THE BLOG
11/25/2009 11:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A World Without Advertising

Whether the average person is exposed to 3000-4000 commercial messages a day or 5,000 or some other vague, suspiciously round number, it seems abundantly clear we see damn plenty. They have quietly proliferated across every available surface and airwave our senses can detect; you see them when you're in the bathroom now, in elevators, walking up stairs. They're on hats and shirts and sunglasses; and all over our private texts. You can smell them in your hair sometimes.

Yes, the world is being papered over like a Sprint Cup pace car, and it's OUR fault. Because the more ads they toss in front of us, the better we get at blocking them out, ergo the more ads they have to show us, and so on. If you would just buy the damn cran-juice or erectile dysfunction pill the first time you saw the billboard, they wouldn't have to also slap the ads onto eggs, and body tattoos, and pregnant women's bellies, and everyplace else with a momentarily flat, stampable surface.

It's tempting to think we're the first humans to suffer this horrible uglification arms race. But in fact, as pointed out here, it's always been thus. "Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic," said Samuel Johnson...in 1759. As long as there have been products to sell and citizens with money, each generation gets all the advertising it can handle, right up to the point of backlash. The Roman Coliseum, it is rumored, was plastered over with papyrus scrolls for Caesar's Salad. ("Get Two, Bruté?")

It follows that if ads really are closer to ubiquitous now, it's because we've grown increasingly tolerant of them. I suspect there's a corollary to Moore's Law, the famous rule governing the doubling of operations possible on a given silicon wafer. Let's call it Dinty Moore's Law: The gross number of irrelevant, ubiquitous, spammy advertisements people will accept in their lives without taking up arms against Madison Avenue doubles every twenty years. I have no stats to back that up, but somebody with a college degree should totally look into it.

But maintaining a populace on the perpetual brink of rebellion means making most of them at least a little unhappy all the time. There's been ad skipping technology as far back as 1934, which is incredibly cool. And today, more than 9 out of 10 TV viewers with the ability to do so say they always or usually fast forward thru commercials. Tossing your logo in people's way and hoping they stumble over it is a horribly inefficient way to sell soap, as has been remarked no less than a hundred gazillion times. Eyeballs is not engagement...it only works when nothing else works.

But what if it didn't have to be this way? Now that measurably better, more efficient options are emerging for brands to engage with consumers, like sponsored content, social media brand conversation, and so on--now that the times are finally tough enough to force change at all these hidebound backward-looking media agencies, is it too early to start dreaming?

What would the world look like without advertising?

For one thing, ballparks would be named for ballplayers. I'm a diehard Mets fan, and I am not remotely compelled to put my money in Citibank just because the Mets play in Citi Field. Never, never, never...not even subliminally. It should be Doc Gooden Field. Games would take place in the daytime, too, where kids could watch 'em, instead of drunk corporate bigwigs. (Remember, they moved the games to "Prime Time" specifically to accommodate TV advertising...that's the only reason there are lights at Wrigley Field.)

Websites would take you straight to what you came for, with no annoying boxes popping up and blocking your way like street children begging for candy. And web design would be free, not compelled to design around standard IAB ad sizes for banners that nobody clicks on. (Any businessman who bragged about a .2% success rate out here in the meatworld would be laughed into suicide.)

Magazines would feature great content on EVERY page. Instead of 100 edit pages to read on the left and 100 ads that must be manually ignored on the right, you'd get say 125 edit pages, with no interruptions and no place to stick your gum. Advertisers could sponsor individual articles ("The Norelco Holiday Gift Guide") and get in front of the audience for real, instead of taking adjacent pages and hoping for peripheral glances. The experience would be more like reading a book.

TV shows would deliver seamless entertainment. Instead of car commercials stealing six or eight minutes out of every show, you'd get the full 30 minutes, because the shows would be sponsored in a fully integrated fashion. Imagine an elite force that fights crime with a network of killer cars that just happen to be Dodge Chargers. Megan Fox stars as the by-the-book, yet smoking-hot police chief who keeps them all in line, in a mysteriously tattered POLICE tank top. If the show sucks, it gets no viewers and gets cancelled, just like in the "real" world. This blog post is dated, by the way, so don't try to steal that idea.

The view gets a lot prettier in a world without advertising, and brand marketers can spend efficiently, placing a proper value on creating positive experiences that are associated with brands, and developing customer loyalty over the long haul, instead of throwing millions at "campaigns" that are gone and forgotten in six months.

It's all about shifting the sponsor mindset away from "paying to stand adjacent to, or blocking, the good stuff people want to see" to "creating the good stuff ourselves." Imagine a summer concert tour roundup for a music magazine. In print, you have a great traditional editorial feature...editors have a free hand and choose seven bands to highlight, with interviews and rap sheets and so on. And there's a great detailed tour guide map at the center, showing where the seven bands will be each weekend of the summer. But it lures you to a clever online/mobile map widget, where you can add and subtract the bands YOU care about, and virtually sit in different seats, buy tickets, etc. And the whole thing's sponsored by Burger King, and instead of slapping on the logos and hoping for the best, the mobile and web apps help you connect with other people heading to your show, literally by finding the Burger King closest to the show you're interested in, connecting online and offline so you can meet up with other people going to the show and exchange mixtapes or bags of pot or whatever.

Just an idea. But if we could convince sponsors to give up all the bad, desperate habits we've let them get away with, they might just discover the people behind the eyeballs, and learn the benefits of real engagement. It would sure save a LOT of money...and we could see the actual colors of NASCAR cars. And the world would be a more beautiful place.

This article is brought to you by Smuckers® Jam. Mmm...now that's tasty jam!*

* Article NOT brought to you by Smuckers® Jam.