(last update: 2019-10-02)
I frequently say that advertising is a cancer on modern society. This view is met with various reactions, including requests for a more detailed explanation. In this post, I first explain why I believe the cancer analogy is apt, then continue with a nonexhaustive list of observable symptoms of this disease, and end with some final thoughts. This post is a living document, updated over time, and intended to be linked to.
(When I say "advertising", I use this term somewhat loosely; this text applies not just to the advertising material presented to customers, but to the broader process surrounding its creation as well, which is more correctly referred to via a bunch of buzzwords grouped under the term "marketing".)
Advertising as cancer
Cancer is a family of diseases sharing some common characteristics. Cancer cells abandon their normal cooperative role in a body, and instead start to replicate uncontrollably, engaging in complex behaviors not just to avoid getting killed off by immune system, but to actually convince the body to give them access to more and more resources.
Advertising as currently practiced shares these characteristics. It's a malignant mutation of an idea that efficient markets need a way to connect goods and services with people wanting to buy them. Limited to honestly informing people about what's available on the market, it can serve a crucial function in enabling trade. In the real world however, it's moved way past that role.
Real world advertising is not about informing, it's about convincing. Over time, it became increasingly manipulative and dishonest. It also became more effective. In the process, it grew to consume a significant amount of resources of every company on the planet. It infected every communication medium in existence, both digital and analog. It shapes every product and service you touch, and it affects your interactions with everyone who isn't your close friend or family member. Through all that, it actively destroys trust in people and institutions alike, and corrupts the decision-making process in any market transaction. It became a legitimized form of industrial-scale psychological abuse, and there's no way you can resist its impact.
The growth of advertising is fueled by the enormous waste it creates. In any somewhat saturated market - which, today, is most of them - any effort you spent on advertising serves primarily to counteract the combined advertising efforts of your competitors. The same results could be achieved if every market player limited themselves to just informing customers about their goods and services. This, unfortunately, is impossible for humanity, and so we end up with a zero-sum game instead (or really negative-sum, if you count the externalities). If you have competitors, you can't not participate.
Tallying up: uncontrolled growth? Check. Destructive consequences? Check. Hard to kill? Check. Co-opts resources? Check. Advertising has the characteristics of cancer.
Symptoms of the disease
This list is nonexhaustive and will be updated over time, as I encounter more interesting examples of advertising inconveniencing or hurting people.
The obvious one and a hot topic now. Adtech industry is solely responsible for creating and deploying the most advanced surveillance system ever seen in history. Something far beyond even the wildest dreams of the Stasi, NSA, or Orwell himself. The infrastructure is ready and works today. You interact with it every time you go on-line, and increasingly off-line as well. From being subject to face recognition when going for a pizza, through your headphones recording and sending out what you listen to, your phone telling on you as you walk through the mall, your TV knowing about what's going on in your house, to your car spying on you as you drive, it's almost impossible to escape being surveilled now. There's really nothing stopping any government from tapping into this total surveillance infrastructure other than lack of will. All they need to do is ask, and while your country may not care today, it might start after the next terror attack (or news-about-terror induced panic).
(Ironically, what governments currently do is sell private data to advertisers. For instance, if you live in the US and drive a car, there's a good chance your data was sold by your state's DMV.)
Adtech industry is getting ever more creative. Evercookies are now considered ancient technology; apparently even fingerprinting factory sensor calibration is old-school.
See also this, if you are wondering exactly what does the adtech industry do with all the data it collects, how does it do it and why. Spoiler alert: all the data is being continuously traded in order to cross-correlate it, ensuring no matter what steps you make to protect your privacy, advertisers can recover the data they need. It also allows the advertisers to scam each other on attribution, which isn't surprising if you consider that lying is literally their job. Cancer cells don't play well with each other unless they have to.
Health-related privacy violations
I'm making this into a separate headline because this is some of the most sensitive and damaging if abused information, which nonetheless is being abused.
Did you know that popular apps used by women to track their periods spy on them and send the data off to advertisers, who then use it to target both app users and their partners? This data is surprisingly valuable, at least for those with no dignity.
Mental health issues still have social stigma attached in the western world. For a person seeking help in such a case, privacy is extremely important. Unfortunately, that privacy is sometimes discarded in exchange for advertising revenue. A recent investigation into popular mental health websites in France, Germany and the UK revealed that most of them track visitors for advertising purposes, some even sharing mental health test answers with third parties.
Slight annoyance in the EU (slightly bigger if you run a business), makes phones near-useless for receiving calls in the US. Some of the calls are pure fraud, others - those made by otherwise reputable companies - are just attempts at selling you something you don't need for the price that usually isn't fair. If you ever had your parents or grandparents spend a big chunk of their income or pension on some low-quality trinket, you know who to thank.
Here's a decent argument that advertising may ultimately kill phones as a service.
Mostly handled today through filters built into every mail service, but a pure example of what happens when advertising is near-free. Similarly to robocalls, it severely diminished the utility of e-mail as a service, driving people towards walled-in social networks, where spam is easier to control (mostly through directing advertisers to different channels).
Leaflets, snail mail spam
It's an off-line equivalent to spam, except you have to move them to the garbage bin yourself - and a lot of people can't even be bothered to do that, so they litter cities everywhere. It's a pure and unadulterated waste of paper, paint and fuel, made in the hope that one in a thousand will convince someone to maybe think about buying something.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO, AKA. gaming the search engines. Hugely popular. Often involves creating nonsense sites, and spamming websites and web forums with comments. It pollutes search results for more obscure queries, generally wasting people's time.
I used to run comments on this blog, and had my fair share of run-ins with SEO spammers. I sometimes traced back the companies that were promoted in such way and contacted them with requests to please stop spamming the Internet. It turned out that some of them didn't know that the SEO agencies they hired engaged in comment spam (in one of those cases, upon me contacting them the business apologized and immediately dropped their contact with their SEO agency; I keep a post praising them up to this day.)
Outrage-inducing news reporting
An open secret of news publishing - news is funded by ad views, and artificial outrage is extremely effective at getting people to view pages filled with ads. It's also destructive to civilization.
Children usually don't have money, but they are easy to manipulate and do have the undivided attention of their parents. A classical tactic is to drop a child-targeted ad in between episodes of a children's show, and watch the money flow in. But that's old-school now. Nowadays, both TV and streaming services are full of content that mix branding and entertainment, and unboxing videos are the new way of working around the laws protecting children from advertising around the world. Ads don't stop there either, they're in almost every popular mobile app for kids.
Also, the sophisticated adtech personalization algorithms, like always, screw things up.
This is why my kid isn't going to watch YouTube. If and when we decide to show her any children's show, it'll be from a manually curated set of videos downloaded and streamed from a NAS. In my opinion, it's irresponsible to expose children to modern advertising.
Lack of taste
This is a pet peeve. As (of 2019) a fresh father, I've recently been exposed to a lot of advertising for infant care products. I can survive free samples of gunk of dubious utility given to us at every possible occasion. But when I received the "child health book" - an official medical document in which health information is recorded over the years - I was floored when I noticed it had multiple full-page ads in it. This is a document that is provided by publicly-funded hospitals. A document that will likely outlive all the companies advertising in it. This is what the ad industry jumping the shark looks like.
Almost everybody on the planet knows about Coca Cola and McDonald's. A good chunk of the population has tasted both. So why do both companies still spend hundreds of millions to billions of dollars on ads that they know aren't going to convince you to drop everything you do and buy their products? Brand awareness. The goal here is to force an association between a product category and a brand, so that when you are considering buying a product from that category, their brand will be the one on your mind, and the one you feel safest buying.
Brand awareness competes for very limited real estate in your brain, so when you have multiple brands competing, the end result is saturation bombing. That's why you can't walk 500 meters straight in a typical western city without seeing a Coca Cola logo somewhere.
Dark UX patterns
Defined as "tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn't mean to". Here's a non-exhaustive list, which unfortunately some morally bankrupt companies seem to use as a cookbook. It's an unfortunate feature of a reality in which advertising has perverted the marketplace to the point it's very difficult to compete by just offering a good product at a fair price.
Advertising-induced design problems
The consequence of long-term exposure to dark patterns is that people develop immunity, which sometimes claims benign or beneficial use cases as collateral damage. See for example this article about redesign of UK's National Health Service website, where boxes containing important health-related information were found to be ignored by users:
To our astonishment, a number of users said that they wouldn’t read the information in the boxes. They likened them to advertising on news sites and overlooked them because of the ambiguity of the icon and the ‘READ ME!!!’ look.
Measures to combat web spam (i.e. advertisers doing their daily job) also at times conflict with accessibility, causing websites to be unusable for people utilizing screen readers.
Malware and computing resource exhaustion
There are three main reasons people install ad blockers. Dislike of ads, preventing privacy incursions, and protecting your own computer from malware and unwanted software that eats up its resources.
If you haven't read the excellent essay by Maciej Ceglowski, The Website Obesity Crisis, take a break now and hop over. Maciej is a much better writer than me, and gives an excellent explanation of why all the websites you visit load so slowly and eat so much of your mobile data allowance. Spoiler alert: ads are a big part of the problem.
As for malware, the technical term is malvertising. Given how ad delivery works today - auctions triggered by your browsing, determining what ad you'll be shown next, almost entirely outside of control of the site that you're visiting, the old wisdom of "don't visit porn sites or you'll get malware" doesn't hold anymore. You can catch malware on almost any site that shows you ads now.
Flooding the Internet with garbage content
This includes things affectionately known as "blog spam" or "content marketing". Quite likely the majority of articles regular people read on-line and share on social media. In its least harmful form, it just wastes your time, providing you with very little actionable information padded with some prose. I've seen first-hand how much work goes into making such material: very little, mostly copy-pasting and rewording someone else's blog spam. The more dangerous incarnations are purposeful misinformation. Bottom line, this content doesn't exist to help you - it exists as a vector for delivering more advertising to you, either inline or through the site it's hosted on.
Though defined as advertising "that matches the form and function of the platform upon which it appears", it's marketing code for "disguising an ad as legitimate content". While unmarked ads are technically illegal in many places, ask yourself, how can you tell that the article you recently read mentioning a company was honest, and not sponsored content? It ain't trivial.
AKA. people selling themselves out on the Internet. The whole idea is to subvert social proof by finding people others can relate to and getting them to indirectly push products. Hugely popular on YouTube and Instagram, and is again preying on people having trouble distinguishing fake from genuine. At this level of sophistication, aren't we all such people, at some point? When you look at that newest Facebook photo of a family member, are they really that bad at cleaning kitchen they leave bags of expensive coffee out in the open, or are they a nanoinfluencer?
I can't stress enough how bad this is. In a world drowned in manipulative advertising, your circle of friends and colleagues you know personally is your last source of trustworthy recommendations. Sure, there were bad apples before - like people who join MLM cults - but they were obnoxious enough to easily be spotted. But in general, you could trust the direct and indirect advice of people in your social circle. "Influencing" is an ongoing attempt to poison that.
They pollute our landscape and distract drivers. To my surprise, the studies I've seen so far (1, 2) conclude that billboards aren't usually a safety issue, even though they measurably capture the attention of drivers. Still, I think everyone who like me regularly travels outside the city can attest that the experience would be better without them.
Direct subversion of social trust
Cambridge Analytica's attempt to use adtech infrastructure to subvert the US 2016 presidential elections and the Brexit vote is a well-known story, but did you know that in the United States, local police in multiple cities is now secretly working as advertising agencies for Amazon's home security IoT?
Making people unhappy
A marketer I know has a mantra, that successful sales are all about dissatisfaction - making people aware just how their situation sucks, and then offering a way to relieve the pain.
The title of the following paper is enough to make a point on its own: Advertising as a major source of human dissatisfaction: Cross-national evidence on one million Europeans.
(Fun fact: did you know that the grandson of the inventor of Public Relations and "the first person to take Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses" is a co-founder of Netflix? Netflix and chill, alright.)
See also Cliff Ennico's talk on "How To Sell Anything To Anybody" (text summary). Note how applying this, half of the time you'll be making people afraid for profit.
Decaying and ephemeral Internet services
Have you noticed how many free services get significantly worse over time? Have you noticed that just a couple of years ago, your Facebook and Instagram feeds contained almost exclusively posts from your social network, whereas today they mostly show sponsored content and posts from businesses?
Ad-driven business models win users over by offering a service for free, but in order to grow, that service needs to continuously increase the amount of advertising and tracking it does. Few of such services stay alive for long (usually thanks to the network effect), but all of them prevent companies with more ethical and stable business models from entering the market by sucking up all the available oxygen. You can't compete on price with free, doubly so in an era where ad-driven businesses are what the investors prefer.
Less innovation, worse products
Marketing these days seems to have so good ROI that, given a fixed sum of money, you're better off spending it on shouting louder than on actually improving the product. This reduces research, development and production spending, which indirectly reduces the actual value provided to all of us by the economy.
(h/t u/slippage for reminding me of that. I think everyone working in the software industry can relate.)
"It's just another revenue stream!"
With all the cries that free content must be paid for somehow, you'd expect that you can avoid "being the product" if you pay the full price for a product or service. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Movie theaters will still spam you with ads even though you paid for the ticket and bought the popcorn. Newspapers will show you ads, whether or not you're a paying subscriber (and they won't filter out native advertising content either). SaaS companies charge your credit card with one hand, and sell your data with the other. Even your Office suite spies on you (at least the web and mobile versions do), and gives your data to a predictive profiling marketing firm.
This is a cultural problem. We've become so accustomed to advertising that not having it shoved in our face is a premium service that needs to be explicitly requested, and is rarely available.
(h/t Stavros for pointing this out to me. I'm so used to it that I haven't even thought of it.)
Annoying cookie popups
People tend to blame this on the European Union, but the truth is that under cookie laws, sites are only required to show you a consent popup if they're using cookies for things other than primary functionality of the site. If you're annoyed by them, be annoyed at the site, as it only shows the warning because it tracks you.
To this day, I can't think of Carmen without immediately remembering a particular commercial of a well-known brand of cleaning products. I saw that ad as a little kid, and it ruined this opera for me forever. And I'm not the only one.
It's not just about old classics either. In another example of marketing people's complete lack of taste, a song about the struggle of refugees displaced by war was gutted and turned into an ad for 2010 World Cup.
Subversion of science
I remember reading about cases of scientific papers that were advertisements pretending to be research work. I'll update this point when I find some actual examples.
Cancers ultimately damage critical functions of the body and lead to untimely death. Advertising, similarly, poses a risk to our civilization through resource exhaustion, climate impact, and by eroding the basic building block of societies - trust in one another, and trust in institutions we deal with. What can be done about it?
I honestly have no good ideas. Advertising is so thoroughly embedded in our economies that trying to "just" get rid of it would probably collapse our civilization (which is NOT a good thing; I'll expand on this in the future). I feel this problem will need to be solved the hard way, piece by piece, slowly reclaiming our institutions, our trust, our dignity. Here's a non-exhaustive list of suggestions I'll be updating over time:
Ad blockers and tracking blockers
Obvious first step. Install uBlock Origin on all your browsers (on Android, switch to Firefox, which supports extensions). Add Privacy Badger for good measure. Consider NoScript if you're particularly annoyed by the website obesity crisis. If you have non-tech-savvy friends and family, install uBlock Origin on their machines too - that'll let them extend the usable lifetime of their computers by a couple of years.
AdNauseam is an interesting extension to consider too. It's based off uBlock Origin, except it clicks on the ads in the background, in an attempt to make advertising more expensive and poison the data they collect. Given the level of sophistication of fake click detection, it's unlikely to make much difference, but "every small step counts", plus it also feels satisfying.
If you're willing to put up with some extra inconvenience on-line in order to both protect yourself from advertisers and safeguard your privacy, consider using GNU IceCat as your main browser. It's a Firefox variant with extra features aiming to defeat tracking and reduce exposure to ethically questionable software.
GDPR is doing an excellent job destroying some of the most privacy-invasive practices of the adtech industry. It offers a great opportunity for individual meaningful action. If you're an European and see a site trying to abuse you in a way that's illegal, file a complaint. If you're not an EU citizen, lobby your government to enact similar legislation. The movements around this are gaining steam worldwide.
Some people point out that Google benefited the most from GDPR, and more legislation like it would only make life even more difficult for innovative adtech upstarts, benefiting the large incumbents instead. But this might actually be a good thing - we don't need more innovation in that market, we need that market to wither and die. It's also easier for regulators to keep few larger companies in line than it is to deal with a convoluted network of fly-by-night adtech startups.
(See also an argument by Richard Stallman that GDPR and similar legislation aren't nearly enough, and one should aim to prevent data collection from happening in the first place. This is related to the concept of Datensparsamkeit, or "data frugality".)
GDPR is primarily about control over data, not about advertising. But it's also important to push for legislation targeting advertisers directly. São Paulo is among many cities that have managed to ban outdoor advertising, demonstrating it's both possible and worthwhile.
Fair business practices
Businesses are made of people, and people have ethics. If you're running one, consider the way you advertise. Are you aiming at making mutually beneficial transactions, or are you just trying to milk you users out of their hard-earned cash? Not all advertising is inherently harmful to individuals or society. Choose the ethical option. It may cost your company some lost profits, but then again, you may gain loyal customers who'll want to reward a honest business.
Refuse to do business with companies behaving abusively
Also known as "voting with your wallet". Out of set of options, pick the more honest one. If you have a moment, tell the others why you didn't choose them.
Once again, businesses are made of people. Out of those that engage in abusive or harmful marketing, not all have ill intent. These days, "dark patterns" are essentially forced upon companies by competitive markets, and it's hard to resist. But maybe, just maybe, enough complaints from real would-be customers will cause some of them to change their ways.
Refuse to work on adtech
This applies to technologists out here - we're in a privileged position, where it's much easier for us to be picky about the jobs we do than for most other people. Many of us already make principled stances like refusing to work on defense projects; why not also avoid helping the industry that harms people during peace time much more than defense companies?
Don't lose hope
There's light at the end of this tunnel (and it's not the incoming train). A recent article by the EFF reminds us of pop-up ads which, once the menace of the Internet, have all but disappeared. The advertising industry is laser-focused on methods that manipulate people best. If a technique stops working, e.g. because of legal, social or technical interference, it's immediately abandoned. This means that advertising can be fought off piece by piece. It's hard, but possible.
All of the suggestions above scale with the number of people who follow them. The more of us rise against advertising, the stronger the market, social and political signals become. So, if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to spread the message. Speak up about the cancerous nature of advertising, and how better off we all would be if that disease was cured.
Thanks to Stavros Korokithakis and Michael McCune for reviewing drafts of this post and providing helpful suggestions.
- 2019-10-02 - Added: Spying in Office Mobile, menstruation apps, mental health websites; global warming angle; marketing vs. development expenses; RMS thoughts on GDPR; outdoor advertising ban.
- 2019-07-31 - Initial publication