What would life be like if advertising was banned? I ask because I personally find advertising annoying, and at times totally infuriating. And according to many who research social and economic equality it makes a serious contribution to our levels of inequality.
At a practical level, advertising does absolutely nothing to help supply our needs, the things we really value. If we need and value something we do not need prompting to seek it out. All advertising does is create wants and desires that otherwise would probably not exist, and makes us feel dissatisfied when these wants and desires are not met. The non-existence of these manufactured wants and desires would not only do us no harm, but may actually improve our lives. Buying less stuff, stuff people work very hard to convince us we want, which we have to earn the money to pay for, would make our lives easier and less stressful. And it would certainly help sustain natural resources and our environment.
What really set this train of thought off was the World Cup. Now I don’t watch that much television, and when I do it tends to be a BBC channel rather than a commercial one – simply because I want to avoid the adverts. And I certainly don’t go out of my way to watch football. But when it’s all around you it’s hard to avoid being sucked in, and some of the matches were screened in ITV. Watching them I felt more overwhelmed than usual by the power of the ‘commercial breaks’. Not only did I find them annoying, some, those for various on-line betting companies for example, I though bordered on being anti-social and unethical. But not only that, it occurred to me that I seem to manage totally well in life without being subjected to such demands for my money.
But I’m also a realist. I acknowledge that there is a problem with my attitude. How would commercial TV and radio survive without the revenue it receives from advertising? This is a genuine problem that I do not have a solution for. Even though my viewing and listening habits tend to focus on the BBC, I accept that they are by no means perfect and that they should by no means have a monopoly on what is being broadcast. If they did it would be one giant step towards government control of broadcast media and a retrograde step for democracy and openness.
There’s a similar set of problems when it comes to on-line advertising. In an article for the current edition of the New Statesman, Ian Leslie makes a distinction between what he calls ‘the Advertising Industry’, the traditional advertising agencies that come up with the media campaigns that we are all too familiar with and that are behind the television adverts referred to above, and the ‘Advertising Business’ which is what we experience on-line. This new approach doesn’t go in for ‘creative’ campaigns. Rather it collects data from our on-line activities and directs simple adverts towards us, targeted to what the various algorithms have calculated we are interested in. These adverts are even more annoying than the television ones. Some, and the website of my local newspaper is a prime example, so bombard you with adverts that it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate around the site. I can’t quite workout why the operators of these sites don’t consider the possibility that such aggressive advertising might actually put people off visiting them.
But again, a similar problem exists. Much on-line content is paid for by the adverts they display. Many sites could not survive without them. And despite the growing criticism of many on-line companies, the internet has been responsible for a massive democratisation of knowledge. I may be getting old and grumpy, I may even have a far too idealistic view of what life could be like, but for all its ills I wouldn’t want my access to information available on the internet restricted by my ability to pay.
However, despite my acceptance of all these problems, and my total inability to think of solutions, I still believe that advertising is responsible for much of the misery and inequality society faces. As Danny Dorling, also writing in a recent edition of the New Statesman, has said: “The advertising industry…displays the economics of inequality at play: convincing those with less to buy more of what they did not need to enrich those already best off.” So, just for an experiment, why don’t we find out what would happen if advertising were banned – even if only for a month?