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Chapter 1: capitalism: Consumption

Why Advertising Is so Annoying – but Doesn’t Have to Be

Advertising has made a very bad name for itself. We don’t trust it or want much of it around so it has resorted to springing up on us in unexpected places.

- by the side of the road 

- at a football match 

- at the airport jetway 

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The relationship between consumer and advertiser has become like a game of nagging and pestering.

The advertiser feels the consumer doesn’t really want what’s on offer, but assumes that if it just keeps popping up all the time (and perhaps cracks a joke or gets half undressed), eventually the consumer will give up and buy the damned toothbrush, chocolate bar or insurance policy.

Badgering people can feel like a natural strategy for advertisers to fall back on when striving to gain our attention. After all, this is what we all did when we were very young and had no other options. A six-year-old has no capacity to rationally persuade her parents to buy her a goldfish but she will instinctively assume that asking a million times might just work (and, occasionally, it does). When we’re stressed to keep our jobs at the agency, we may return easily to such early badgering instincts.

The lamentable thing is that a badgering approach is unnecessary, because it isn’t as if most of us don’t want to buy things and have no material needs. We’re constantly wanting to shop. The act of buying isn’t something foisted upon us by an evil advertising industry – as people in advertising seem somehow to believe in their hearts. It’s something we naturally and spontaneously feel.

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However, at present, there’s simply no incentive for us to tell advertisers about what we might need because we don’t trust them not to keep bugging us if ever we were to reveal more about ourselves. They’ve annoyed us far too much already for us to let on about our interests. We don’t want to tell them that we’re potentially in the market for a new car and wouldn’t mind being shown some options for a nice woollen jacket. We’d never share such private information because we suspect how it might then all go: we’d be bothered ad nauseam, possibly for decades; we wouldn’t be presented with the real range of options and our details would be passed on to other firms selling utterly off-beat things, like inflatable dinghies and lunch boxes.

So instead, we just lie low and remain deeply guarded about sharing anything about our lives – which is what, in turn, leads advertisers to bully us and spy on us, to track our online moves and, when they’re really fed up and desperate, to bung up our computers with pop ups.

The relationship between customer and advertiser has wound up being marked by a total lack of trust on both sides. Customers don’t trust that advertisers will look after their real needs. And advertisers don’t trust that customers will listen to an honest pitch.

However sad the situation, it does hint at the shape of an eventual answer. If advertisers became more responsible, and could be trusted not to foist random things on us, then we would tell them about ourselves and our needs, perhaps quite a lot. The more we thought well of them, the more details we’d reveal – as we might to a friend.

But we only become friends with people we can trust; and that to date, doesn’t encompass the advertising industry. If these people want to earn our time and sincere attention, then they need to stop tracking us with cookies and trying to show up with hardly any clothes on in weird places.

Advertisers need to behave with the sort of dignity and self-respect of people who know they could properly improve the lives of others once they got to know them well. Then we might willingly start to listen and tell them about ourselves.

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