When Everything is an Advertisement and How to Cope

I’ll say it simply: I’m disgusted by the amount of advertising in the world today. I’ve been gradually working up to this fit, but the tipping point came the other day in a public bathroom. It was in a mall and the toilet paper was pre-printed with the name of a restaurant that is located in the mall. Out of curiosity, I checked the other stalls to see what their TP said and each stall had different retailers printed on the TP. It was bad enough when companies started advertising on the back of the stall doors, but this is one step too far. Can’t a person have one private moment when they aren’t bombarded by ads? I guess not.

This is just one example of advertising permeating every aspect of our daily lives. One day when you have some time (and a hardy stomach) try really tuning in to all the advertising around you. It’s on the Internet, on almost every page. It’s on TV and radio in increasingly long commercial blocks (and TV’s are everywhere from airports to hair salons to restaurants). Your bills have ads tucked into them, and don’t forget the deluge of junk mail and spam coming into your house every day.

Most movies now have blatant product placements, and that’s after you sit through the ads in the theater before the film starts. Ads are in magazines, newspapers, and now even some novels. Yes, some authors are being paid to push products in their novels. You’ll find ads on buses, trains, planes, doctor’s offices, and even park benches and shopping carts. Go to a store like Target, Wal-Mart or Best Buy and there are either TV screens showing ads for upcoming products or pre-recorded ads are playing over the loudspeakers.

Want to go to a sporting event? Be prepared for the ads in the program and on the jombo-tron. And don’t forget the corporate sponsorship of the arena itself. Even the last bastion of high culture, the theater, is not exempt, with most auditoriums now sporting corporate names and logos and putting advertising into the programs. Your kids are even getting blasted at school as many schools now show Channel One or make deals with corporations to provide materials in exchange for advertising or logo placement. Sponsored book covers, anyone?

Ads are everywhere and it seems there is no escaping them. I understand that companies need to advertise, at least to some extent, otherwise how would people know about their products. It’s how they make money. I get it. But when every public space is plastered with ads, has it gone too far? I think so.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this overdone advertising is just another by-product of our consumer based (obsessed?) society. We have so many products, variants of products, specialty products, and products for every conceivable need and condition available today that, even if you papered every surface with ads you still probably couldn’t show them all.

Take a laundry detergent with a basic formula as an example. It comes in powder and liquid, regular and concentrate. Then the manufacturer adds or subtract special scents. Then they add in fabric softener and/or bleach. Then they make a natural formula. Then they make more scents. Every single one of these product variations probably has it’s own ad. Within one “brand” of laundry detergent, you have the possibility for at least ten ads. Multiply that times every brand of every product that’s available today and you can see why the ad space is becoming overcrowded and overflowing into every corner of our lives.

So, what’s wrong with all this advertising? First of all, advertising leads to overspending. When you’re constantly bombarded with messages telling you to buy, buy, buy, you’re more apt to buy things you don’t need or really want. You buy because you believe it will improve your life, make you prettier, fill some void in your life, or make you part of the in-crowd-all messages cooked up by the ad agencies to sell you the product. We know intellectually that most claims aren’t true. No product, no matter how great, is going to change the core of our being. But still we buy. Some buying is necessary, but a lot of people get into trouble when they see ads and suddenly think, “I have to have that thing,” when five minutes ago they didn’t even know it existed or that they needed one.

That brings me to the second problem of over-advertising which is manufactured needs. We need shelter, clothes and food. We don’t need every gizmo on the planet, meals at expensive restaurants, designer clothes, or homes that look like designer showplaces. Yet the ad gurus would have you believe that you do indeed need all of those things so you’d better buy their products. Medical ads are the best at this. How many times have you heard an ad for a “condition” that sounds like something someone trumped up to sell drugs? Yes, there are some real conditions out there that require medication. But more and more it seems like we’re seeing things that were previously just considered a fact of life turned into “debilitating medical conditions” that can only be treated with expensive drugs. Are the conditions really that bad, or do the advertisers only want us to think so?

Third, all this advertising has a negative effect on our public spaces. Why spoil the beauty of a public park with ads on the benches? Remember when buildings, theaters or museums were named after people who did great things for the community, enshrining their names and deeds in our memories? Now most buildings are named after a faceless corporation. There’s no character in that, no sense of uniqueness or community.

Fourth, advertising overload isn’t good for us mentally. When kids are exposed to ads in school and everywhere else, they become obsessed with things and status at the expense of a joyful life and healthy relationships. Kids don’t have a filter that let’s them know some things are hype and fiction, so they believe a lot more than adults. Adults who don’t engage their filters are much the same way. Too much advertising makes it hard for us to make decisions because there is too much information, too much choice. Some people become stressed, afraid of making the wrong choice. I only speak for myself, but advertising overload makes me cranky and angry. When all I see are ads everywhere I go, I feel manipulated and used. Some people are depressed by advertising, knowing that they will never have the perfect body, the perfect house, or the perfect car. When you’re constantly told that you don’t measure up, it becomes depressing. Constant bombardment by any message takes it’s toll emotionally and advertising, with it’s images of perfection, success, and happiness that are not real, takes more of a toll than most.

So what is the solution? Short of some kind of large scale sea-change in the way we do business and consume in this world, I don’t think there is a solution that will see a scaling back of advertising. It’s become too ingrained and accepted. Companies have become too dependent upon it to want to voluntarily scale back their efforts. I fear that advertising will only become more prevalent in the future, not less (although how much more prevalent it can become since now even the toilet paper is being used, I don’t know). Does that mean we have to accept it and live with it? Not entirely, no. Here are some ways that you can limit your exposure to advertising and maybe help get rid of some of it.

1. Get rid of TV. This is the single most effective weapon in your anti-advertising arsenal. Most of the ads you are exposed to come via television. Simply cutting down or eliminating your use of TV will reduce your exposure to advertising. If you’re not ready to cut the cord entirely, think about getting a TiVo or other device that lets you record without commercials. Or rent commercial free DVD’s of your favorite shows. Without TV and its associated advertising, you’ll probably find that your spending and consumption goes down.

2. Move to a place that is less consumer focused. This may mean moving out of a large metropolitan area where ads are on every surface to a more rural area. It’s certainly not the answer for everyone, but in many rural and small towns advertising on walls, billboards, benches, buses, etc. is either tightly regulated or not permitted.

3. Practice actively tuning out advertising. Learn how to ignore advertising. When reading a magazine, don’t even stop on the ad pages. Same with a newspaper. Don’t even look at the ads in the Sunday paper unless you are looking for something specific. Carry a book with you when on mass transit so you don’t focus on the ads on the seat backs or bus roofs. Try to train your brain to filter out all the ads you see. It’s difficult, but with some practice you can reach a point where it doesn’t seem as intrusive because you’ve learned how to ignore it.

4. Deconstruct the ad. Most of the time, if you scrutinize an ad you’ll discover that what it’s telling you is false, highly exaggerated, or just plain silly. I’m fond of one running on our local radio right now that is advertising a new home community. The ad is trying to tell me what a hidden gem this place is by saying that, “It’s unbelievable that this development is located in this city, just minutes from anywhere. It’s unbelievable that such a hidden gem could be found in the heart of the city.” Uh, huh. Unbelievable that in an area famous for overdevelopment and sprawl that yet another development is located within the city limits? I don’t think so. Try highly likely. When you do encounter advertising that is close to hooking you and getting you to spend, deconstruct it and you’ll probably end up laughing, not spending.

5. Opt out of junk mail. It is possible to drastically reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. You can sign up at optoutprescreen to have your name removed from prescreened credit card offers. Read the privacy policies that companies send you to uncover the ways to opt out of information sharing. And opting out with the Direct Marketing Association will drastically cut the number of unsolicited offers you receive.

6. Don’t patronize businesses whose advertising practices you disapprove of. I can tell you that I’ll probably never eat in the restaurant that advertised on the toilet paper, or patronize any of the other businesses I saw in that bathroom. If a company is advertising in places that you think are inappropriate, vote with your wallet and don’t go there.

7. Let school boards and governments know that you don’t want your kids exposed to advertising in school. Yes, schools are short of money these days and many see selling ads and sponsorships as a way to make up the difference. But at what cost? Let your local school system know that you don’t want your kids exposed to advertising when they are supposed to be learning facts. At the very least suggest that, if the school is going to sell advertising, then they need to have a curriculum that teaches kids how to deconstruct and evaluate an ad so that they can learn to make informed decisions.

8. Complain to the store manager that you don’t want ads on your shopping carts, or on the store radio, or on the television screen. Explain that you would like to do your shopping in peace, without being bombarded by extra ads. It’s not like the whole store isn’t one big ad already with products placed just so and displayed in ways to maximize their attractiveness; there’s no need to compound the problem.

9. Sign up for e-billing. When you get your bills electronically, you generally avoid the advertising inserts that come tucked into the bills. There are some exceptions, like my utility company who delivers my bill in .pdf format, complete with scans of the ad inserts, but at least I don’t have to print and dispose of those pages.

10. Write directly to the companies doing the advertising and ask them to tone it down. They probably won’t listen, but if enough people complained they’d do something. It can’t hurt to try.

11. Let your local leaders know that you don’t want your community’s buildings named after corporations. Like schools, many governments have discovered that they can fill their coffers if they sell naming rights to public buildings. Let your local leaders know you don’t want them to do this and point out how it destroys your community’s uniqueness.

12. Try to avoid situations where you will be exposed to lots of advertising. It’s getting harder, what with it being in the bathroom and all, but there are ways to limit exposure. Don’t hang out in the mall or stores for fun. Go only when you need something, get it and get out. Get to the movie theater just in time for the show to avoid the ads that roll beforehand. Don’t buy the program when you go to the theater or sporting events. Enable your popup blocker on your web browser to stop those ads. Block more computer ads by turning off images and Java in your browser, at least when visiting sites where those things don’t impede the basic functionality that you need. Think about the ads you encounter most often and then strategize to minimize exposure.

13. Learn about marketer’s tricks and you’ll learn how to defeat them. Some good books on the subject are:

  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
  • Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping
  • The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life
  • Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
  • Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers
  • Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping
  • Why People Buy Things They Don’t Need: Understanding and Predicting Consumer Behavior

14. If you love radio, think about satellite radio. Yes, it’s an additional expense but possibly worth it if you listen to a lot of music and want to avoid advertising. If you would be buying the things you hear advertised, you might save money with satellite radio.

It may not be possible to counter all of the advertising you see and its negative effects, but it is possible and, I would argue, worthwhile to cut down as much as possible. It’s also worthwhile to speak out about advertising that bothers you and let companies and businesses know that you’ve had enough. A reduction in your exposure to advertising will probably result in reduced spending and increased mental health.

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12 Responses to When Everything is an Advertisement and How to Cope

  1. Lisa says:

    Theres something quite not right about a restaurant wiping your ***. The way I would think about the restaurant would be changed to unsanitary.

  2. Lisa says:

    Sorry, “not quite right”

  3. Ben says:

    Look at this website of yours.

    Look at all these GOOGLE ADS.


  4. Joan.of.the.Arch says:

    Hey, are you advertising those books?

  5. Rose says:

    I agree with a lot of your comments, so I’m sorry to be the one to tell you about this:


  6. pfadvice says:

    Look at this website of yours.

    Look at all these GOOGLE ADS.


    She gets a pass on this…although Jennifer writes for the site, she has no control over the ads on it – that is my responsibility. — Jeffrey Strain

  7. reginald says:

    There is a difference between “recommending” and “advertising.” If she were to make money if you bought the books, that would be advertising. She is merely recommending them.

  8. classy says:

    That toilet paper with advertisements on it makes it free to you. Wouldn’t you rather have it there than none at all?

  9. GaelicWench says:

    Ah, the old addage, “There’s truth in advertising.” I agree. Advertising on toilet tissue in a public restroom is taking it too far.

    Here’s how I see it…..I don’t like ads. But think of how much we’d have to pay for access to our favorite websites if it weren’t for the revenue the owner gets from the advertisers.

    Worse yet, I’d hate to see what our cable and satellite dish bills would come to if it weren’t for all those blasted commercials.

    Wonder if someone’s trying to come up with an internet-type Tivo?

  10. Shannon says:

    A few thoughts:

    1. You’re right about some conditions being made up. I know someone in medical advertising, and he said that restless leg syndrome actually WAS created by the pharmaceutical industry because they had a drug that helped that previously “undiscovered” condition but didn’t have a name/diagnosis for it.

    2. If you do avoid a place of business whose advertising practices you don’t like, it helps to let them know why you’re doing it, so they realize that they’re not losing business because of the economy or your tastes, etc.

    3. Also, though ads make some websites free to the user, don’t malls usually cover the cost of toilet paper in their restrooms even without the ads? I’m not buying classy’s argument.

  11. typome says:

    While advertising does offer free options such as television, a closer look at the process shows that it’s hardly “free” at all. If companies eliminated or toned down their advertising budgets (which tend to run in the millions and even billions), they could lower the cost of their products.

    What may seem “free” (i.e. television) is usually paid for in other ways (higher costs for the advertised products).

  12. Gail says:

    Several years ago we decided to cancel cable TV and use the money on something else. We have never connected it back up so we no longer get bombarded with commercials. Although we have an antennae up on the roof that could be connected to the TV, after living here for a year, we just haven’t bothered. We watch videos and DVD’s, many picked up at yard sales for cheap. Last year we canceled the newspaper and all it’s advertisements. I rarely turn on the radio and then it is supposedly ad free PBS. We haven’t missed a single ad nor do we have those longings for whatever we just saw on the TV.

    Advertising on the TP is gross, but you can make an effort to control the biggest bunch of advertising and that is cut that cable cord! People had a life before TV and cable and if it was suddenly gone, they would still go on living! I have always been surprised by people who are so financially stressed that they don’t know how they will pay their bills, but they refuse to give up their TV addiction.

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