The Never-Ending War Against Advertising

I spoke with a reporter the other day. She was looking for ways to fight the urge to shop. “My top tip is to avoid advertising,” I told her.

“That sounds nice,” she said, “but how do you actually do that?” I talked about how I used to read comic book blogs and participate in comic book forums, and how doing these things led me to increase my spending on comics. When I stopped visiting such sites, my spending dropped.

“Television is especially bad,” I told her. “I don't watch much TV, but I did watch the Olympics. I hadn't watched anything on TV since the Oscars last winter. I'd forgotten about all the advertising. It was mind-blowing. There's no way a person could watch television day after day without having the commercials affect them.

The reporter and I tried to brainstorm other ways to avoid advertising. In the end, though, I had to agree that marketing is so pervasive in modern life that we cannot hope to escape it. The best we can do is minimize its impact.

Advertising in real life
Since that conversation, I've tried to pay attention to the presence of advertising in my own life.

Kris and I visited some friends the other night. They had been mailed a “complimentary” issue of Town and Country magazine. I leafed through it while we chatted. “This entire thing is ads,” I said. “Ads for expensive Stuff. Even the articles are ads.”

“Look at this,” Kris said, leaning over my shoulder. “It's a $2,000 sweater. Who on earth needs a $2,000 sweater? People read this and admire the clothes. Then they're in their favorite store and they see a similar sweater for $200. They think it's a bargain because they're ‘saving' $1800!”

(This reminds me of a true story, the details of which I'm about to mangle. My friend's wife came home one day with a $700 purse. He was mortified, and insisted his wife return it. She did, but she came home with a $200 replacement purse. “I saved $500!” she said.)

Earlier this week, I picked up the latest issue of Esquire. This magazine, too, was mostly ads: ads for expensive watches, expensive cards, expensive clothes, expensive cologne. I'm not exactly a fashion maven, but even after a minute browsing the pages, I found myself coveting $2000 sweaters. Literally:

[A $1,695 sweater from Esquire magazine]

 

Resisting the urge
Maybe that's why I almost bought a bunch of clothes today.

This morning, I received a piece of e-mail from Filson. I'm on their mailing list because I love their clothing. I don't have many Filson items — they're expensive! — but what I have, I worship. I've always wanted a Filson shirt. Well, today's e-mail featured a sale on “tin cloth” shirts. Perfect!

I clicked through to the Filson web site, picked a size and color, and added a shirt to my basket. Then I browsed the web specials. I chose a sweater, a pair of pants, and a hat, and added them to to my shopping cart. But as I walked downstairs to get my credit card, I came to my senses: I was about to spend over $200 because of an ad. Isn't this exactly the sort of thing I preach against? If I hadn't seen that ad, I would have spent $0, and been just as happy. I walked back upstairs, sat at the computer, and closed the browser window.

I'm not opposed to buying a $75 shirt — if it's quality and will last a long time — but I want it to be a conscious decision. I want to buy the shirt because I need it, not just because I saw an ad for it.

Take back your brain!
This all reminds me of yesterday's guest post about attentive spending. The power of marketing is a very real thing, and we, as consumers, must remain vigilant against its influence. Awareness leads to informed decisions. Two simple things you can do:

  • Change the way you relate to advertising. Mute television commercials, ignore magazine ads, throw away junk mail. (Hell, use an adblocker at Get Rich Slowly!) More than that, try to inoculate yourself against ads. Notice your response to them. How do they make you feel? What message is each ad trying to convey?
  • Spend mindfully. When you make a purchase, ask yourself why you're doing so: “What is prompting me to buy this?” When I stopped to ask myself this question today, it was obvious that I wasn't buying the Filson clothes because I needed them or wanted them, but only because I'd seen the ad.

If you really want to get fancy, check out the marvelous Take Back Your Brain, a site devoted to using professional marketing techniques to advertise to yourself. Take Back Your Brain is all about creating anti-ads, or ads for things you want to be and do. It's brilliant.

More about...Psychology

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Sarah
Sarah
11 years ago

The TV is the thing! Since moving abroad where the TV is not in English I barely watch it so the only adverts I see are ones on the internet. I rarely buy products just because I have seen them advertised but if you watch TV for hours and hours each day then it is bound to affect people.

Chad @ Sentient Money
Chad @ Sentient Money
11 years ago

This is a really great post. I especially like the “Take back your brain” line. Far too many of us just turn it off.

If you watch TV a good investment is a DVR. I never ever watch anything, but sports that has not been pre-recorded. It saves me 15 minutes on an hour program and I avoide the ads…awesome.

Kin
Kin
11 years ago

You make an excellent point. I get catalogues in the mail and quite often end up with over $500 worth of stuff in my basket. I’m a big fan of the little cross in the top right corner of my browser.

In fact if I’m looking for some “retail therapy” I’m known to go to online shops and fill the basket before hitting the cross and “woops, lost it all”.

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
11 years ago

I try not to even look at a catalogs (or fashion magazines, which are the same thing) because it always stirs up my own dissatisfaction with my wardrobe. I feel infinitely less put-together. Fortunately, I only hang out with a few people who have awesome wardrobes, the rest of us are average.

The specific advertisement that’s been getting to me lately is Degree’s clinical strength for women deodorant. I wonder if it would help me avoid sweat stains, but I don’t know how much is just hype.

WealthBoy
WealthBoy
11 years ago

As pervasive and sometimes obtrusive advertising is, it is an essential component of our economy. Imagine how difficult it would be for producers to inform potential customers about new (and old) products without it. As you said, it’s virtually impossible to avoid advertisements and I think it would be a futile effort to attempt to do so. I think it is a good idea to spend mindfully though. The best we can do is to question each and every purchase as we stand in line at the register. “Do I really NEED this or do I WANT it? What would… Read more »

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

I cut cable TV about a year ago, and now laugh at ads I see because it’s the first time I’ve seen them. I just don’t watch tv anymore unless it happens to be on somewhere when I’m out and about. I got a auto sound shop to add a cable to my car so I could play audio from my Treo or iPod out of the car’s speakers. They must have unhooked the radio antenna and then not hooked it back up again. I keep meaning to go have them fix it, but I’ve not done it in about… Read more »

Louise
Louise
11 years ago

Cancel all your magazine subscriptions. Get off all catalog mailing lists. Stop watching TV. Stop walking through the mall for entertainment.

You’ll be shocked by how much easier it is to stop spending money. And once you stop, it just gets easier and easier. I can walk through a mall now and just think to myself, “I don’t need ANYTHING here. Not a thing.” Once I reached that point, it became entertaining again simply to look, touch, and walk away. The desire to own it all was gone and now they are just pretty, shiny objects.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

This post reminds me of a time when my daughter (about 3 at the time) came to me after watching an info-mercial one morning. She said, “Daddy we need a sleep number bed.”

Jessica
Jessica
11 years ago

The worst magazine ads are the full pagers that disguise themselves as articles. Real simple had a Chase card ad that was trying to convince you it was about the development stages of the first year of a baby’s life. However after each stage an expensive toy or device was listed, with a little note at the bottom about how using your Chase card can help you provide the “best” for your baby. It was pretty sick. What new parent has gotten enough sleep to really think about this?

Angie
Angie
11 years ago

My husband and I used to live in Japan, and while there was a downside to being essentially illiterate, there was also an enormous upside: we couldn’t read any ads. Ads are just as prevalent there as they are in the U.S., but it was a cinch for us to tune them out everywhere — on TV, on billboards, on the train, on my lunchtray. They were just a series of funny pictures to giggle over. Sometimes we couldn’t even figure out what was being advertised. I definitely noticed the lack of advertising in my life when I’d go to… Read more »

Eve
Eve
11 years ago

A few months ago, I discovered Firefox add-ons. For people who use Firefox, you can download an application called Adblock Plus, which blocks nearly all the ads on Web pages. It’s a godsend.

I also don’t watch TV, so most of the advertising I’m exposed to is in the form of billboards and the sides of buses. When I do watch TV (at other people’s houses) I find it really hard to tune out the commercials, because I’m not used to them anymore.

elisabeth
elisabeth
11 years ago

As people have mentioned about various magazines, it’s not just ads one needs to become immune to, it’s more like media (or life!) in general. For example, I’m pretty sure that owning a cell phone for me is is more a response to feeling like I’m not a “real” member of society without one rather than something I actually need or even want. It’s not really advertisements that are supporting that, it’s stuff like the office asking everyone to provide their cell phone number as part of our our contact information….

Faye
Faye
11 years ago

Great post! And I know what you mean about advertising. I’d like to think that I’ve already won the battle against advertising, but that’s not exactly true. Whenever I buy something, it’s usually not because of need, instead of want. If I do want something, I have to discipline myself to save the exact amount of money before I buy something. That’s why it takes me around a month or two before I can buy something that I want. I realized that’s not really true. Somehow I’m very much interested in learning more about the Family and Medical Leave after… Read more »

Adrienne
Adrienne
11 years ago

I think one of the most influential factors in advertising is that it changes your perception of what the “norm” is. Seeing a bizzilion ads for new cars can make you feel like “everyone” has a new car. That’s one of the reaons I like reading this blog – it shifts my perception to a “better” norm. Also don’t think of print or tv ads and the only kind of advertising. In-store pos and product placement is even more effective. (I heard that over 75% of candy purchases are unplanned). Keeping yourself out of stores (fewer bigger trips, shopping on-line)… Read more »

toes
toes
11 years ago

I used to believe that advertising didn’t affect me. Then I took a job at a printer in the finishing department. I had to do things like run printed pieces through a cutter and then a stapler or a folder. I started to notice that I would crave whatever was on the paper. When you look at an advertisement for spaghetti sauce for 8 hours, is it any wonder that you crave spaghetti when you get home? That was a real wake-up call for me.

jtimberman
jtimberman
11 years ago

I minimize advertising as much as possible through the following methods. 1. I use Firefox with Adblock Plus and an automatic filter update add-on. I also use NoScript, which stops Javascript and Flash. I never click ads on web sites because I have always loathed them, so I don’t even want to see them. This improves page loading times as well. 2. Most of my web page reading is actually in my RSS feed reader (Google Reader). Most ads aren’t displayed there. (Sorry JD, I know you and other bloggers earn money through web page ads, but I’m not going… Read more »

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

I block as many ads as possible at my firewall. You get a stupid black and red banner that sais “This page has been blocked by netgear” or something similar, but it reminds me of how many ads are on the page.

This also speeds up my surfing experience since the ads don’t have to be downloaded but can make for some really ugly pages.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

(Sorry JD, I know you and other bloggers earn money through web page ads, but I’m not going to click them anyway.)

I am perfectly fine with this. In fact, I encourage it. I do my best to only take on advertising from companies that are worthwhile for GRS readers (banks being the top example), but I cannot control all of the ads. (Google offers very limited control.)

A blog’s income isn’t derived from regular readers, anyhow. It’s derived from those who come via search traffic. As long as these people aren’t all using adblockers, I’m fine. 🙂

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
11 years ago

Believe it or not, even the way malls are designed is a subtle way to “advertise” the message: “Buy stuff and you will be happy.” This is done by retailers and developers who pay psychologists and other experts who actually founded the science of shopping to study all the amazingly different and unexpected ways that changing the way a store looks, its displays, employee behaviors, signs, etc., to attract people to buy more stuff! I wrote about it at “Why We Buy It Even If We Don’t Need It” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/05/02/why-we-buy-it-even-if-we-dont-need-it/

rmummy
rmummy
11 years ago

Interesting post. While I agree that reducing the opportunity to be exposed to ads makes sense, I do believe that there are positives that come from those magazines. Case in point, I would never have found GRS if I didn’t read Real Simple!

KC
KC
11 years ago

TV advertising is my weakness. I try to mute commercials if I’m near the remote. I’m usually reading anyway so this helps me concentrate. But I also play tennis and read Tennis magazine and watch their sporting events. Talk about some high dollar advertising. I actually caught myself online looking up the Mercedes I just saw an advertisement for! I avoid malls and other retail places. I basically know when I’m running low on clothes and I head out then. Usually its only once or twice a year that I’m shopping for clothes. IF I had kids it might be… Read more »

Deb Burton
Deb Burton
11 years ago

Excellent advice. I stopped reading women’s magazines a long time ago because of the influence they had on my thinking, ads and articles alike. I’ve finally gotten away from the WalMart mentality in clothes buying, going instead to high-end clothing stores and shopping exclusively their close-out clearance rack. My husband has bought blazers retailed at $200-300 for $12, and I love finding a flattering piece of apparel for just $3. You don’t need to do Goodwill (unless you’re in a wealthy area, then it’s a good place to shop!) and you can still stay away from the noxious retail ads… Read more »

PDXgirl
PDXgirl
11 years ago

Excellent! One of the ways I got out of my debt spiral was to stop reading Vogue. Suddenly I didn’t care that my pant legs were too narrow for that season, or that I’m not a jet-setter.

Once you choose to ignore those messages rather than thinking you can see them and overcome them, you’re on the road to being happy in your own skin.

RetiredAt47
RetiredAt47
11 years ago

I’ll be happy to knit you a sweater to your specifications for just $300. That would save you $1395! 😉

Mother Necessity
Mother Necessity
11 years ago

I really appreciated this article, because advertising is something people don’t even think about as it’s become such a part of our lives. I’m especially sensitive to it in the way it affects my children. Even though they only watch PBS, they are still exposed to tons of ads everywhere they look. Juliet Schor has 2 wonderful books on the subject – Born to Buy and The Overspent American. (As I am not terribly computer savvy, I am unable to underline the titles!)

cv
cv
11 years ago

Sometimes I notice that a household product that I see advertised didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago. The world got along just fine before the invention of the Swiffer wetjet (and the associated disposable cloths and solution), shampoo that’s designed for your hair color, little tooth brush finger pad things (with incredibly annoying commercials), soup you can drink from a microwavable can, frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, etc. When I occasionally start coveting something in a brand-new product category, I try to remind myself that I was happy before I knew of its existence, and I can carry… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
11 years ago

I wondered why I was able to get so many magazine subscriptions for free-either totally so- and from e-rewards. Of course, it is because of the ads or merchandise placements. I mean -“fashion” stories are all over magazines full of expensive clothing, make-up, accessories. I don’t even consider most of what I see- I know before I look at the price that it will be outrageous(and I am well-paid and in a basically debt free life- paid off mortgage, no loans, no credit card debt). I rarely watch TV although that may change as we are bringing the demon FIOS… Read more »

boxboy
boxboy
11 years ago

We all fight the war against advertising. I think being a critical thinker is key. We can’t avoid seeing or reading ads. But we can condition ourselves to think critically about them. It can be a fun game to try to figure out the target markets and subtle messages in ads. I must also add however, that in your post you submitted us to the battle as well. Not only with the adds on your page, but with your praise and links to the Filson clothing page! Shameless!! Might we all help the cause by not wearing clothes that advertise… Read more »

Nyomi
Nyomi
11 years ago

Even though I’m 25, and probably just recently ended what was my most susceptible phase, I think I did a great job of tuning out TV ads. It helped a lot that my favorite shows were the ones geared towards older generations and males (I’m female), like Matlock and Star Trek: TNG. I felt very little desire to purchase AARP insurance or Degree for men. 🙂 However, I still tended to splurge on shopping trips every few weeks, and have since donated a few garbage bags of clothes that I wore only a few times. Nowadays, even if I feel… Read more »

Toni
Toni
11 years ago

I don’t watch TV which helps a lot. I’ve found much better things to do with my time but if I really want to watch something, I rent the DVD. Besides losing the commercials, I chose when and for how long I watch.

I recommend public radio. Again, no commercials. Make a donation once a year – it’s tax deductible and you are supporting the station directly.

My Daily Dollars
My Daily Dollars
11 years ago

I’ve been thinking about this too. I just finished a “chick lit” novel from the library. Now, these novels are ad-free, of course, but chock full of brand names and descriptions of clothes. Since reading it, I’ve really had the shopping bug. In fact, I even DREAMED about shopping last night. Tuning out all the marketing really does need to be a conscious decision!

DC Portland
DC Portland
11 years ago

I recommend that everyone read Juliet Schor’s fascinating book, “The Overspent American”. The basic point of the book is that advertisers are directing their messages to the people with the most disposable income (think $2,000 sweater). The problem is that we all are exposed to the same advertising messages. The majority of us cannot afford to purchase the items that the advertisers are pushing to the affluent. So, as a result, we overspend in an attempt to “keep up with the Joneses”. As we find that we are not able to keep up, we start to feel bad about ourselves… Read more »

Kacie
Kacie
11 years ago

For awhile, I took internet surveys to make a few extra bucks. They’re actually like extended advertisements, designed to make you think about a particular product for several minutes.

I decided the $3 or so wasn’t worth my time.

kitty
kitty
11 years ago

I’ve never really got why people have difficulties resisting advertising. I’ve never had problems with it. So they want to sell me something – it is their prerogative. It is my choice if this is something I want to buy or not. I know what I want or need. I love watching expensive catalogs I get in the mail. They amuse me. There was this one which featured a toilet seat (just a seat) for $400. This one actually was reasonably useful as it was heated, had a little water hose and a remote to use it. An amusing idea,… Read more »

Lily
Lily
11 years ago

Sure – critical thinking is key. Read “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard, it’s a milestone and it gives you all the basic info about advertising and such. Read blogs and sites that make fun of ads, you’ll have a good time while starting to demystify advertising. 🙂

Orange
Orange
11 years ago

I don’t own a TV anymore (it is broken) and amazingly, I don’t know about the famous one day sales or new gadget that is coming out. Yes I do miss the great sales, but afterall I don’t go to shopping because there is a sale.

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

Another tip is to unsubscribe from as many email lists as possible. At one point I had subscribed to lists for a lot of places I shop frequently in order to get coupon and sales emails. But I found that I sometimes bought things I wouldn’t have otherwise bought just because I got a really great offer in email. Now I only subscribe to a few places that I know I shop the most frequently that send out good deals in email, and I make a real effort to only make a purchase if I really would be buying something… Read more »

Natalie
Natalie
11 years ago

I agree with the DVR comments. I read somewhere recently that it is the most valued home electric device second only to a microwave. We have had one for a year and it does eliminate the exposure to commercials. I really can’t stand to watch regular tv (without fastforward and jump ahead functions) anymore because of all of the commercials.

I also think DVRs are a frugal item because they help us get much more value out of watching tv because we can watch shows and movies quicker and anytime we want.

PDXgirl
PDXgirl
11 years ago

I also almost never watch commercials, even when I’m watching “live” TV because I pause once the commercials start and go do something for a few minutes then fast forward when I come back… it really cuts back on the TV commercials. Of course some TV shows are huge product placement marketing campaigns themselves, but I don’t watch many of those.

Andrea
Andrea
11 years ago

wait, I just looked at that sweater again- $2380- it is “both luxuriuos and practical”. yes, a sweater for $2380- practical!

Matt
Matt
11 years ago

The hard part with marketing is that a lot of people are doing it; how do you make your products stand out? Well that’s where all the advertising comes in. I understand that it can be a negative influence but as you stopped yourself today people can do the same thing. Awareness of the ads and your situation are key – the ads contribute to the problem but in the end its the person who purchases the product they aren’t held at gunpoint and forced to buy it.

Slackerjo
Slackerjo
11 years ago

I think deep down everyone wants to be a bit of a rebel and have some sort of cool edginess associated with their personality. I am one of those people. The problem is that I am a boring dork. Really, for me an exciting night is reading a book on the couch and sipping a nice cold Diet Coke (no this is not some hidden ad for DC, I just like it). When I really want to kick back, I work on my paint by numbers while listening to old records. Alas I just ooze dorkiness. So when you are… Read more »

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

We rent a DVR box from Comcast and never watch anything live. If we watch a weekly sitcom we usually wait 20 minutes then start watching it from the beginning and skip all the commercials. It has changed the way we watch TV for the better.

partgypsy
partgypsy
11 years ago

I would be overjoyed if my husband did what you did. He HATES shopping for clothes, doesn’t even like going into most stores. The end result except for the clothes I helped him pick out for his job, off work he keeps wearing his clothes (he has stuff from high school) until his jeans are almost ripped all around the knees into shorts, his t-shirts have stains and tiny little holes, heels of his socks are one large hole, elbows of his jacket are blown out, and his underwear is practically see through. I’ve finally broken down and started buying… Read more »

Michelle
Michelle
11 years ago

Ever since I’ve been into FI and getting out of debt and setting goals, I’ve become far more interested in luxury and marketing. Actually, I think I’m going to pursue a career in marketing. Something that has really helped me to become a conscious consumer — outside, of course, of the discipline of budgeting, mindful spending, etc — has been to research the role of marketing and advertising in my own life and how it affects people today. I’m currently reading ‘Buying In’ by Rob Walker (writer of the ‘Consumed’ column in NYT Mag). Some of the descriptions of the… Read more »

Peggy
Peggy
11 years ago

This is especially true of children. We don’t watch any TV as a family except “Jeopardy” and the occasional OLD movie without commercials. But if I don’t intercept the mail before the kids get hold of it, the kids will start making “wish lists” of things they want that they see in catalogs. I spend the time to get off mailing lists but still the catalogs come. It’s an uphill battle.

Hussain
Hussain
11 years ago

A $2000 sweater is rediculous. If I had a sweater worth that much, I would never wear it, I would just hang it on my wall. If you had to spend the money, instead of spending $2000 on a sweater, which you would probably just wear on special occasions, you should go on a shopping spree at your nearby mall and buy various things. Also you could buy a tv, new gaming system and games for it, or anything else. It is useless to spend that much money on an article of clothing.

Maha
Maha
11 years ago

My almost 6-year old son is convinced he needs an acne medicine that’s advertised during America’s Funniest Home Videos. We record it, so usually I can buzz through the commercials, but I sometimes can’t get to it. Every now and then he’ll come tell me something new about the medicine and why he needs it: “Anyone can use it”, “I have red spots on my face” (caused by a Popsicle no doubt), and so on.

Kristin
Kristin
11 years ago

Honestly, I think the best thing that came out of the reality TV phenomenon was that I completely lost my taste for television. My husband and I still have one; it gets turned on for his video games and my (one) Saturday morning cartoon that’s now between seasons. Watching television again after a few years off, I found that the ads during the commercial breaks horrified me. I’m now trying to figure out how, when kids come into the picture, they can still have the “Saturday morning cartoon” experience that I loved as a kid… sans ads. I’m thinking that… Read more »

Gabe
Gabe
11 years ago

im 16 years old and every time an interesting magazine arrives at my house, i look through it for things i want. i have my own job and set SMART goals to purchase the things i especially like. financial planning is very important in my life because my parents make me buy most of my own things.

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