Is advertising evil?

I’m considering a career in the advertising industry. I find the field incredibly interesting, love the intersection of business and human behavior, and enjoy working with creative people. But in the back of my mind I have lingering questions about the field. Go out to any random bar, and surely you’ll be able to find someone who can list 10 compelling reasons why advertising is ruining society. On the flip side, you can probably also find someone in that bar who can list 10 equally compelling reasons for the economic value that advertising helps create. My interest about whether or not advertising is evil has risen this week in response to several news stories:

1) Google’s Anti-trust hearing with the FTC: In short, the search giant is being accused of abusing their market dominance and harming consumers in the process. One piece of this is how Google’s placement of advertising has evolved over time. Ten years ago, they barely featured any ads. Today, a google search looks quite different. For a company that makes nearly all of their revenue through advertising, it certainly seems that they have an incentive to increase the number of ads and decrease the number of organic search results.

2) Facebook’s new Timeline and Open Graph: Some have argued that Facebook’s new architecture has been enhanced mainly to create an amazing advertising platform. And when you realize that your actions will sometimes generate sponsored stories with your name on them, but without your knowledge, you can certainly start to see how it could be perceived this way. 

3) Disney targets babies: In the Adweek cover story this week, the magazine talks about how marketers are increasingly targeting babies to get early influence with a generation that will be using smartphones within their first few years of life. One story in this article was particularly interesting. Apparently Disney has partnered with a photography company that takes pictures of mothers and babies after they’ve given birth to offer the mom’s free Disney onesies in exchange for their email address. Back off, advertisers, the kid can’t even see clearly!

But you have to consider the flip side to all of these stories. Google’s incredible ad revenue has given them the money to create amazing products that have simplified and enhanced the human experience. They also give a lot back. For example, they’ve begun building low income housing (although it seems that this move will also generate healthy returns). Facebook timeline will arguably create a far more emotional and meaningful user experience that will transform our online social life for the better. And Disney has created more happiness in children around the world than any other brand I can think of, and for a lot of people, a free onesie is a welcomed gift.

So is advertising evil? Unfortunately, I think the best answer is still the unsatisfactory one: “it depends.” 

Certainly nagging questions remain about the motives of our most beloved brands. Is it that we’re unaware that we’re being marketed to that makes us uncomfortable? I don’t think so. My friend Matt Summers would actually argue that mystery and the unknown actually enhances brands in our minds. Or maybe it’s more the sense of deception doesn’t sit well. This seems feasible. Most likely its the proliferation of advertising that most alarms people. It simply seems to be everywhere today, from the baseball park to my friend’s blog to the delivery room.

But all is not lost. In the face of this proliferation, there is a real opportunity to do good by creating value for consumers. To educateentertain and engage. Given the advent of the digital age, this is more possible than ever. This gives me real hope about the direction of advertising and I’m excited to be a part of it.


3 Comments

  1. Mary Beth Swibes

    It depends I suppose is the best answer. Advertising and sports heroes have something in common. At the end of the day, it's up to each of us to separate fact from fiction, useful information from trivia and control our own behaviors. Ads and sports heroes are fun to watch but we shouldn't base our lives on them. A friend of mind has a motto that I think is relevent here, "Absorb, Assess, Act." I enjoy watching commercials. Some show amazing creativity! I absorb the ad, I assess it and then I can choose to act. And as Mary Kay Ash says, "Nothing happens until someone sells something." We like to buy things… doesn't it make sense that someone needs to be there to sell it? And ads share the opportunity. Thanks for writing this, Jon!

  2. Well, I don't agree. To me advertising creates a big chunk of unfulfilled desire in people, and that is ultimately negative. Advertising coupled with product price strategies which maximize business return, inevitably display products and create desire in people who couldn't possibly or shouldn't buy the products. The best outcome of this desire is work, so as to be able to afford the product. The worse outcome of this is despair, by being continually confronted by very convincing advertising that makes one want something one cannot have, and good advertising is very good at doing exactly that.

    I lead a pretty much advertising free life (record TV and skip all the TV commercials, ad-block online, no junk mail – DMA opt-out and Acxiom opt-out), etc. There's very little that I want, and I think I'm a lot happier for that.

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