THE BLOG
12/07/2011 03:45 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Space Invaders

Madison Avenue is in a manic frenzy! Almost everywhere you look, advertisers are trying frantically to get the American consumer back into the game. Before the 2008 Great Recession, consumer spending accounted for some 70 percent of our national gross domestic product. For most Americans, their home represents their greatest store of wealth, and with home prices still falling -- not to mention still rising delinquency and foreclosure rates in some parts of the country -- Madison Avenue's efforts will amount to little more than wishful thinking. Consumers will come back when home prices stabilize and not before.

Besides, matters have become obnoxious and counterproductive as advertisers battle for our time, attention and wallets.

For years, we've had billboards and airport televisions, but now, step into a New York City taxicab, and you'll see a video screen facing you from the back of the driver's front seat. The screen is linked to the taxi's credit-card payment system for fares, but in addition to featuring NYC tourist attractions and the weather forecast, the screen displays advertisements for all sorts of stuff. Usually, you can turn it off, but often I've encountered screens that just keep running -- the "off" switch is broken.

If you look out the window, you'll encounter New York City buses plastered with advertisements. Some taxis even boast two-sided triangular roof displays that advertise Broadway shows, gentlemen's entertainment, restaurants, whatever.

Walk into the ground floor of New York's Saks Fifth Avenue, and you will find people confronting you to purchase face creams, eye serums and perfumes. I timed it recently: 10 solicitations in three minutes.

Many elevators now have little video screens intended to give you Twitter-like news snippets commingled with ads for all sorts of things you absolutely must have. Then there are the Internet pop-up ads that render short attention spans even shorter. I use the Internet every day and have never purchased anything from a pop-up ad.

On a recent TAM Airways flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Brasilia, the tray table featured an ad for a new Fiat, and just above the tray table, on the back of the headrest of the seat in front of me, was an eye-level ad for a major international accounting firm inviting me to follow the company on Twitter. Excuse me, but who on earth would do something like that?

A friend tells me he was getting his hair cut at a nationally known barbershop. When the person cutting his hair tilted him back in the chair, he looked up on the ceiling to find a computer screen running mostly ads about the hair cutting chain.

My favorite space invader is offered by the Book-of-the-Month Club companies. I still get the monthly mailings -- filled with slips of paper offering watches, radios, walk-in bath tubs and coffee clubs, to mention just a few of the items that have absolutely so much to do with books. The return order form is usually hidden among all these pieces of extraneous paper so that you will have to spend a few seconds more looking for what you really want to find.

But it gets better!

The Book-of-the-Month Club even uses the inside surface of its mailing envelope to advertise more of their books. I counted 15 books on the inside of one envelope and four more on the back.

And then there are the banks. Walk into almost any bank and you will be met by "The Greeter" -- a friendly person who welcomes you to Wachovia or whatever your bank is now called. The teller asks how your day is going, may comment on your clothing, and asks if you need anything else besides your deposit slip. "The Greeter" thanks you for banking as you head for the street.

You might wonder whether this welcoming treatment is just enhanced customer service. It isn't. These little courtesies weren't offered two years ago, and it is exceedingly obvious that these efforts are designed to build brand recognition, customer loyalty and to lengthen the time and attention you spend surrounded by the brand.

In today's brave new world, these approaches are, of course, relatively low tech in nature, but the science of salesmanship offers something that even George Orwell never imagined: your own personal algorithm. Okay. You stopped complex math with trigonometry? An algorithm is a mathematical formula -- a procedure used to make calculations and predictions, run Google searches, or track certain occurrences to identify patterns. Wall Street used algorithms to make the computer-generated stock trades that helped lose trillions of dollars of wealth. These mathematical models were based on an assumption that home prices would only rise. To quote Rick Perry, "Oops." Wrong assumption. Wrong bet. Therefore trillions down the drain.

These algorithms are now being used to track your Internet activity. For example, if you buy from Amazon.com -- or just simply browse -- your choices are monitored by an algorithm, so that on future visits to the website, Amazon.com will have done you the service of pre-selecting books or other items that fit with your previously expressed preferences. While I'm sure Amazon thinks it is being helpful (while also trying to sell you more products) I resent the fact that my activities are being "tracked" -- even if it is by a computer. We all know by now how unsafe any computerized data are in a world of growing cyber insecurity.

And now we have this year's Black Friday, characterized by a truly manic effort to launch the spending frenzy even earlier. Many major stores signaled that they would open on Thanksgiving night, rather than in the wee hours of Friday morning. The spare time between the family Thanksgiving dinner and midnight cannot be wasted.

I'm all for our capitalist society and for making profits, but at some point. American consumers will rebel against the relentless intrusion into their private time and their private space. These advertisers are battling for our limited time and attention, and they have certainly gotten mine. I make a list of these obnoxious space invaders and go out of my way not to give them any business. Something tells me that I'm not alone.

Charles Kolb is the President of the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and in the Department of Education as Deputy Undersecretary for Planning, Budget and Evaluation (1988-1990). The views in this article are solely the author's.