I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all – Ogden Nash
The last chapter of Michael Sandel’s interesting and clearly written book, ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, is entitled ‘Naming Rights’ and has a section in it headed ‘Your Ad Here.’ Sandel gives examples of the commercialisation of everything from sports grounds (named after the sponsor rather than the team) to ads on everything from people’s foreheads to signposts on nature trails.
He asks if there is anything wrong with commercialism. An analogy he makes is one of pollution: “emitting carbon dioxide is not wrong in itself: we do it every time we breathe. And yet an excess of carbon dioxide can be environmentally destructive. In a similar way, otherwise unobjectionable extensions of advertising into novel settings may, if widespread, bring about a society dominated by corporate sponsorships and consumerism, a society in which everything is brought to you by MasterCard or McDonalds.”
Ads of one sort or another are everywhere, in toilets, on taxis, and on tickets. This leads to another concern, raised by Matthew Crawford in his new book ‘The World Beyond Your Head’ about how our ability to concentrate is being eroded by constant messages, distractions that are ‘a kind of obesity of the mind.’
The way in which we respond to advertising and other messages has changed with technology. Where old farts like me had TV, press, posters and radio, the new farts have a range of other channels as well as different ways of using the ‘old’ ones. The nature of digital has enabled new, faster and broader ways of looking at data. Despite the fact that most advertising is not about direct response but about longer term brand building, access to big data seems to me to have made it, psychologically at least, closer to ‘direct marketing’ than it used to be. A shift in emphasis and attitude: anything goes, anywhere.
The danger remains that as we measure more we understand less.
But my real worry about proliferation is that, in time, it might be harmful to a business which is (or can be) not only economically effective, but fun and enjoyable – for those seeing the work as well as those creating it.
The fact that we screen out such a huge percentage of the commercial messages we are presented with is beside the point. If you can slap an ad on anything, effective or not, what does it say about our society?
And surely, everyone still involved in the advertising business wants to feel proud of what they do?