By Evert F. Baumgardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The mass media reshaped our society in the 20th century. Very few people now living remember life before mass media, and that number will only decrease in the years to come. And yet, the media is under attack by the new, more distributed information culture that first arose online. The outcome of that battle though has yet to be decided. Looking back on different transitions in history, sometimes the new wins out over the old… but sometimes the old shuts down or delays the new, for decades if not hundreds of years. Which will this be, I wonder?

I studied media and communications in college, along with politics and history, so this is a huge interest of mine. One area that my courses covered was propaganda and the inter-relationships that has had with advertising. My own conclusion from studying this is that we are all being subjected to the most pervasive mind-control experiment ever conducted, with no control group and no oversight on the experimenters. Personally, I think history will look back on the way we allow these techniques and technologies of influence to be used on people with horror, the same way we now look at the techniques and technologies of medieval “medicine” (leeching, bleeding, etc.).

Is advertising good? Certainly most people seem comfortable with it… but I would submit that that’s because by and large everyone now living grew up with it. In a way, it’s like oxygen… it’s just there. But that doesn’t mean that it is actually good. Certainly if you have something to sell, the idea that you’d try to get people to be interested in buying it SEEMS good… on the surface. But if a product can’t stand on its own merits, for the purposes for which it is ostensibly used for, is it worth buying? And if it is not in fact worth buying, is advertising to get someone to buy it anyway good? I think most people would answer that question no… while saying they can tell the difference.

The problem is that if you look at the amounts of money spent on advertising, which frequently dwarf the money put into product development, customer service and support, even documentation of how to use those products, you’d quickly have to conclude that there’s a reason for the huge amounts spent on the field of influence and psychology. In fact, we are influenced to buy things based on advertising, however much we may think we are resistant to it.

Like I said, I studied media and advertising in college. I’m also an information addict, always looking for more accurate and correct information when making purchasing decisions. Yet, in looking at my own purchasing habits, I have to say there are some things I’ve bought more as aspirational (which can be directly attributed to the advertising) as opposed to functional. I really like some of those products too… but bottom line, I may not have bought them without the advertising. One of my favorite examples is the Dyson vacuum. I love my Dyson, and it’s honestly been a solid vacuum. But it’s not the top-rated at Consumer Reports (which is frequently one of my go-to sources for information on a product like this).

So why did I buy it? At least partly it’s because of the appeal of the commercials, which are all about the design and engineering value. Those are things that I do honestly think the vacuum has, but they’re much more subjective and harder to quantify. From my standpoint, the vacuum itself is very easy to use and makes logical sense in a way that a lot of other vacuums don’t. But then again… I’m actually an Engineer in my career. Based on how my older parents interact with this vacuum (the few times they’ve used it), it’s apparently not at all logical or sensible.

Ultimately at least some of this is subjective, which I think does leave room for more value-based appeals. But at the same time, a lot of ads really push the limits, implying that their products will do things which no product is capable of. The overall environment, of every moment of our lives suffused with advertising, is also something that dearly needs to be taken into account.

In episode 37, Matt and I talked about sports bars and the walls and walls of TVs that they tend to have nowadays. The overall environments around these places can be incredibly noisy. Looking at other bars, a lot of them have felt the pressure and added more and more TVs as the prices have come down. And the end result is a much more noise-filled, “busy” environment for all of us.

All of this has an impact. That’s really what I’m saying. I think we should be having a lot more public dialog on this, before we just allow it. Too often now, we just take the default as if it’s a given. And companies exploit that to push us into things we’d never agree to. For example, look at Facebook’s continually advancing push to get people to share things completely public. They’ll back off a little if there’s an outcry or pushback over going too far, but they never quite restore things to how they were. They just back off a little, and after a few months, they try again. It’s really like the old (but inaccurate) fable on the frog in a pot of water. Try to put the frog in when the water is already boiling and he’ll jump out… but if you put him in and then gradually heat the water, he’ll boil alive. (SIDENOTE: that’s actually not true… a frog would leap out of the water once it crossed a certain heat threshold… and also his legs wouldn’t work in boiling water so he’d be unable to jump out. I just thought that was interesting… the metaphor is still a useful one though).

For decades now the media have provided free over-the-air TV with ads. There was an unspoken deal that in return for the free content, you agreed to sit through the ads. No one ever sat down and negotiated that deal, it was just the accepted conventional wisdom of how TV worked. But for most of my life, I’ve actually paid for TV. And by paying, I expect to have a say in what I’m getting. Yet more and more, the line that the media pushes is that they get to decide what you watch. They try again and again to remove our ability fast forward through advertising or skip their anti-piracy warnings. They treat it as a violation of that original content deal, that we’re getting something we don’t deserve somehow. I completely disagree with that. If I’m paying, I want it to be ad-free. Those ads are taking away from my time, and they’re using the technologies of influence to try and get us to do things that we wouldn’t decide to do without that.

As a cord-cutter, I’ve experienced life without advertising in my TV shows. In addition to having extra time back from the commercials, I’ve also found that the things I watch are only the things that I truly want to watch. That’s given me back quite a lot of time. That’s time I can use for all kinds of productive things. It’s really amazing how much time we allowed ourselves to lose to the mass media, when they were able to dictate to us completely how we “consumed content”. They’d like to take us all back to that. I say, don’t let them. Take control of your life. Take control of your time. And especially take control of your media. Don’t let them win this fight.