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Did anyone ever investigate what benefits ads have to a population? It seems like a net loss to me, because ads are used to make people consume more than they need; ads make people buy the product with the biggest advertising budget instead of the best product; and while ads may make the internet "free", we are still paying for those ads indirectly.

Why then, doesn't the government bring advertising to a halt? At least they could start with targeted advertising as seen on the internet.

(Of course, if you measure the success of an economy by the GDP, then it might seem that ads have a positive influence, but that seems a bit like a broken-window fallacy to me).




IMO the first place to start implementing ad bans is in public spaces, which I hear is common in Europe. I don't have to watch TV so I don't see TV ads. I don't listen to the radio much so I don't listen to radio ads. I can use an ad blocker on the web, yet for some reason the public spaces I inhabit (and help pay for) are full of ads.


> I hear is common in Europe

It is not. I have seen a ramp-up in the amount of advertisement everywhere. Maybe poorer countries like Romania - I have been just to Bucharest - are not so affected. But, Sweden, or Spain, - the countries that I spend more time - are just installing more and more advertisements everywhere.

Gambling advertisements are quite common in Stockholm. I remember specially one telling people to buy lottery tickets because they live sucks and the only lottery can save them from their horrible lives. It was disgusting.

Cities have a high amount of cognitive pollution.


Not saying you are wrong, but which European states is this common in? I’ve never noticed this, and many public spaces in Europe have a great deal of poster/bill board style advertisements.

I remember reading Paris tried this, but that’s a long way from “common in Europe”.


The only example I know is São Paulo (not in Europe).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cidade_Limpa


There are several US states (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont) that don't allow billboard advertisements.


Some cities in California place heavy restrictions on billboards: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Supreme-Court-turns-d...


There aren't any billboards along freeways in Switzerland, e.g.


There’s usually no shortage of public ads for Swiss watches at Zurich airport. There is for sure no ban on advertisements in public places.


Airports are never going to be high on the list of places sans billboards and are usually privatized space. I'm not too bummed out about airports and shopping centers, but I draw the line at public transit and actual fully public spaces like the streets of downtowns (which are choked in ads in Sydney now).


Airports are not public places, you literally have to pay for a ticket to get past security.


Sigh. Aside from the fact this comment adds no value to the discussion, anyone can walk into Zurich airport and buy a ticket.

By this logic, many public transport centres such as train stations wouldn't be public spaces either (not unheard of for a train station to have a ticket barrier too). There are adverts in places other than the airport too!


This is not true, you can't buy a ticket without identification and you can't get past security unless you go through several other checks. Going into a public area like out on the street is not even similar at all. Airports are not public locations, they are much more similar to the interior walls of a private business than a public location, which doesn't require you to pay to enter and produce varying amounts of identification.


It's possible I'm mistaken about the commonness, I'm just repeating hearsay. That said, I still think it should become the norm everywhere.


Maybe you heard about prohibition of billboards in highways, but it was only of alcoholic beverages. I remember hearing about it years ago when Osborne's bulls where saved because they were (justly IMHO) a national monument or something like that. The name was removed though.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osborne_bull


Correct. It's awful here in Sydney. The local government a long time ago decided that it couldn't be bothered to put up and maintain infrastructure like bus shelters and the like, so they got JC Decaux to do it (a French company, whose maintenance trucks amusingly use an Australian flag as their major design motif) in exchange for plastering the whole city with ads.



Advertising has also been proven to be bad for your sense of life satisfaction, which is an externality not paid for by advertisers.

"The effect implies that a hypothetical doubling of advertising expenditure would result in a 3% drop in life satisfaction. That is approximately one half the absolute size of the marriage effect on life satisfaction, or approximately one quarter of the absolute size of the effect of being unemployed."

https://voxeu.org/article/advertising-major-source-human-dis...


I don't see how the study is establishing causation. It does not prove that advertising is creating an externality, as you claim.

In fact, it explicitly says that it does not show causation and recommends further research.

It's easy to come up with theories to explain it that don't have anything to do with the one you proposed. For instance, higher advertising could be caused by weakness in the economy that doesn't show up in other data (or at least not GDP) but which leads to less satisfaction later, which wouldn't show up in their controls.


I have managed to block advertising out of my life so effectively for so long I nearly recoil when a normal tv advertisement at someone’s home or a bar catches me somehow at full volume.

That or I marvel to those around me at the amazing production value of some stupid commercial that’s aired to them countless times is.

I have no doubt a barrage of ads day in and day out, regardless of economic condition is bad for a person’s well being.


Perhaps you're free-loading on other people that don't.


I am no martyr of ad viewing. You are welcome to do your part.


This is one of the most gangster comments I've read on Hacker News.


Even disregarding the many questionable aspects of consumerism, think about how many developers you know that have dedicated their entire ability to creating better advertising. The amount of brain power that has been spent on marketing (largely) unnecessary products to consumers is staggering. I hesitate to suppose where we could be if those abilities had been directed elsewhere, but I expect the world might be a much better place.


I work in marketing/advertising.

I assure if you the industry disappeared tomorrow, I would certainly find some other way to continue making the world a much worse place.


Yeah, a lot of humanity's potential is wasted on advertising, commodities market analysis, and developing javascript frontend code


>'Why then, doesn't the government bring advertising to a halt? At least they could start with targeted advertising as seen on the internet.'

Interesting idea. I just read that over £20bn is spent a year on advertising in the UK. The problem is that things which are socially valuable - especially journalism, but also a lot of entertainment - are chronically dependent on advertising revenues.

Netflix is an interesting example of a new model of entertainment that generates revenues through subscriptions instead of advertisements. Lots of newspapers have also shifted to a subscription-based model, though only The Guardian has done so without placing their website behind a paywall. Another alternative is public service broadcasting, like the BBC.


Are those really new models? People’ve been subscribing to newspapers forever, and HBO has been a subscription service.


I guess they mean purely via subscriptions. But of course Netflix also uses product placement and probably sells all your viewing and behavioural habits as well.


Definitely product placement going on.

I'd be surprised to hear they were selling viewing data though. A few years ago, they were making a lot of noise about how that data gave them a unique way to make decisions on what content to produce that other studios lacked. Seems like the kind of thing you'd hold close if that were the case.

When you search, it's also clear they have shadow profiles for content they don't have (e.g. before they had Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they'd autocomplete to "Things like Monty Python and the Holy Grail" pretty early in the autocomplete results). I wonder how heavily that search data is weighted in deciding how much to offer to license existing content.


> I wonder how heavily that search data is weighted in deciding how much to offer to license existing content.

Probably quite highly, as it’s well known that Netflix also watches what’s popular on torrent sites to help decide what to licence next.


>The problem is that things which are socially valuable - especially journalism, but also a lot of entertainment - are chronically dependent on advertising revenues.

I think calling journalism "socially valuable" is debatable.


There was a paper on the psychological effects, i.e. net negative effects on happiness not too long ago [1], I think it was posted on HN a while back. Haven't read it though so I can't comment on the specific findings and the quality.

If anyone has any literature on the other effects mentioned by the parent, I'd be highly interested as well.

1. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/research/centres/cag...


There are countries that ban ads, but they also ban a lot of other things.

My presumption is that if advertising was banned, and you were still dealing with a relatively free society, that many more resources would go in to PR and marketing. At least an ad you know is an ad.

A good exercise is to go back and look through magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, especially Playboy. The advertising seems much more transparent in its shallow promises and we actually know what the long term outcomes were from following them -- e.g. alcohol, tobacco, and cars no one gives a shit about anymore. The editorial bridges between advertising and content glaringly stick out. These things aren't necessarily no longer true, but the obviousness of time shines a bright light on it.

To me the biggest story in ads isn't ad blockers or Google, it is Facebook getting consumers to spend gargantuan amounts of money creating content for free and then making tens of billions of dollars from it. Youtube/Google at least has revenue sharing.


>> Youtube/Google at least has revenue sharing.

Barely. It's not like a person can create an account, upload an original video which becomes extremely popular, and receive a single penny in compensation.


> At least an ad you know is an ad.

True. In some countries, mixing content and ads (see social media influencers) is already forbidden, especially when targeting children. I suppose the law could be extended here.


I worked briefly in a marketing department as programmer. Learned the following there. The benefit of advertising is to inform the consumer of products they may not be aware of. "Messa thinks Messa might have Mesothelioma!" Most of the time advertising is a waste of time, and there certainly are better ways of learning about products. However, the function of informing consumers of products they may not be aware of is of mild benefit.

A better question than what benefit is advertising might be, "How can advertising be made more beneficial to the viewers"


To a minimalist advertising could almost be construed as a form of psychic attack on ones value system.

Imagine firing off hundreds of ads at a vegan about how eating meat is good. That's essentially what all the "buy this shit" ads are doing to someone who explicitly buys as little as they can to get by.


This doesn't only apply to minimalists. I don't consider myself a minimalist, but I do consider advertising as a psychic attack. This is how many justify disabling billboards and ad blocking : they are merely defending themselves.


Another way of looking at it: What are better alternatives for helping people learn about available products? Or better yet, good ways of solving different problems in life, which may not always involve buying a product.

There is an inherent problem with advertising in that the incentives are somewhat misaligned. Company X doesn't want me to learn about the best way to solve problem Y. They want me to learn about _their_ solution to problem Y.

Or even worse... Company X wants me to believe that Y is a problem for me — when in fact it may not be, or at least not how they claim — and that only they can solve it.


I'm currently reading the book the book, "Utopia for Realists" by Rutger Bregman. I consider myself fairly intelligent, but of course knowledgeable in just a few domains, but he brought up something that I'm ashamed to not have realized for myself.

Simon Kuznets, a Russian emigre to the US, developed the concept of the GDP in 1934, and according to Bregman, tracking the GDP was a significant factor in the US's ability to harness its manufacturing capability during the war effort; most countries had a significantly inferior understanding of their own production dynamics.

As useful was it was for the war effort, Kuznets warned that the GDP should be redefined after the war, as the country's needs had changed. Instead, military spending is part of the GDP. No party wants to significantly cut back on military spending because it would affect the GDP. So not only does the GDP encourage increased military spending, it doesn't reward so many things that would be beneficial to society, and thus little effort is spent optimizing for those things.

TL;DR: if the GDP doesn't measure it, there is no political will to address it, and if the GDP does measure it, it is a political necessity to boost spending in that area. Thus, needless military spending, rent seeking money shuffling on wall street, and advertising are richly rewarded as they are included in the GDP.


Thanks for sharing that. I've had this feeling in my gut for a while, and I think it touches on a similar notion.

The feeling has to do with the fact that where I live, nearly every software engineer you meet works for a defense contractor, an issuance company, or a finance company. These jobs, and the dollars that come from them, seem somehow hollow to me. I'd accept a significant pay cut if my code were somehow contributing to something like growing food.


> It seems like a net loss to me, because ads are used to make people consume more than they need;

My SO opened an escape room a year ago. I though similarly as you before that (not that it make people consume more, but that they'll buy the inferior product), but then after a few weekend without any reservation... it made me realize how things aren't just found.

You need to be reminded that something exist to even consider it. It's not even a question of whether that's the best thing for you.

She always ask people what they think once they done and recently she got as a comment "but you aren't visible enough". We pay for ads, a few thousands, we are probably not too far from having spend 5 digits in ads. I couldn't imagine how people could be aware of our existence without ads at all.

> and while ads may make the internet "free", we are still paying for those ads indirectly.

We are paying for it, sure, but at least we are paying, aren't we? I like that I can get any ads on a channel. I love DIY channels, I seriously hate how almost all of them hide that all their tools were given. They say it from time to time, but on most videos, they'll just keep using the one from the past videos without mentionning getting them for free. That's an ads by the way, they may even directly get paid for using theses tools. With adsense though, the ads I get aren't necessarily related to the video, I'm AWARE they are ads, they are made FOR ME (thus more profitable for the channel, because I may need tool, but I may be more likely to buy a new computer for example).


> because ads are used to make people consume more than they need

Not necessarily. An ad for a restaurant doesn’t necessarily make you eat more. An ad for a hotel doesn’t make you go on more trips.


Are ads really that effective? I'd love for my internet ads to show me stuff I could buy at nice prices. What I get is I bought a mechanical keyboard once and now for two months all ads will be bombarding me with mechanical keyboard offers. Why would I want one if I already got one?


Advertising exists to increase consumption, because capitalism requires constant growth. On order for it to sustain itself, we need to buy more and more, consume more and more.

When a company can produce a product that is somehow too high quality to be a viable business model, you know we're living in a weird society. Capitalism requires that stuff breaks and is replaced regularly.

And advertising helps manipulate us to desire new things constantly.


"Why then, doesn't the government bring advertising to a halt?"

I've been advocating for bans on unsolicited advertising for many years. Usually such comments get voted down in to oblivion, but as the years have gone by more and more people are beginning to feel the same way.

Advertising is severely detrimental, not only because of the reasons that you state, but they also distort the media because news outlets are loathe to do investigative journalism or negative reporting on the companies that provide their bread and butter and because they also want to run stories that don't offend or antagonize their advertisers -- stories from that point of view that capitalism is bad or advertising is bad, for instance, are off limits to many outlets partially because of this.

Advertisers also routinely lie about the products they're selling, so people are being deceived about the products they're buying, sometimes with very serious negative consequences (such as advertising of cigarettes or medical products that are actually harmful).


The problem is, like me, you can be relatively unintelligent, work forty hour weeks, and make around a quarter million dollars a year peddling ads. That's tough to give up when nobody's dropping dead because of it.


Nobody's obviously and immediately dropping dead.

Advertising and advertised products have and do do tremendous harm. It's just generally indirect by one or more degrees. Tobacco, alcohol, petroleum, gambling, leaded paint. Just off the top of my head.


This line of thought is complete nonsense. When you get a product in a transaction, you get something from the other party and you give them something in exchange. When you buy an iPhone, what you're giving is $700. In the case of non-paywalled online content, what you're giving is an ad impression. It would be ludicrous to say after an iPhone purchase "I didn't get anything out of the part of the transaction where I paid $700? The government should ban it".

I'm not dismissing the possibility of conversations about whether advertising for services is a type of transaction that's difficult to reason about, and that users need to be protected from themselves by regulation. But looking at only the outflow half of a transaction and asking "I don't benefit from this part, we should ban it" is utter gibberish.

"Did anyone ever investigate what benefits payment systems have to a population? It seems like a net loss to me, since payment systems cost money to operate and in the end all they do is reduce the amount of money a user has. While payment systems may allow you to 'buy' services, we are still paying for these systems directly and indirectly

Why then, doesn't the government bring currency and bank accounts and credit cards to a halt?"




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