Editorial Notebook

The big problems with ads

If there is one element of society (besides teenagers) who keep up with the latest technology, it’s the advertisement industry. This business is working hard to create advertisements that people will watch in their entirety, rather than simply mute or click away from. There are a lot of types of ads, and I’ll go into a few different ones, but first—YouTube. YouTube has a feature that I’m sure many of you have seen where longer ads are shown–the caveat—you can bypass the ad after a few seconds. This relatively new feature highlights an important trend in advertisements—making people find those ads enjoyable.

The best example of this is the Super Bowl. How many of your friends/family have uttered the phrase, “I’m really only watching for the ads?” I know that I’m certainly guilty of it; the behemoth corporations that have the money to afford air time during the Super Bowl (not an easy feat) put effort into making those commercials funny and intuitive. I remember one of the Doritos’ ads from the last Super Bowl. It featured a kid who “made” a time machine that ran on Doritos so that he could scam his gullible neighbor out of his. Honestly, I must have clicked the replay button on that ad at least 10 times in a row before it even started to get old. If this is the effect it had on me—someone who knows the strategies, bait, and consequences of buying into ads—imagine what a non-informed layman, or child might think seeing this.

However, these trends are not very good for the average consumer. Take the pharmaceutical industry—advertisements have significantly changed the way drugs are sold. It used to be that pharmaceutical companies sold to doctors (of course they still do, but to a lesser extent). That was their target demographic. But now, we’ve seen the rise of commercials pushing these drugs into the consumer realm. Everywhere we see billboards, and TV commercials imploring us to by Cymbalta, or Xanax, or Nasacort, using familiar images that evoke that sense that we are not alone. But that person in the TV or on that billboard isn’t, and by its very nature cannot be there for you. But now, these companies are so far entrenched into society that today’s generation will have a hard time recalling a time when there weren’t medicines advertised on TV with those hilariously sped up side-effects blurbs that are often worse than the disease that they seek to cure at the end. Heck, the spell check on Microsoft Word gave me notifications that I was spelling some of these companies’ names wrong.

In essence, we are being fed a sales pitch: over, and over, and over again. These ads appeal to our strong need for complex sensory stimulation, and need for conformity. I would warrant that 99 percent of you could off the top of your head recall the Geico slogan, and that’s no accident. In a world where time is money, our freedom of thought is being taken away by wealthy companies who have a team of people that are constantly finding ways to use our minds against us. These companies use the principles of conditioning which you could learn in any introductory psychology course, to make sure their ad leaves a lasting impression, and that given enough time, will cause their target demographic to purchase their product.

Even charitable organizations are guilty of this abuse. If you’ve seen the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s commercials, you’ll see clear as day the strong pathos appeal; graphic images as well as loaded language are used to make a lasting impact on the viewers watching. If these companies can make their demographic feel a certain way, then they can almost certainly cause them to behave in a way that is desirable to their organization.

While advertisements can further charitable organizations and help engender awareness of issues, it can just as easily be used to prevent them from ever seeing the light of day. There are several good examples of this. A great example: politics, and political campaigning. Aggressive, mudslinging ads are a norm of the election season. Now, many people have argued that these advertisements are a form of free speech—protected by the first amendment. Many of these policies have been affirmed by the Supreme Court. But, this is inherently harmful. It assures that the people with the most money to put into buying airtime can smother opposing issues. In today’s world, the flow of information is a critical part of a successful outreach for almost any issue. By allowing wealth to determine the informstion we can see, we essentially destroy the ability of smaller advocacy groups to be heard. Some of you might say, “Well, they can have a website or a blog, and distribute their content there, or via social networks.” But, this essentially forgets a key part of advertising: the amount of outreach you can achieve with a successful and expensive, ad campaign dwarfs the amount of hits a group’s Facebook, or Twitter, or blog is going to garner.

In essence, we’ve allowed money to determine the volume of a person or groups’ voice. Now, this may seem controversial, after all, money makes the world go round. This however is degrading the value of the phrase, “one person can make a difference.” Sure, one person can do great things, but when the value of speech is considerably higher than that of the average middle-class layman’s salary, they have to rely on the volatile and often very random process of ‘going viral’, which is nowhere near as reliable a method, in essence, your chance of getting heard is like the chance of you winning the lottery.

In conclusion, I’m not arguing that all advertisements are bad, or that the idea of capitalism in the advertisement industry is wrong. I’m arguing that this is a serious issue that highlights the rather severe disparity in just how much speech different socio-economic classes have depending on that classes’ wealth. It also raises the serious issue of how our behavior is influenced by these advertisements. The question that we need to ask ourselves, looking into the future, is what exactly we as a society should do to make sure that the advertisement industry doesn’t become inherently harmful.