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Just Outlaw Ads

Advertisement. It is everywhere. We are so familiar with it, and it is so pervasive, that it is a full part of the landscape of certain world-renowned places, such as Times Square. Bright, electronic billboards urge us to buy products from this or that brand. Soda, shoes, cars, everything that can be sold can be advertised. And in our Late Capitalist society, there is no shortage of commodities to be bought.

The website Statista tells us that, in 2019, the global market for advertising had reached a staggering 500 billion US$.1 According to this same source, this is more than the GDP of Belgium2, a rich country of 11 million people. It is also comparable to the global air passenger revenue for the same year3. This gives us an idea of the insane amount of resources that our societies dedicate to the advertisement industry.

Surely, an industry that large must have a purpose. What is it? Well, we all know the goal of advertisement is to sell products, in one way or another. Traditionally, advertisements were very straightforward: a single product (or product range) was presented, its qualities enumerated, and sometimes, when it could be used as a sales argument, its price as well. Another kind of advertisement has been more and more present these days: their goal is not so much to make the viewer want to purchase one specific item, but rather to make them familiar with a specific brand. This is why, for instance, Coca-Cola products are seldom advertised themselves: instead, a meaningless animation that ends with the logo of the company on our TV screen is broadcasted. The goal is that, when the viewer goes to the supermarket and reaches the soda aisle, they will naturally purchase Coca-Cola, no matter their specific product. And it works.

Brand recognition has become increasingly important these years, and a probable reason why is because the public is demanding more than to simply use a product. They also want to be seen using it. In his theory of value, Marx differentiated between use value and exchange value. The use value is the value that we subjectively assign to an item, and it corresponds to the usage that we will make of it. For instance, a tractor may have a great use value to a farmer, but a null use value to, say, a janitor. The exchange value is about equivalent to the price of an item. Thus, we desire to acquire commodities that have either a sufficient exchange value, or a sufficient use value. Yet, a category of products seems to escape this categorization.

Take for instance the Funk Pops brand. They are a collection of figurines of pop culture characters. What use value do they have? None. They serve no practical purpose, and arguably no moral purpose either. They do not make our lives easier. What exchange value do they have? One that is expected to only get lower as time passes and they inevitably deteriorate. Yet people buy them. Worse, they buy them and do not take them out of their boxes. Why?

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard proposed a third category of values: a sign value. People do not buy Funko Pops to resell them, nor to actually use them, but merely to display them to other people. In the same vein, what makes Supreme clothing so popular? Is it that they have an outstanding material quality compared to their market competitors? Is it that they are, in the same vein as gold, investments intended to shield one’s wealth from economic turmoil? It is none of these. The value of Supreme clothes resides in their prominently displayed brand.

This is also where brand recognition plays a consequential role. Imagine a traditional advertisement for either of the aforementioned products. What would it say? How could it convince people that they have to buy them? It simply could not. If I were to launch my own clothing brand tomorrow, would people be able to purchase them at a price substantially higher than that of equivalent competitors? Certainly not: because I have not engaged in a campaign for brand recognition, my clothes have next to no sign value.

In the film The Fight Club (1999), the character Tyler Durden says

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.

Humourist George Carlin similarly states that

We buy shit we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.

All around, the opinion that purchasing products for their sign value is not worth it, and all-around a waste of time, money and energy is not a particularly fringe one. In the last years, the realization that such a consumerist endeavour is harmful to the environment has also emerged. It is present in mainstream culture. The same mainstream culture in which, ironically, brand recognition advertisement prospers.

Given the negative impact of these products, would it not be reasonable to forbid their advertising? After all, most countries in the world forbid tobacco advertising, and alcohol advertising is strongly regulated itself (when not outright banned). Oponents of banning advertising may say that, after all, advertising allows us to enjoy “free” services, especially on the Internet, or that it partly subsidies some public services.

But are our “free” services really cheaper if they are financed by advertisement rather than individual fees? The measurable effect of advertisement is to increase spending, particularly in items, products and commodities that we do not really need. Given that advertisement is overall purposefully aggressive to the eye, and is more often than not the reason why our privacy has come to be under increased scrutiny from private companies, can we still consider that it is worth it to have access to “free” services?

Now of course, everything said so far against advertising goes against the kind of advertising that promotes maximum consumption of useless products. But take another look at the title of this article. We still have to analyse more traditional adverts. What about ads for soap, cereals or cars? All of these are useful to purchase, aren’t they?

Well, yes, of course. But let us go back to the 18th century and the early theories of liberalism. Proponents of a laissez-faire market economy have argued that, in a free market, because consumers were free to purchase whichever product they wanted, and because, as rational subjects, they would tend to purchase items at their optimal price:quality relation, a form of natural selection would operate. Only the companies with the best products would survive, and the rest would either adapt or perish. Together with competition, this mechanism would drive a constant process of innovation and enhancement of our material goods, and therefore drive up quality of life.

Surely, in theory, it does sound like a good idea, and until recently it has worked quite well. Yet our current markets are flooded with products that are absolutely terrible for our health; clothes, computers of subpar quality for their price; and so on. How did that happen? Where were laissez-faire economists wrong?

The fault lies in advertisement. Creating products that minimize cost and maximize quality has never been the primary raison d’ĂȘtre of private companies. It has always been to maximize profits, always, at all times. Early economists simply argued that maximizing quality and minimizing cost was the natural side effect of such a pursuit in a competitive market. And they were not necessarily wrong, until mass advertisement appeared in post-WW2 societies.

Oftentimes, a good campaign of advertisement is

Footnotes:

Author: sh

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