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In Defense of Advertising

By Martin Kihn | January 11, 2017 | 1 Comment

Advertising is the gin in the engine of capitalism. It is the three per cent of our gross domestic product that juices up the other ninety-seven. Directly and indirectly, it employs a workforce of a million of the best creative spirits in the land – true creatives, with a flair for drama, not the tech utopians and pixel ninjas outfitted as our better hope.

A world without advertising is an economy flatlined, a melting horizon. You do not believe me; I know. The ad industry is measurably responsible for about 19% of our GDP, which in a good year grows at 4%. This math is not difficult. Subtract the ad business and the beneficent flywheel effects – Buy this thing! Hire her to make it! Start this new thing! Advertise it! – and where are you?

Say, down 15% in our natural output. Waking to a very dark, a very cold, dawn.


It gets worse. Advertising literally invented Big Data. It put advanced analytics and the infrastructure of the modern cloud in the public domain, where it changes our lives. Massive data processing requirements forced the perfection of predictive models, machine learning, deep learning, smart machines – all funded, almost from start to finish, by ad dollars.

Like it or not, Google and Facebook – two of the five most valuable objects on earth – are media companies. All but denying it, both depend on ad revenue. Meanwhile, Amazon, another top five pocket rocket, has a large and thriving ad selling business they also steam up – a business that may, by about 2018, be more cash-positive than all the boxes that it sends.

Advertising is the reason Facebook recognizes your brother in a crowd. It’s why your sister studies data science on the side. It’s why you trade in your car, on average, every three years, and why you buy a new razor when the old one works fine. It is why television is in its third Golden Age and radio descends into partisan rancor: they both need an audience to sell.

Advertising is the reason news exists. It funds neutrality. Anton Chekhov said, “Advertising is the very essence of democracy.” This is what he meant. A world without sponsored ads belongs to sponsored truth. It is captive to the infiltrated talk show and the phony-ass chart, the biased white paper and the bogus straw poll.

There is no dearth of big companies happy to give you big facts. Without ads, those are the only facts you get. Oddly enough, the lie that is advertising allows honesty to happen.

And yet . . . we hate it. Or we think that we do. Fully four in five Americans say they don’t “trust” advertising. This is logical. And three in five say it makes their lives “worse.” This is not. Ad men and women belong to the second least-admired profession in the developed world. The only group who are more despised are – yes – lawyers.

In recent years, digital ad blocking technology has been used by more than 80 million people, imperiling publishers, and 57% of video viewers skip ads when they can. Consumers grow ungrateful. They don’t realize that advertising is the simple tax we pay for art and information.

AT&T launched WEAF in New York in 1922 running non-stop infomercials. Within a year, it had twenty-five advertisers and no programs. Radio hobbyist David Sarnoff built the NBC network stealing acts from Vaudeville. Ads were loaded after every song and sketch (Lucky Strike: “So round, so firm . . . .”)

An article in the trade journal Printers’ Ink said:

“The family circle is not a public place, and advertising has no business intruding there unless it is invited.”

Life Savers created CBS.

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1 Comment

  • Florin Braghis says:

    Oh come on!

    Is our imagination so limited that we can’t imagine a world in which people aren’t subliminally conditioned to consume at every breath ?

    The economy grows ? But does it need to ? It does under current system, otherwise it will collapse in on itself… but do we really *need* to consume more ?

    Aren’t we fed enough, ‘gadgetified’ enough, entertained enough, informed enough, traveled enough already ?

    Overabundance isn’t enough of a word to describe the kind of hedonistic excesses that we’re able to engage in every day..

    It’s not just the negative environmental effects, it’s much simpler than that – we’re going to literally explode :).

    The old system, oiled by advertising and marketing had its course. We’ve developed cool new science and technology, but we cannot go on doing that.

    Our civilisation needs to come to terms with the futility of this excessive lifestyle and start reinventing ourselves – redefining what existence is about …

    Advertising should go – and with it all the unnecessary bullshit that plagues the Internet and the economy. Good content will keep on being published, necessary things will keep on being consumed.