representative sample population, or by providing the sample with something like a Nielsen Box to obtain audience data. Online, however, audience data has become far more available much more accurate. We can count impressions, reach, views, and other engagements and correlate that to an increase in product sales (if it's a consumer product) or brand awareness surveys designed to measure recall.

Ultimately, there are many ways to measure effectiveness of an ad campaign, and sometimes the goal is increased brand recognition (which ties back to the familiarity heuristic mentioned above). The reason why Coca Cola receives more sales than a store brand is due to brand awareness - humans tend to choose what they're familiar with, and they're familiar with Coca Cola due to the sheer amount of money spent. Just in 2017 $500 billion dollars was spent on advertising. There is no question that advertising in general is effective and has a measurable impact even if you think you're immune.

Why this is concerning?

Advertising seeps it's way into our cultures and our minds. Despite how much control we think we have over our own behavior, there is no question that ads alter our behavior, invade our privacy, and negatively effect communities. Corporate slogans, logos, and products are increasingly becoming dominant and inseparable from culture.

What's dangerous about this is that most people don't believe advertising has any effect on them, yet people who claim this usually don't have a solid understanding of how it works such as the techniques used to exploit the weaknesses in the human psyche. I believe that most people today (especially in the Western world) are primarily exposed to advertisements via the internet. Although ads have been effective long before the internet existed, in the "information" age they've only become much more effective because they've become far more intricate and personalized than it was when it was simply a TV, radio, or billboards. We absorb the messaging passively so we often do not register them consciously, but will subconsciously effect decision making later.

Advertisements are, in most cases, lies being told. And exaggerating the truth is still lying. Exposure to too many (though even one can be enough) advertisements has the ability to distort your perception of the real world. They can make a person place too much important on the wrong things in life, generating superficial desires, and misalign priorities from what's truly important. This also applies to all forms of media to an extent, but it's especially true for visual media.

What I find annoying, obnoxious, and yes, even terrifying, is how advertising seeps it's way into what we call "the news". The news as it exists today has the worst incentives which is revenue from advertising dollars. Not only are most news "articles" incentivized to use click-bait headlines to get you to open the link and therefore be subjected to ads, the articles themselves are usually sensationalized and can even be entirely advertisements in disguise (i.e., "sponsored content"). They might even be corporate or government propaganda, tricking the reader into thinking it's authentic journalism. Additionally, some news stories will be altered or flat out ignored as to not offend advertisers and owners, thus creating a major conflict of interest.

What concerns me the most is that the mechanisms involved are arguably an assault on individual agency and most people's notion of free will. Perhaps I'm being over-dramatic here, but not by much I think.

The takeover of public (and private) spaces

It's absolutely insane that we allow advertising in the form of giant billboards - sometimes literally giant screens - to attempt to capture our attention while we're doing the most dangerous thing the average person (in the United States) does daily: driving a 4 ton metallic box at high speed. Natural scenery and beautiful cityscapes are destroyed with the placement of obnoxious billboards advertising some nonsense or other. It seems almost impossible to avoid being bombarded with commercial messaging by simply stepping out your front door and taking a walk in the city. It adds more noise and fundamentally ruins public spaces.

Of course, advertising isn't just in public space, they've made it's way into our homes. I'm not just referring to the internet and media we consume in our homes, but via branding labels on the products we own. Some people welcome this or simply don't mind (and to be honest, this hasn't been a huge concern to me nor do I necessarily advocate having zero branding on foods, but it's a point I want to make). Whenever we open the cupboard or refrigerator, for example, we're exposed to branding on packaging, boxes, and jars, which strengthens the familiarity heuristic strategy. Perhaps I'm going to far, but I have a quirk where if a label can be easily peeled off from a bottle, I will do it.

They've also made their way onto our clothing, not just on the tags on the inside collar of a shirt, but large brand logos will be displayed outwardly on the front. Certain people will proudly shill and be walking billboards for companies, wearing clothing with a giant Nike logo on their chest. Why? Branding. Effective branding means people make associations or "character traits" with brands like Nike such as "athletic", "fitness", "perseverance", etc, so they proudly shill the brand on their body because those are the associations they want to identify with and communicate to the outside world. Granted, this isn't always the case. Some people wear clothes because that's what they were given or what was on sale at a discount. Personally, I will go out of my way to avoid any visible logos on my clothing, with maybe the exception of the BJJ school I'm training at.

The main point I'm trying to make here is that every square inch of public and private space seems to be up for grabs. Every square inch has a price, whether that's on a wall or on our bodies. It is attention theft. Is a world that's covered with advertisements that promise happiness and completeness a world that we want?

Product placements in film & TV

One of my pet peeves is ads within film and TV series. Online content that you pay for (Netflix, Amazon, Disney, etc) will still shovel ads within the content itself in the form of product placement. For most of us, seeing a product placement won't immediately make us go out and purchase a buy a product. Most likely we'll be oblivious to the fact we saw an ad in the first place. Again, advertising works by increasing the statistical probability that you'll buy a product later. Seeing the hero in an action movie driving a BMW or using an iPhone does a couple things: again, it plays on the familiarity heuristic, yes, but also you'll start making those associations between the hero's character traits (bold, sexy, courageous, etc) with the brand.

Word of mouth tends to be the most effective forms of marketing and influencing the behaviors of others. We are, thanks to a couple hundred thousand years of evolution, social beings who tend to do what others are doing, especially those in higher status. What's curious is that when working with a social media "influencer", they are legally required to state that their content is an advertisement somewhere in the post (at least when working with a US company). Yet, when it happens in a movie, there is no such message - not during the scene, nor in the credits. Perhaps I was blind to product placements, but I've noticed an uptick in films and TV from the last decade or so, especially with how the products are portrayed within segments of the film which now seem nearly indistinguishable from a car commercial on TV. Some personal examples, I've been a fan of Rick ∧ Morty up until around Season 4 when the product placements in the show became so pervasive, annoying, and shameless. Another example is that much of story of Season 2 of Star Trek Picard which involved time travel to the year 2024, seemed to have been written solely to place Microsoft Surface Tablets, Frito-Lay, Samsung monitors, and Tesla advertising into the show.

A quick note about TV. Television as we know and understand it was created and exists for the purpose of displaying ads. As Jerry Mander wrote in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, "the program is only the excuse to get you to watch advertising. Advertising is the true content of television."

Personally, I find that product placements in movies and TV shows to be an insult to my intelligence. It damages the integrity of the art of film making and story-telling, and just straight up rubs me the wrong way. I've noticed that I start to lose interest in the story when I see a blatant product placements in film because it's essentially an ad being pitched to me.

The Internet & modern software are ad delivery systems

Even the software we use and even pay for are data harvesting and advertisement delivery systems. The Windows operating system is essentially adware, which is one the primary reasons I use Linux. When you purchase a new computer or install the operating system, Windows' default configuration and design comes with a variety of means to pitch advertisements to it's users - in the start menu, the task bar, the search bar, the lock screen, the notification center, and the file manager. Then there's the telemetry that Microsoft collects from users which supports it's advertising business. Installing Windows 10 or 11 has become increasingly difficult to do without having to create a Microsoft Account, which is arguably just an advertising profile ID. A fresh install of Windows 11 comes preinstalled with with programs like Disney Plus, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, Spotify, etc - likely partnerships that Microsoft has made with these companies. To add insult to injury, laptop OEMs will also preload machines with even more adware.

Though it's not just Microsoft, Apple uses it's MacOS operating system as a means to advertise their own products and services. Admittedly, you're more likely to receive a cleaner experience less invasive-looking experience on a MacOS device. I'm by no means trying to give Apple a break here, they do collect telemetry and have their own advertising network that competes with Google and Facebook, and they do require an Apple account (ie an advertising profile) be setup in order to use their computers.

Buying a new mobile device, the experience is often far worse. Purchasing basically any Android device through a carrier or directly from the OEM, you are guaranteed to receive a device overflowing with preinstalled garbage adware that you didn't ask for (again, I think this is one thing that I think Apple does just a little bit better on). These preinstalled applications are themselves advertisements for subscription services or are ad-ridden apps harvesting personal data. What's worse is that oftentimes you can't even uninstall the application. If you're lucky, you can disable it. If you're really lucky you can actually uninstall the app. On top of that, on stock devices there are background services that are running and are phoning home to the OEM, Google, Apple, or some other service and you have no idea what data it's sending. This sort of nonsense is one of the fundamental reasons I run a Google-free, privacy respecting, free and open source fork of Android called LineageOS on my device.

The advertising industry has, in my opinion, destroyed much of the usefulness of the internet - or at the very least obfuscated much of it's usefulness with invasive and user hostile services. Take search engines for example. Search engine optimization has made search engines such as Google, Bing, etc increasingly useless overtime due to the gaming of search engine algorithms. This is done primarily for ad-revenue generated by site visits, marketing purposes, or even swaying public opinion on a certain topic. Doing a quick search on how to perform any sort of generic household task will yield useless results at worst, and at best there will be a nugget of useful information towards the bottom of a web page that's full of ads, trackers, more blog spam, and text designed to game the search algorithm.

Let's not forget about social media. At this point it's common knowledge just how invasive social media platforms are with our personal data. They are, after all, advertising companies and there's no question as to how their business model works. Just a few months ago Twitter announced a subscription service, with Facebook announcing a similar subscription recently. What's disgusting is not that you have to pay to prove you're a real human requiring a government ID, but that paying for either of these subscriptions does not opt you out of tracking and advertisements.

Brands will actively pretend to "be your friend" on social media (something I have a lot of experience in). Make no mistake, this practice only serves the interests of the company's bottom line. Taco Bell is not some random guy that's half drunk writing tweets - that's the persona the brand is trying to give off. Their content is created and written by an advertising team and designed to get as much attention and engagement as possible. They will also shamelessly insert themselves into conversations between users.

Corporate behavior online has always been ethically questionable. Google Chrome's dominance in the browser market is undoubtedly due to the fact they plugged in ads for Chrome within Google Search and other services when a non-Chrome browser is detected. Now when using Microsoft's Edge browser, Microsoft has begun injecting ads directly into Google sites to persuade you from switching to Google Chrome.

One of the reasons I think an ad-blocker is so essential if you're using the internet is not just because I find advertising obnoxious, but humans often do not register them consciously. I don't want any sort of commercial message beamed into my mind. Adblockers also make for a cleaner and more pleasant internet experience. Unfortunately, the modern internet is very much the "corporate internet" and supported mostly through advertising and data harvesting. Content creators will milk out every last drop by placing ads and product placement inside content.

Surveillance capitalism, a term coined by the social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, is the collection and commodification of user personal data by corporations. Though data will often be shared with governments, it exists entirely for commercial and profit seeking motives, essentially to deliver better targeted advertisements to persuade (or manipulate) you into a specific action, behavior, or opinion. However, this business model only exists because "free" ad-supported services will always be more popular and dominant than any paid ad-free version. Regardless if most people understand the inherent ethical problems, most people will still continue using the free ad-supported services because they don't want to spend money, even if it's a few dollars, on an alternative. And oftentimes it's poor people who are subjected to ads, due to the inability to pay for an ad free experience or a lack of education.

What can we do about it?

As a society, we must collectively ban advertising in public spaces, targeted advertising, and surveillance capitalism. Hefty fines for companies found gathering and selling personal data without user consent, and enforcing stricter city planning rules in publicly owned spaces would be a great start. Though I'm skeptical, this would radically transform cities and the internet for the better.

Education is the most powerful and useful tool. The best weapon is to teach students at a young age about advertising tactics, cognitive biases, psychological manipulation, and emotional exploitation used by brands and how they effect our behavior and our best interests. Again, most people don't understand how marketing and advertising works, but education is the best method of safeguarding our minds and that of our children. There will continue to be the larger majority of people who rave defensively about how they got a good deal by saving $10 on an $800 TV, while trading away their privacy and personal agency.

Until then, the best we can do is educate ourselves today. Not just about how advertising influences us and the methods, but also on how the technology we use everyday works and the tools that are available. Learning to safeguard our technology will inevitably safeguard our minds. We must learn how the modern internet works and how to spot commercial content disguised as actual journalism.

An adblocker like uBlock Origin has had an enormous benefit for me and has made the internet far more tolerable. For example, I can view a YouTube video with every element on the webpage blocked except for the video itself. No advertisement, recommended videos, comments, or suggestions to subscribe to YouTube TV. Visiting modern webpages and news websites are much cleaner and enjoyable, increasing the signal to noise ratio.Although it has it's flaws with some default settings, I also recommend Mozilla Firefox as it has more tracking protection out of the box than other browsers while remaining usable for normies.

Like TV, social media such as Facebook and Twitter exists solely to deliver advertisements. Granted, it has it's uses, but at a foundational level it exists as a means for personal data extraction and the delivery of advertisements. There are other major issues such as the engagement algorithm promoting extremism, but the vast majority of revenue comes from advertisements. Deleting my social media accounts has been one of the best decisions I've made for my mental well-being and attention over the past few years, and I'd encourage anyone to take the plunge.

Using an RSS reader to receive content from websites is another means to reduce the amount of advertisements making it to your perception. With RSS, you're not dependent on a social media platform and the content you receive isn't dictated by an algorithm. There isn't any invasive data collection or obnoxious advertisements, and you get to choose your sources. With RSS, you decide what to give your attention, leading to a better overall information diet.


I understand I sound like I'm being overtly cynical. Maybe I am, but I've been completely honest and haven't exaggerated anything above. The issues and concerns I've outlined above are problems that exist and must be addressed.

To be clear, I'm not saying all advertising is inherently wrong. Any business, small or large, must spread the word somehow. We all like discovering new things that can make life better. What I take issue with is that we've reached a point in the modern world where advertising has seeped into just about every aspect of modern life. Naomi Klein refers to this in her book No Logo: Taking Aim At Brand Bullies as "brand oriented corporate activity". So where's the "correct" place to advertise? Community and word-of-mouth. Email newsletters are means that I don't mind so long as I actually subscribed, the opt-out is respected should I decide to do so.

The most effective advertising exploits human emotions, psychological weaknesses, and cognitive biases, to get us to purchase a product. And yet most of us delude ourselves into thinking that we're not the ones being effected. Although I fall into the minority, I think it's important for those of us that understand the inherent psychological manipulation taking place, to take steps to reduce our day to day exposure to advertising, as well as those in our family and community. Whether that's education or taking direct action. We should do this not only reduce the negative effects, but to save our time, our privacy, and our attention. Once we learn to recognize these biases innate to human cognition, we'll be better equipped to handle the messaging when it does make it's way to our minds, and to see it for what it is.

Advertising has ingrained itself into every aspect of modern life, from public spaces, private spaces, all forms of media, and our technology, influencing us on a near imperceptible level. Every gap of public wall space, every quiet moment, has a price and it has taken it's toll on our attention. What I'd love to see happen (though I'm skeptical it will happen in my lifetime, at least within the US) is to ban advertisements in public spaces, ban targeted advertising, and ban surveillance capitalism. Otherwise, this problem will not go away and will likely get worse over time.

Further Reading, Recommendations, & Resources

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