2015-04-20 Andrius Grigorjevas

So what is advertising?

My friend Dmitrij recently read a post by Richard Shotton, where the head of insight at ZenithOptimedia claimed that advertising benefits the society. And Dmitrij got very angry.

You can find the original post here: warc blog

So Dmitrij writes:

It’s not that all of his arguments are a load of bs. The problem, however, is exactly in his belief that while making a little bit of money, he is, in fact, contributing to making the world a better place. And this attitude kind of pisses me off.

So my friend’s arguments rests on the fact that making money and making the world a better place are two irreconcilable concepts. And that this attitude shouldn’t be unforgiven.

Yes, I would say it sounds a bit preposterous, but it isn’t exactly wrong. Richard Shotton has a few nice points:

Brands improve the experience of products in the same way that the placebo effect boosts the performance of painkillers

You see – it’s not so harmful. And

According to them the restrictions on advertising: “(a) deprive the public of helpful information; and (b) reduce the stimulus to efficiency, cost saving, innovation, new entry to professions, and competition.

These point do not directly prove that advertising is making the world a better place as the effects of advertising are more lateral than direct, but it shines some light on the bigger scale advertising effects.

how evil_small

So Dmitrij’s post got me thinking: how do I justify or describe advertising and how much evil is therein? I will try to describe, why I am not intimidated by advertising=brain-washing/evil/conspiracy paradigm


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My take on advertising is a bit different. I do not boldly claim that is does good for the society, but there is one thing I’m pretty sure of:

from the point of view of supply and demand, advertising is the element that binds those two together allowing the producer to match supply and demand and allowing the consumer to get products with lower price margins. That wouldn’t be possible without advertising as in the world where we wouldn’t have any advertising, there would be no mainstream products and no affordable prices (meaning no iphone for nobody)

I don’t know what about you, but I love stuff and I don’t want to pay much for it.

But that’s not the only point.

Humans are a creatures of habit and we tend to use our metal capacity much less than we think we do. Most of time we use heuristics (learned or acquired mental shortcuts) to solve problems and we really don’t waste our time getting to the bottom of everything.

I regard advertising as being mental shortcut – a sort of functional/emotional heuristic that allows us to make decisions when we have to account for numerous factors or make choices between obviously similar things. Of course, some of those shortcuts can be stupid or even down-straight harmful. But they save our time and it is usually up to us to accept or to resist them.

Mental shortcuts make up most of our daily routines – and we can not critically assess every aspect of our daily actions, conversations, decisions, thinking processes, etc. To say that advertising is evil is to condemn the very way we operate in our daily environment.

Basically, what I am saying here is that advertising works on the opposite scale of critical thinking (in the same way media does, ouch). Even in those cases where it presents functional arguments.


Advertising is simple – it works in the open daylight (I guess, Reeves said a similar thing). You can always see it is an ad, it is rarely in disguise.

But to go further than that, one reason I am not afraid of the exploitations of advertising (this will be my next topic, I promise) is this – not a single person in the industry knows exactly how advertising works. Nobody can predict its success. If anybody did, we would have 90% of brilliant and effective ads. But we don’t. We are in the dark the same way the industry was back 60 or 80 years ago. If anybody told you, that he/she knew how to make a successful ad, you could find as many cases as you wanted to disprove the rule. What we know is what fails most of the time (note the use of most). That’s it.

So, how can you manipulate something you can not predict?

Predicting advertising affect is something akin to a weather forecast. You make a habit out of it, but doesn’t mean there is a cause-effect relationship between the clouds in the studio and tomorrow’s weather.

I guess, there much more creepy stuff than advertising – one of the is definitely DESIGN. Think about it! Something that you don’t pay attention to, but what can influence your choices and behavior without you noticing and reflecting upon it. Really creepy.

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communication field and its problems never cease to amaze me - the truly brilliant thing is that there are no final answers. I don't understand anything, but I guess nobody does (there just a moderate degree of success in pretending that they do). If you have challenges, questions, topics, themes or projects - contact me and maybe we can crack them together. Andrius