Ads are everywhere, and it’s not okay

[Crossposted from damiensnyder.com.]

Author’s note: Thanks to the commenters who have pointed out some weaknesses in my argument I didn’t think of. I still endorse the majority of this argument, but I don’t think this was the best way to express it. (An earlier post I drafted on this same topic emphasized the time people spend on TV and the internet, and I think that thread of argument was more compelling.) I remain very frustrated by advertising: consider how many thousands of talented individuals spend their entire workday trying to get people to watch more ads, a thing no one likes to do. But where I ignore ad-free video /​ streaming subscription services, and to a lesser extent ad-free news, this argument is weaker. I may write another post explaining the world-model behind my view on ads in more detail. Thanks again for the feedback.


Have you noticed that everything is covered in ads?

Not everything. You can go entire days without seeing an advertisement. But you can’t do that if you plan on watching TV, browsing the internet, or taking public transit. Let’s review some everyday sources of entertainment, and where you can expect them to show you ads:

Sports

Ads are ingrained into every detail of the sports experience. (For non-sports fans, you will have to follow along and imagine.)

You go to the game. You might drive, and see billboards on your way. You could take a bus or train, the inside and outside of which are covered in ads and occasionally PSAs. Then you get into the stadium. If you pick up a program, it will likely have ads in it. When you get to your seat, you might see ads surrounding the stadium wherever there aren’t seats. The players will walk out, and their jerseys may have ads too. (If not, they might have a sponsorship deal with the company that made their uniforms.) If you’re not watching soccer, the action will be interrupted every ten minutes so they can show ads to the people watching from home. Even if the people watching from home record the game so they can fast-forward through these commercials, they will probably still see advertisements on screen during the game, and maybe have announcers read more brand taglines between their commentary. At larger breaks in the action, a lucky row could win free coupons, or a lucky fan could get the chance to win a sponsored prize. The viewers at home will get a halftime show littered with even more ads than usual. Finally, the game will end. You’ll go home, walk past the same ads covering the walls, see the same ads on your trip home, and only after all that, get the sweet release from sponsors.

Movies

Streaming can offer some refuge from ads, but theaters… not so much.

To go to the movie theater, you must go through the same ads as a sports game. There might not be ads on the walls per se, but they are trying really hard to sell you concessions and tickets to other movies. The movie will start late, because they are showing you advertisements instead. Then during the movie there’s a chance of product placement, ideally relating the product to a high-status character in the film.

If you stream instead, you can avoid most of the ads. Depending on the streaming service and your subscription tier, you may or may not see ads for third-party products as you browse and watch movies. You will see ads for other shows and movies regardless.

Videos

Try watching a video online without an ad blocker.

The front page of the site is covered in recommended videos, some of the recommendations paid for. You click on the one you want to watch, and you’ll see another ad before the video starts. If the video’s long enough, you’ll see more as mid-roll ads. Depending on the channel, they might read you a custom message from their sponsors as well. The description of the video contains the same link to their sponsor, along with a link to their other revenue streams. The whole time, you will see recommended videos all along the side of your screen (or whenever you pause the video, if you’re in fullscreen). Some of these are paid for, as well.

News

There are many formats of news, and each one is covered in advertisements.

Print media is pretty simple. They have news, and wherever there’s not news, there’s ads. Some sources are extra crafty, and their own content will be interspersed with sponsored content written by companies to trick you into thinking the trusted news source approves of them.

Digital media comes in a few different ways. Maybe you found the article on social media. Someone paid to show it to people in your demographic, and perhaps to show you which of your other friends looked at it too. Then you click on it, via a referral link, so the social media site knows you clicked. The news site has a tracker or several, to make sure the whole industry knows what you look at. You can read the article, but before that they’ll display either a pop-up ad or a notice pleading you to subscribe. Ads are displayed between paragraphs of the content, at the bottom, and on the sidebar sandwiched between actual news articles. Depending on the site you’re reading on, the article itself could be sponsored content.

TV news shows commercials. You watch news, but every ten minutes they take a break to show you things that aren’t news. Sometimes they’ll put ads in the corner of your screen while they talk about news. On some channels the anchors will tell you about products they happen to have heard about.

What this means

The thing to notice about ads is no one likes them.[1] No one likes them! They waste our time and attention so they can manipulate our beliefs and make us spend money. But we endure hundreds of ads every week, because that’s what pays for entertainment.[2]

That’s stupid. Advertising is a zero-sum or even negative-sum game. If everyone stopped advertising, and they made their ad budgets into charitable donations for entertainment, businesses wouldn’t all collapse.[3] So why are we wasting our time, attention, and sanctity for nothing?

It’s even worse than that. Our entertainment is tailored to be maximally palatable to advertisers. Even when individual creators follow their own values, the platforms select the most profitable. This means avoiding controversy wherever possible, targeting demographics with the biggest wallets, and stretching out what content does exist to allow the maximum possible runtime. Platforms optimize for addiction, news for sensation, and creators for bingeability.

This is how things are, but there is no reason to accept it as a fact of life. There are business models of entertainment that don’t require you to consent to manipulation. This means “paying for content.” Sometimes you pay for content and are still sold to advertisers. In that case, this means “paying more for content.” It is often preferable to pay money rather than your soul.

However, a series of paid opt-outs will not solve advertising.[4] The entertainment industry costs billions, maybe even gazillions, of dollars to run. Opting out of advertising would make entertainment costs higher than most people are willing to pay. The second part of this puzzle is consuming less entertainment. I plan to write about that later, but first I am seeking broader feedback on this topic.

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Footnotes


  1. There are supposedly people who watch the Super Bowl for the ads, which I consider an advanced form of Stockholm syndrome. ↩︎

  2. Sometimes you even pay to be advertised to! You pay for your sports ticket, or newspaper subscription, or magazine subscription, and you’re still being advertised to. ↩︎

  3. This might not be true, but if barrages of manipulation are the only thing keeping the economy afloat, the economy deserves to collapse. ↩︎

  4. This is especially true considering some products exist only to sell ads. Namely billboards. If billboards offered an opt-out fee so you wouldn’t have to look at them, we would rightly notice they are a racket. ↩︎