19 January 2011

Could we live ad-free?

I don't watch TV, have a 'No junk mail' sticker on the mail box and keep 'Ad Block' installed on my computer browser. Even so, I see dozens of ads every day, on buses and cars, tee-shirts and shop windows, magazines and billboards. Like most people, I think I'm fairly savvy about the techniques used by the advertising industry and assume I'm resistant to their words and images. But businesses wouldn't advertise unless there was evidence that all those ads do actually have some effect. Even if I don't respond to the ad that says "Buy this product", I may well end up responding to the friend or work mate who says "Have you tried this?" 

Advertising techniques are improving (if that's the right word for it) all the time. Technology now allows the advertising that we see on the Internet to be tailored to our particular gender, age, interests and needs. Information about what pages we visit, what images we click on and biographical details (such as our date of birth) submitted by us to some sites is collated and used to select ads that are more likely to appeal to us. So what you see on a given web page may not be the same as what I see. The advertising industry argues that this reduces the amount of advertising we have to deal with and makes it more interesting and useful to us. I'm sticking with AdBlock.

Should we be concerned about our exposure to advertising? Is it just the background noise of our culture, or does it have an effect on us that we should resist? After all, some advertising is useful in that it provides us with information we need to make choices. When I'm considering purchasing, say, a new mobile phone, I deliberately go looking for ads to help me decide which one to buy. Some ads are really quite entertaining. And most churches and other Christian organisations use advertising themselves. What makes it a problem?

My first thought is that advertising is an obstacle to developing the gift of contentment (Philippians 4:12, 1 Timothy 6:6-8). The industry is geared not just to selling products, but creating a felt need for new products that we've happily done without up to now. Contented cows may be good for selling dairy products, but people who are content are not good for business.

Some advertising also seeks to create a sense of anxiety about our social acceptability and our approval by others. Often such ads are very subtle in the way they suggest that if we used their product, our social standing, our attractiveness, our sex appeal, or even our virtue would be enhanced. Most of us probably see many more ads in a day than we read scripture verses assuring us of our acceptance and approval by God. 

As an aside, as I've been writing this post, I've become aware of how easily advertising slogans slip into our vocabulary. I assumed that you would recall which ad I was referring to when I mentioned 'contented cows'. (If you didn't, don't worry, some slogans reveal the age of the writer.) But I had to look up the verses in Philipians 4 and 1 Timothy 6 about being content. What does that say about my exposure to advertising versus scripture?

I also wonder about the effect of the advertising industry on those who are involved in it. A recent documentary about the making of the 'roller-blading babies' ad for Evian showed the extraordinary amount of creative skill, talent and dedication (not to mention money) that went into making it. It was fascinating, but after watching it I felt sad that so much time and talent was being used to create something so ephemeral, in order to sell a product as unnecessary as bottled water.

There are regulations about honesty and fair dealing in advertising. Yet the regulations have to be constantly updated as the advertising industry finds new and subtle ways of getting around them. (The "Bundy Bear" ads, for instance, are geared to attract the attention of children while not overtly breaching the rules about advertising alcohol to children.) I'm not suggesting that all advertising is corrupt, but what does this constant striving to subvert the rules while staying within the law do for those involved?

And what does the ethos of the advertising industry do for churches and other Christian organisations which hire their services or copy their methods? Some of the material I receive from charities seems to adopt the advertising industry's worst techniques of appealing to my sense of insecurity and need for approval, while competing for market share.

Some churches are also turning to evangelistic methods that owe more to the advertising industry than to scripture. Entertainment and novelty are the hooks that catch people's attention. Images of happy smiling (clean, well dressed, definitely not homeless) people appeal to their need for approval and belonging. Salvation becomes the free gift given away with every membership sold. 

Am I being too critical? What are your concerns about advertising? What do you do to avoid being unduly influenced by the ads around you?

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