Total Persuasion Awareness

total-information-awareness.bmpThis story from the Times, on the increasing prevalence of advertising, is disturbing.

Marketers used to try their hardest to reach people at home, when they were watching TV or reading newspapers or magazines. But consumers’ viewing and reading habits are so scattershot now that many advertisers say the best way to reach time-pressed consumers is to try to catch their eye at literally every turn.

“We never know where the consumer is going to be at any point in time, so we have to find a way to be everywhere,” said Linda Kaplan Thaler, chief executive

at the Kaplan Thaler Group, a New York ad agency. ‘Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.

Gosh, I wish I were smart enough to know for sure what Ms. Thaler means there. But it puts me in mind of the TIA program out of DARPA.


Sure, there are big differences between information gathering by the government and persuasion by private parties. (Putting aside the possibility of pervasive domestic propaganda, which to date has not be a large part of the war-on-terror arsenal.) While I understand Dan’s concerns about the TIA, that program at the very least was justified by its civic purpose. Not so with the world sketched by the Times. A community where you can’t open your eyes without being persuaded to buy a good that your innate preferences don’t command is simply a bad thing. (Filler’s Skadden post notwithstanding.)

Why?

In part because almost all outdoor advertising is a “bad”, thrust upon unwilling consumers, instead of a good that complements their ultimate purchases. More here. It is usually merely persuasive, and thus doesn’t contain new stimulus (or information) after the first encounter. More here. Over time, these two factors mean that outdoor advertising will become even more spectacular to engage our interest, while the sphere of noncommercial space wanes.

In a world where advertising will soon come tattoed on your food, the obvious question is whether law can stop the spiral toward TPA. I have doubts. Obviously, trends that would reduce the government’s power to bargain on behalf of citizens and regulate noncommercial civic spaces ought to be resisted. (Here, I’m thinking of the move to fully protect commercial speech under the first amendment.) But, on a deeper level, I think we need to think harder about what is wrong with persuasive advertising in public. That, in turn, requires us to revisit the question of what “fraud” means given new insights about the fluid nature of preferences. Anyone who is doing work in this area should feel free to drop me a line!

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6 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    Great post. Check out Walter Kirn’s novel The Unbinding, which is about a Google-like company of the future that knows everything about everyone…the marketing opportunities are amazing.

    On the other hand, our guest blogger Eric Goldman would likely say that the only way out of saturation marketing is to have targeted, personalized marketing from companies with a good idea of what you might buy.

  2. my initial reaction to the Times article: “who cares” – if the outdoor ads don’t work, they are gone, if they work, then maybe they aren’t nearly all bad…unlike government, business can’t force us to comply with their requests if we don’t do so voluntarily (see governments’ lengthy efforts to stop people from smoking.)

    most recently, in Maryland we were inundated with much such ubiquitous advertising – those that encouraged me to vote for Martin O’Malley or ben Cardin, I found “bad” but I enjoyed their counterparts so you probably don’t want me making the decision as to what’s “bad” and what’s acceptable.

    and please – “Obviously, trends that would reduce the government’s power to bargain on behalf of citizens and regulate noncommercial civic spaces ought to be resisted. (Here, I’m thinking of the move to fully protect commercial speech under the first amendment.)”

    beyond the fact that I think commercial speech should be fully protected (its carve-out has never made sense to me), I don’t think I’m alone when I admit to being wary of government bargaining on MY behalf. So far, such “bargaining” has led to reduced speech rights under McCain-Feingold, the prohibition against enjoying an after-dinner cigar in a willing restaurant (Montgomery County Maryland among other places) and soon I won’t be able to partake of a delicous trans-fat filled meal in NYC. Governments bargain on behalf of governments – specifically those who are employed as the government…most of whom are home today because they bargained themselves another federal holiday.

  3. Frank says:

    here’s a fun quote from Julian Stallabrass:

    “Homogeneous and instrumental identities are . . . constantly forged through marketing. At the same time, the system is delicate, founded as it is on the continuance of widespread affluence and the repetition of broken promises. ”

  4. Ken Arromdee says:

    unlike government, business can’t force us to comply with their requests if we don’t do so voluntarily

    I can choose not to buy products which are advertised intrusively, but I can’t choose not to not be intruded on.

    It’s the same problem as junk phone calls: the companies don’t care that making sales imposes costs on non-customers because, well, they’re non-customers already so the company has little incentive not to piss them off.

  5. “It’s the same problem as junk phone calls: the companies don’t care that making sales imposes costs on non-customers because, well, they’re non-customers already so the company has little incentive not to piss them off.”

    of course they have an incentive – the idea behind the phone calls is to make you a customer – otherwise why would they bother? Anecdotaly, my annoying junk calls peak at election time and of course it depends on who is calling as to which is most annoying. Unfortunately I can’t out of junk political calls like I can from junk commercial calls – since they are just as annoying, if not more so and a hell of a lot less educational – why do we differentiate.

    I guess my point in all of this is – if you’re talking about limits on external marketing because they are annoying or aesthetical non-pleasing or because it’s a visible sign of capitalism and at Harvard Law you learned that capitalism sucks, then it should be across the board…or not at all. I’d rather see/hear from McDonald’s than Mayor Bloomberg and Exxon instead of Al Gore.

  6. dave says:

    Thanks for these comments, all. One brief response.

    I understand MC to argue that the market clearing amount of outdoor advertising is necessarily welfare maximizing. This argument begs the point of the post, which is that the market for advertising is weird. Moreover, advertising itself isn’t a useful thing for society to want (unlike political speech, which at least has the potential to restrain political corruption). Advertising is only to be valued if it helps us make better product purchase decisions. Otherwise, it is waste. The point of the post is that we can expect that advertising increasingly to be wasteful. It misleads through emotional persuasion. The idea that consumers’ purchasing is always voluntary and rational seems seems to me to express a view of context-less consent that I do not view as empirically validated.