Robin Hanson has a very Robin Hansonny post up:
- In praise of ads (Overcoming Bias)
It’s fairly short, so you should go read the whole thing, but I’m a big fan of this bit:
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.
I’ve been arguing for some time that the news media exist primarily to sell advertising space and only incidentally to provide whatever acts of journalism they may inflict upon innocent consumers. If you want a paper without ads, you probably want a paper that costs twenty bucks a copy (and for which there’s no market, which is why you can’t get one). Oh, are you one of those clever fellows who uses something like Adblock Plus? Congratulations, you’re a moocher! Savvy folk like you evade online ads, but the sites that depend upon ad revenue don’t get any less dependent — so they make ads ever more intrusive, to the detriment of people like your grandmother who aren’t quite as savvy. Dick.
But if most people dislike ads, it’s interesting to ask why. Robin has some ideas:
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 which we espouse. According to our still deeply-embedded forager sensibilities, identities are supposed to be formed via informal interactions between apparently equal associates who share basic values.
Permit me to offer a couple more:
First of all, the story that “ads are an evil destructive manipulative force that exists only because big bad firms run the world, and use ads to control us all” isn’t just a great piece of anti-corporate, pro-the-rest-of-us in-group signalling (which is useful by itself, as you’ve noticed by my use of the word “signalling”). It’s also a great way to abrogate responsibility. “Oh, it’s not my fault that I just devoured a large cheese-crust pizza and washed it down with two litres of Coke — teh ebil corporate ads brainwashed me into thinking I wanted it!” It’s a fantastically (heh) effective fairy tale to tell when cognitive dissonance rears its ugly head: If someone (or some group) is behaving in a way that’s inconsistent with your world-view, it must be because an evil corporation or special interest group or even the Goddamn Liberal Media has advertised to them.
Were that the case, I don’t doubt that McDonalds and &c. would have brainwashed us all into believing that soyburgers are the tastiest things on the planet — surely it’s more profitable to turn soy directly into a burger patty and sell that to the consumer than it is to run tons of it through a cow first. The fact that they haven’t — indeed, fast food menus are chasing consumer preference rather than creating it — suggests to me that advertising isn’t quite so goddamn powerful as we like to pretend. But rather than acknowledge an unpleasant truth, we prefer to double down (heh) and impute to ads ever more astonishing powers of persuasion.
My second suggestion is unrelated: We feel cheated by ads. Here I am, trying to watch a football game on a cable channel I’m already paying for. All of a sudden, play stops, and General Motors is trying to sell me a Buick on the startlingly unlikely premise that the fucking thing’s sporty. This isn’t what I bought! I bought a (subscription to a (cable package which includes a)) sports channel! Get the fuck off of my TV, General Motors, you parasitic wretch, and get back to the bittersweet spectacle of the Bengals breaking my heart again!
Nobody subscribes to a basic cable and ads package, or reads a blog for political commentary and ads. The ads tag along in an unwelcome symbiosis. The only exceptions that spring to mind are movie trailers and Super Bowl ads — welcome and expected parts of either experience.
(I’d add something about most ads landing somewhere in the realm between banal and idiotic — no, AdSense, I don’t need to know the one weird tip that a mom discovered to give me striated glutes — but people read Buzzfeed and watch Two And A Half Men, so I’m not convinced that the ads are any worse than the content.)
In any case, if you’re not paying through the nose for some content you enjoy, you should probably thank advertisers for the privilege.