If you wage war with someone and he gets a bigger gun, you feel pressured to get one too. It’s the same in the war to take your money. If everyone else spends a fortune on advertising, you are likely to feel forced to do so too. But it costs, heavily, and those costs ultimately have to be recovered in higher prices.
When you click on an ad on a website, an advertising company somewhere typically gets about £0.50. That 50p plus has to be recovered when you buy the product, but many of the clicks are ineffective, and there are other expenses in the whole chain apart from the actual click fee (the seller’s own staff, banking costs, accountancy, management etc). Whether you even notice ads or have ever clicked on one, the money you hand over nevertheless subsidises a great many ads, and the ultimate price you pay is much greater than the price that would be needed without advertising.
Nothing new there, but advertising has become a significant and unavoidable extra cost along with taxes and banking fees (and parking charges if you buy in town). You don’t get a choice whether to pay extra to buy via an advertising route or get it cheaper by somehow buying direct. Add up all the web ads, junk email, text messages, paper junk mail, newspapers and magazines, TV and radio advertising, and the whole advertising mark-up is big.
Advertising doesn’t just increase costs. With the exception of some wonderfully entertaining ads, many involving meerkats, adverts waste our time too. Count up all the hours people waste fast forwarding over the add breaks or even sitting through them, and consider the significant personal stress directly resulting from the irritation they cause, that may have a small but finite impact on health. Add to that the extra demands on landfill from the paper junk mail, plus the wasted time opening and sorting the waste. The negative impact on our lives, the environment, and on the overall economy is vast. Sure, the ad industry creates jobs, but jobs in advertising don’t generate wealth (though there are obviously cash flows between regions). Like banking and the public sector, advertising is a drain on resources. It syphons money from the productive economy and impoverishes us.
On the other hand, advertising pays for a great deal of what we use on the web, watch on TV or read in newspapers. Some of that wouldn’t exist if the advertising went away, though some would survive via other business models. We’d still have to pay for the things we want to use somehow, so any notional extra fees and administrative inconvenience can reasonably be offset against advertising’s negative impacts.
But even with that offsetting, we really should challenge the cost:benefit ratio in advertising and see if we can find better ways of letting suppliers make potential customers aware of the merits of what they have on offer.
Advertising is only one strand of marketing of course. Marketers know that people want to learn about their new products when they are potentially interested. Context is key. If I have just eaten, I am not interested in marketing from nearby restaurants. If I haven’t, I might be. Using context makes direct marketing possible, especially knowing the location of the user and their tastes and preferences. I will gladly pull information from companies willing to sell me stuff I am interested in, when I want it. They won’t have to pay anyone. Pull marketing is potentially very low cost to both parties, providing the consumer with the info on suppliers’ offerings so they can make an informed decision on what to buy. If we moved entirely to that sort of model, we could greatly reduce the price of everything we buy while saving time and stress.
It is certainly possible to build such a system and make it work well. The technology exists and we’d all be far better off. The really huge problem is that we have bought into the smartphone model, buying iphones, pads or similar, and were taken in so well by beautiful designs and features that we didn’t look under the covers. What we didn’t consciously buy, but bought nonetheless, were devices that only give us access to things on condition that Apple or another big manufacturer gets a big slice of the price, via a variety of mechanisms. A smartphone is perfectly capable of providing exactly the platform we need to save lots of unnecessary spend, but Apple has used its power to extract its own slice of our spend not just at device purchase but throughout its lifetime. Not only has it not let us avoid the expense of advertising, it has added its own extras on top. It has made the situation even worse. Most other companies also use strategies that are designed to get into the most lucrative position in the value chain, expanding the price increase industry.
As I remember it in the beginning, the web was meant to get rid of intermediaries and save costs, making the economy more efficient. What has happened is that layer upon layer of new intermediaries have become adept at selling us products and purchasing systems that allow them to skim off extra slices of revenue for themselves. Anyone working in IT is very familiar with the many layered system architectures, and each layer is another opportunity for some company to take a slice of the revenue passing through. All add ultimately to the purchase price, and companies like Apple win several times because they control several of the architectural layers that their devices are used in. But we are suckers, and keep buying them. Because the extra costs are cleverly hidden or disguised or renamed, we don’t notice them until it’s too late.
I may sound critical of Apple, but all they are doing is to maximise profits for their shareholders, whilst giving customers products they can’t resist. There is no fault there. The same goes for Google or Facebook or any other intermediary. It is the model that we need to change, not companies, who will always do what they can to make the most money. That’s what companies are for.
I’ve written often about cloud nets and digital jewellery nets and the forces of censorship and surveillance and web-based politics and the consequential likely emergence of sponge networks. Check them out in my recent articles list. Freeing ourselves of parasitic companies and advertising is another potential pressure. It may go two ways. We could simply recreate exactly the same problems all over again, just swapping one set of intermediaries for another. Sadly, that is the most likely outcome. History teaches us best that we don’t often learn from history.
But, and this is a long shot, but one that would really help make the world better, we could make devices that people buy, and are then free. No charges for making apps for them, no push advertising, completely open, highly context aware, and high powered, yet completely free to own and use after purchase. Even the comms could be free. They would be capable of everything that you do now, and more. We could use them to talk direct to suppliers and do business with them without anyone else involved. It is even possible to design a free payments and banking system. We could avoid paying anyone except the device manufacturer, once, and the companies we want to do business with using the devices. And with all the time and money we would all save, none of us would mind paying a fair price for such a device. Many people paid via advertising would have to find alternative support models, but the economy would be better off, the rest of us individually would be better off, and the environment would be better off. It is hard to see a downside.
History tells us we will still pick the other system and pay more for a worse life.