In Praise Of Ads

As Katja and I discussed in our podcast on ads, most people we know talk as if they hate, revile, and despise ads. They say ads are an evil destructive manipulative force that exists only because big bad firms run the world, and use ads to control us all.

Yet most such folks accept the usual argument that praises news and research for creating under-provided info which is often socially valuable. And a very similar argument applies to ads. By creating more informed consumers, ads induce producers to offer better prices and quality, which benefits other consumers.

This argument can work even if ads are not optimally designed to cram a maximal amount of relevant info into each second or square inch of ads. After all, news and research can be good overall even if most of it isn’t optimally targeted toward info density or social value. Critics note that the style of most most ads differs greatly from the terse no-nonsense textbook, business memo, or government report that many see as the ideal way to efficiently communicate info. But the idea that such styles are the most effective ways to inform most people seems pretty laughable.

While ad critics often argue that ads only rarely convey useful info, academic studies of ads usually find the sort of correlations that you’d expect if ads often conveyed useful product info. For example, there tend to be more ads when ads are more believable, and more ads for new products, for changed products, and for higher quality products.

Many see ads as unwelcome persuasion, changing our beliefs and behaviors contrary to how we want these to change. But given a choice between ad-based and ad-free channels, most usually choose ad-based channels, suggesting that they consider the price and convenience savings of such channels to more than compensate for any lost time or distorted behaviors. Thus most folks mostly approve (relative to their options) of how ads change their behavior.

Many complain that ads inform consumers more about the images and identities associated with products than about intrinsic physical features. We buy identities when we buy products. But what is wrong with this if identities are in fact what consumers want from products? As Katja points out, buying identities is probably greener than buying physical objects.

So why do so many say they hate ads if most accept ad influence and ads add socially-valuable info? One plausible reason is that ads expose our hypocrisies – to admit we like ads is to admit we care a lot about the kinds of things that ads tend to focus on, like sex appeal, and we’d rather think we care more about other things.

Another plausible reason is that we resent our core identities being formed via options offered by big greedy firms who care little for the ideals we espouse. According to our still deeply-embedded forager sensibilities, identities are supposed to be formed via informal interactions between apparently equal allies who share basic values.

But if we accept that people want what they want, and just seek to get them more of that, we should praise ads. Ads inform consumers, which disciplines firms to better get consumers what they want. And if you don’t like what people want, then blame those people, not the ads. Your inability to persuade people to want what you think they should want is mostly your fault. If you can’t get people to like your product, blame them or yourself, not your competition.

Added 10a: Matt at Blunt Object offers more explanations.

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