Wednesday, September 21, 2011

advertising

Politics leads to waste as each side tries to out-shout the other with progressively louder commercials. I suggested that there is a way to divert most of this wasteful spending in a way that preserves the competitive impact of the foregone campaign donation. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in advertising, since individuals don't pay for it.

Advertising is just like politics in the sense that individual firm interests (to sell more Dr. Rootsicola brand liquid sugar) diverge from public interests (to have access to, and be aware of, the highest quality-for-the-price liquid sugar) in such a way that leads to massive wasteful expenditures by Dr. Rootsicola as they try to stomp out their possibly superior, but underfunded, competitor. In the process, we get bombarded by a thousand times more advertising than we want or need for informational purposes and have to pay higher prices for the privilege of funding this war. Unfortunately, the war is indeed successful at planting certain brands in our brains; otherwise it would be a viable strategy to spend just enough on ads to inform the public of the superiority of an alternate, and charge less for it.

Other than sparking a cultural tideshift that makes advertising repugnant (New, all natural low-fat low-sugar low-ad water!™) I don't see a way to a effect change actively. But yet I'm not pessimistic. Two trends are shifting the advertising industry into a value-creator:

  1. The internet. We're all familiar by now with how advertising supports an economy of free things that are valuable but nearly impossible to make money off of directly as a result of being non-concrete/zero-marginal-cost and imitable/piratable. I like this symbiosis.
  2. Groupon et al. It's not yet clear how short-lived this fad will be, but deep-discount coupon sites are popping up faster than wackamoles. I suspect there's going to be a substantial backlash / redesign for awhile as people learn how bad they are at remembering to use coupons they've already paid for, and businesses figure out how to design the best offers in a given context, but I don't think they're disappearing. Last week one afternoon I had a free smoothie, ice cream sandwich, falafels, and deep-fried oreos. Now I know how good those smoothies and falafels and sandwiches are (...and not to ever eat deep-fried candy again if I want to avoid a mid-motorcycle-commute heart attack.) Instead of strapping me to a chair and forcing me to watch a video spot they spend thousands of dollars to create, they fed me and informed me, and I'll be going back. Everyone wins. I don't know how the cost-benefit comparison* works out, but I have an inkling: I can't name a single n-dozen-times repeated hulu commercial at the moment, but I know exactly where to go for good falafel.
*Yeah, it completely depends on the context. A multinational automobile firm advertises differently than the local ice cream shop. Still...

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