Regular readers will know there is a particular personal finance/frugality blog I don’t like very much. Since I’m in a good mood tonight, I won’t mention that specific blog by name. Recently, the blog in question has published a couple of posts on the deluge of ads that are pushed down our throats, one about a Toyota ad and the other about product placement in movies.
If you’re too lazy to click through to those posts, let me sum them up for you. Ads are bad because they influence people to buy things they don’t need. Buying excess stuff forces people into debt, which leads to all sorts of problems. An especially bad ad is a particular one by Toyota, since it implies that children can force their parents to choose a certain brand of SUV.
If you did bother to click through to that particular blog, you might have noticed something. Along the right sidebar, there are ads. If you read this blog via RSS like I do, you’ll probably notice the ad at the bottom of each post. This particular blogger is so big that he makes his living blogging. What do you suppose pays for that? Hint: it’s not good intentions.
A Little History
I’m not sure this story is true, and I can’t remember where I heard it, but let me tell it to you anyway.
Back in the late 1800s, one of the pioneers of newspaper advertising was the owner of a department store in Pennsylvania. When asked about his advertising he remarked “half of my ads work and half don’t. My problem is figuring out which half work.”
As time went on, all a company had to do was produce a decent product, advertise it through existing channels, and public demand would be enough to take care of the rest. Because of this, one or two dominant players emerged in all sorts of industries and products.
As North America became more affluent, disposable incomes went up. From industry’s point of view, this meant they could introduce more products that people could afford. 30 years ago, we didn’t have cell phones, very few had PCs, and nobody had ipods or GPS devices. Even video games and cable tv were in their infancy. In my short lifespan, I’ve seen all sorts of technological innovation. I like all these advances; in fact, now that I have them, I don’t want to give them up.
The Other Factor
The other factor that influenced our consumerism is debt.
All sorts of types of credit are relatively new. Credit cards have been around for years, but didn’t really get popular until the 1980s. For the most part, store credit cards have an even shorter history. 50 years ago, very few people financed a car, and nobody financed consumer purchases like furniture or electronics.
As competition heated up, both producers and sellers of products needed a way to entice the consumer to buy their product, rather than the competition’s. As the field of credit matured, competition emerged there, leading to 0% credit cards, subprime mortgages, and all sorts of other enticements for a consumer to sign up for credit.
The credit bubble grew and grew, eventually popping in 2008. Just a scant 3 years later, credit is flowing almost as freely as ever. Even though it looked bad at the time, the whole crisis of 2008 is looking more and more like just a hiccup in the growth of debt.
People Aren’t Idiots
Well, some are. You’re definitely not though. You read this blog.
Unless you’re an old timer, you’ve been bombarded with ads your entire life. You’ve been exposed to everything from the most subtle to the glaringly obvious. You’ve seen celebrities shill anything and everything. You’ve even seen ads pop up at almost laughable places, like at eye level of a urinal.
(No, I don’t need to see a preview of some Ashton Kutcher movie while I pee. Thanks for that though.)
If you’re anything like me, you’ve developed an incredibly thick skin when it comes to ads. We’re aware of their presence, but have largely grown immune to their advances. Of course, advertisers have responded, by not bothering to actually sell their product anymore, rather selling an image and attitude. Want to be cool? Buy this.
I guess that’s the crux of people’s problems with ads. They’re outraged that marketers would try to sell us a better reality, at the expense of our own reality. Want to be hip? Buy an ipod. Want the ladies to throw themselves at you? Buy Axe body spray. Naturally, I don’t need Axe for the ladies to love me.
Anybody with a reasonable level of intelligence knows that any individual product isn’t going to have a huge impact on our lives. The product will probably make our lives easier in some small way, but that’s it. People realize this. Not everyone is a mindless buying machine.
The Real Problem
Buying stuff doesn’t make people poor. If you spend all of your money every week and that’s it, you’re hardly screwed. Sure, you’re not getting ahead, but basic needs are being met, along with probably a few wants.
What really screws people up is when debt is added to that equation. Once they start spending more than the earn, the downward spiral of debt begins. You all know what happens when too much of that happens. So is buying stuff the real culprit here?
Who’s at fault if you spend too much money or finance something on a credit card? Is it the advertiser, for making you want the product so badly that you’ll make a bad decision to get it? Is it the creditor’s fault for giving you such easy access to credit? Or is it the consumer’s fault for making the decision they know is a financially bad one?
People who are anti-ads place the blame squarely at the feet of the marketer or creditor. If they didn’t create the desire they argue, the purchaser wouldn’t buy it. Since competition is fierce, they feel marketers are resorting to dirtier and dirtier tricks to sell their products. How dare they!
There’s only one person to blame if you buy too much crap, and that’s yourself. There are all sorts of ways to purchase stuff without going into debt or forcing financial hardship on yourself. Someone can choose to largely ignore ads, like most of us already do.
And then maybe a certain blogger can realize the hypocrisy of his stance against ads.