An Ad-Free World

About a year ago, there was a big story about a new policy that Brazil had implemented banning all OOH advertising. No billboards were allowed in the city and major companies had to stop selling advertising on them. The issue started because thousands of billboards had sprung up without approval and instead of selectively removing those that were unauthorized, the government set out a landmark policy eliminating them all.

A recent interview with New York Times columnist, Rob Walker, posed this question to the advertising author:
“Q: Will we as Americans, the targets of an unstoppable torrent of unrestrained advertising, ever rise to the level of the British and impose more regulation upon it?”

Walker responded:

“Polls consistently tell us that Americans can’t stand advertising, don’t trust it, are annoyed by its incursion into and murkier venues — and yet there appears to be no particular popular interest in regulation. I don’t know why. The FCC is looking at ad placement, but it’s unlikely that tough regulation will ever occur in the U.S. without serious public demands for it.

There’s much talk about tech-enabled consumer power these days, but it takes the form of “complain about a product on a blog and get a free replacement,” rather than more broad-based and wide-ranging reforms that might benefit everyone. Maybe that will change.

Consumers truly do have a lot of power — movements of the past demonstrate that repeatedly — so maybe we’re just learning how to use the technology more effectively.”

Why don’t we ban advertising? People hate it, don’t trust it and find it annoying (especially before a movie), so why not get rid of it altogether?

First we have to acknowledge the economic factors. Advertising is big business. For agencies, production houses, photographers, actors, media companies and – of course – marketers, the amount of money going through the system is massive. It’s not going to stop due to a channel closing down or a new government policy – it will just find new ways to get the message out (see coffee cup ads here).

Second, we have to understand the primary messaging that content exists – to sell advertising. Major networks, newspapers, magazines and anyone making content has a goal to sell their target to an interested brand. It’s just the way things work. Always have, always…


Walker mentions how new technologies are helping consumers complain about brands but maybe technology will alter the traditional content-advertising relationship. Sites like Digg allow users to drive news content, rather than dictate it. What if Digg didn’t sell banner ads on the site and didn’t optimize their revenue model against more targeted placements? Would it be more credible?

Maybe. But it would probably make it less well-known as well.

The temptation for a site to sell it’s space is extreme and one that I don’t know if I could turn down. However, there is something to be said for a place that doesn’t have huge billboards, ads on everything and millions of messages clamoring for your attention. It’s so different that you actually have time to think about stuff other than your next purchase.

I understand the irony of this post. An ad guy writing about closing the ad industry. That’s not what this is about – it’s about stronger messages brought to you by less channels. Powerful brands that don’t need to be everywhere, just on the minds of their consumers.

Media is undergoing a shift and I think it’s a good thing. I think we’re all tired of the same media plans, same media “innovation awards” given for buying space that you couldn’t buy last year. It’s not a good thing and it shouldn’t be rewarded.

I’d like to see what would happen if advertsing was limited to three channels – Digital, Print and TV – no other extensions. No other placements. Only in places where the consumer chooses to go – where they expect it.

For now, though, I’ll just finish this post and stare at the nearest elevator wrap.

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