Is a modern culture without advertising possible or desirable?

Most people encounter several thousand advertisements daily now …

Thor May
Adelaide, 2015

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1. Advertising and its slippery parent, Marketing


An advertisement makes known that a product or service is available, usually at a certain price (but sometimes free). People may seek out advertisements to discover what the market has to offer by way of products or services they desire. Advertising can thus provide a very useful, or even essential service by linking those with a need to those with something to offer.

When there is more on offer than people feel or imagine they need, then some of those wishing to sell are going to lose. Sellers are thus motivated to either present their product in a form more attractive than those of competitors, or to manipulate buyers into believing that they have a new “need”. In either case, the process of pushing indifferent or previously unwanted products onto buyers can be called marketing. Marketing by way of advertising is a huge enterprise with a worldwide budget in 2015 of $529 billion, according to Wikipedia 2015. However, to keep this money in perspective:

The share of advertising spending relative to GDP has changed little across large changes in media since 1925. In 1925, the main advertising media in America were newspapers, magazines, signs on streetcars, and outdoor posters. Advertising spending as a share of GDP was about 2.9 percent. By 1998, television and radio had become major advertising media. Nonetheless, advertising spending as a share of GDP was slightly lower – about 2.4 percent  [Wikipedia 2015]

Marketing however is more than manipulation. Marketing at its best is managing the total experience of a product offered to customers, as distinct from any individual advertising. For example, advertisements might attract certain customers to a new car, but if the after-sales service is poor, or the vehicle turns out to be unreliable, then the overall marketing is deficient and the product will have an uncertain future in the marketplace.


2. Truth in marketing



marketin- lies1.jpgThe initial phase of marketing is the process of persuading large numbers of people that they have an urgent problem which perhaps they never knew they had, then offering them a solution uniquely available from the advertiser for a price.


The mental universe cultivated by marketers is thus rather different from the mindset which leads to invention. The inventor becomes alert to the technical limitations of a culture, lifestyle or activity and sets out to find a solution to each issue through an act of unique creation. A marketeer creates nothing except a persuasive argument that an existing solution is desirable and worth spending money on. The inventor cares for the elegance and efficiency of his creation. The marketeer’s attachment to a product is purely promiscuous and dependent upon where profit lies.

Advertising of one kind or another has probably existed since the dawn of civilization. In many environments it may have been fairly insignificant, but from the time that mothers wanted to marry their daughter into a desirable family, or farmers wanted to sell a cow, some means would have been found to promote the desired transaction.




Marketing as a deliberate, sustained and organized process of marshalling populations into a cycle of consumption spending and debt seems to have only really evolved as the economic engine of economies since the industrial revolution. The intensity and sophistication of marketing has become so intrusive that it sometimes threatens the integrity of communities. If the minds of more credulous consumers are entirely occupied with the messages of commercial marketing, then they lose much of their capacity for independent judgement and become easily manipulated. advertising2.jpg


Whereas advertising the simple availability of a product may deal with an unvarnished truth, marketing an unnecessary product immediately tempts the marketeer to use tools of exaggeration, illusion, sensual association and the manipulation of a potential buyer’s hopes and insecurities. That is, marketing by its nature is drawn to the borderline of untruth. It is therefore predictable that people a society who are saturated in the daily half truths of an advertising tsunami will eventually give up the struggle to separate fact from fiction. It becomes more comfortable to accept instant gratification wrapped in the bright colours of advertising heaven than to spoil the party with hard questions.


3. Would a world without marketing lead to a better class of human being?


These notes have already suggested that a world without advertising of any kind is scarcely credible. A world without marketing is a somewhat different concept since marketing implies promoting products and services beyond merely notifying the public that they are available. The total marketing cycle for a product, whether it be a refrigerator or a political candidate, will often give attention to features like quality and reliability since customer loyalty is important. The outcome of such a process can be very positive insofar as it genuinely raises the quality of what is available in the marketplace. For example there is a very good argument that the competitive marketing in consumer capitalist economies has indeed led to greatly improved products and hence an improved overall quality of life, as compared to the drab and incompetent environments found in earlier communist dictatorships which discounted the role of marketing altogether.

 A less desirable aspect of marketing is the attention it demands from time poor likely customers who should have better things to think about. Marketing can be minimal or it can be a full frontal media assault on potential customers to seduce them into a course of action. In other words, judgements about both advertising and marketing are not about all or nothing environments. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go around. Some are happy to live as hermits on a mountain top. Others feel naked or afraid if their houses are not permanently enveloped in an electronic soup of loud commercial radio and television marketing.

RomanticistIdyll.jpg In the late 18th Century, the European Romanticist movement whose enthusiasts were appalled by the bestiality of early industrial conditions, harked back to a rural golden age of simple village life. If they had experienced the relentless pitch of 21st Century marketing, several thousand advertisements daily and nightly, their idea of simple village life would definitely have excluded television and mass marketing. In reality however, rural and village life everywhere has generally been immersed in superstitions, rituals, stories and gossip which filled up much of the mental space now colonized by marketing blah. Deviation from established norms was often punished brutally. There is precious little evidence that the people in these places, or their 3rd World present day analogues, spent their short lives in a blur of creative activity or critical thinking. In other words, whatever the flaws of modern, consumer driven societies, harking back to an imagined golden age unpolluted by high pressure marketing is no proof that things were really better in the past. In truth, marketing and advertising are not new: Wikipedia offers a very useful potted history of advertising, dating back to pre-biblical times. The intensity and sophistication of marketing of course has changed. Those who would wish for a less market-driven society need to think of practical, yet-to-be-invented alternatives.

The past, golden age or not, is past. What about the future? In our normal opinions and calculations about human nature we take it as axiomatic that “people don’t really change”. For those who wish to manipulate others for profit, power, lust or whatever, it simplifies matters  to have a static mental model of the human circus and plan accordingly. According to our personal powers of psychological insight and empathy, these mental models can lead us to advantage or grief. For the marketer, such insight is critical to profit.

Nobody has yet invented a pill to cure stupidity, and customer stupidity is the greatest of all gifts to marketing. On any given matter, perhaps half of any population seem pliable idiots to those who wish to direct them in a different direction. The challenge is that different people at different times on different matters make up that valuable population of idiots. On a grand scale, expanding the population of idiocy might seem a boon to consumer marketing. Subjectively, some of us do have a sense from time to time that there is a grand conspiracy to dumb down the population of this country or that, mostly by politicians who think that dumb voters are easier to manipulate, but also by “the big end of town”, the plutocrats, oligarchs and rent-seekers who see “the masses” as both a fickle source of income and something to be feared.

There is another view of future populations which might not be so sympathetic to manipulative marketing. Humans are evolving. Like the hands on an analogue clock, this is hard to see on casual inspection, but the effect over time may well be seismic (e.g. see Miles 2015 in the  reading list below). Your average dictator or vacuum cleaner salesman is going to  give short shrift to this kind of speculation. Nevertheless, just as marketing itself has played a large part in transforming the kind of world we live in within the brief span of a few generations, the rapid evolution and alteration of humans themselves could have a large effect in the near future on forms of marketing. To take a crude example, implanted sensor technology is in its infancy, but being intensively researched. At this moment on my wrist I have a thing called a Fitbit Charge HR which tracks several elements of my physical state in the cloud. It is telling me that my heart rate now is 59 BPM, and that I have taken 5493 steps so far today (it’s time to go out for another run..). In a few short years, sensors will be keeping an objective record of many facets of my internal chemistry, from food processing to energy levels, to mood, to concentration, and so on. This knowledge is already available to me in a vague, subjective way. When it is objectively available to me and other parties, the whole condition of living will be altered in fundamental ways.

When you, the marketer, tell me to put some sweet gunk in my mouth, sensors will track the chemical outcomes which will go directly to a data bank somewhere … and, hey, you will be accountable. This is something like a metaphor for the Volkswagen automotive company which having encrusted its diesel engines with sensors, tried to game the emissions records for a decade but now (2015) faces maybe $80 billion in fines and other losses due to incriminating data. 


4. Are we programmed from childhood to accept or reject marketing?


One thing we do know is that the  enculturation of children into a certain level of consumerist (i.e. market driven) habits has a lifelong effect. For example, although East and West Germany have now been re-united for 25 years, East Germans spend 79% less on consumer goods than West Germans. Although salaries are lower in East Germany, the difference is nothing like the consumer difference. Before 1990 East Germans lived in a communist state which ideologically GreatDepression1.jpg disparaged capitalist marketing, and that memory survives in personal belief systems. There are some generational similarities with this in Australia. Those Australians (now quite old) who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s have habits as a group which are notably more frugal than later generations which had it much easier. In my own case, although I was born just post World War II (1945) I grew up in a poor household and early on absorbed habits of frugality, a dislike of debt, and an overall indifference to the daily bombardment from advertising.

Thus, given these examples of low receptivity to marketing in some cultural groups and individuals, it is legitimate to ask whether marketing sensitivity can be calibrated in the process of child upbringing in principle, whether anything can be done about it as a practical goal, and if so, what might be the optimum level of consumerist habits to aim for. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for a consensus of view on this though!).


5. When does a party political agenda become political marketing?


In a representative democracy, we are entitled to ask what our representatives are aiming to achieve, and their proposed methods of getting there. However, the reality is that the vast majority of people care only about very narrow personal interests, have a very poor knowledge of public affairs, and almost no idea of effective processes of public administration. They will be indignant if these shortcomings are put to them, but immediately fall back on vague general opinion rather than facts if tested in any way.

For those in government, mass public ignorance is both an opportunity to pursue hidden agendas, and an exasperating limitation on informed public discourse. The politician’s contempt for uninformed public opinion can be fatal to political ambition, so political advertising treads a narrow and shifting path in a field where the distinction between public service and public deception is often unclear.

All governments now spend large amounts of public money on so-called public relations and information departments. Ideally, this sort of thing should be advertising in the simplest sense of making known a service in the most neutral way possible. Unfortunately, the political world doesn’t work that way.

A certain amount of this information output can be genuinely useful and necessary – bus timetables, health information, maybe laws pertaining to setting up a small business. Some of the information can be bland and meaningless, such as departmental mission statements. For the very opposite of advertising, Freedom of Information Laws are needed when public officials resist public disclosure. FOI laws are universally hated by public officials and curtailed by governments whenever possible under pretexts of security.

PoliticalAdvertising1.jpg Most countries have special laws about political advertising, and election campaign managers are basically hired to subvert those laws. In the United States of America, an extreme example of such political subversion, billions of dollars are now spent on an arms race of political marketing which all of the players know is a charade to distract from the real exercise of political power. Almost everywhere, any advertising connected in any way with political advantage is likely to be massively unreliable. A career in public relations anywhere is notoriously a career in lying with a straight face. Intelligent citizens know and resent this, but may still be influenced when alternative information is not available. Things become especially difficult where it becomes life threatening for anyone to actually tell the truth.  

Just as poor marketing can lead to the demise of a business, poor StrongChoicesAdvert1.jpg marketing can lead to the removal of governments. We have already observed that marketing in the widest sense includes the post-sales life of the product and after-sales support. In the case of governments, post election “sales support” actually means governing efficiently and fairly. Where the latter fails, no amount of advertising might save the administration. Governments whose officials are afflicted with hubris might not always understand the limitations of advertising. For example, a recent state election was lost in Queensland, Australia when a particularly noxious administration hired private consultants at great expense to blitz the media with slogans about “Strong Choices”. This became insulting to even the most uniformed electors and that government was promptly voted out of office.


6. Money, marketing and other social binders


When I taught in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s, highland tribes were still going to war on an annual basis. They were “little wars” the kind where you have a ritual fight with neighbouring tribes and go home for lunch. With stone age weapons, not to many people got hurt (though nowadays heavy weapons are smuggled from Indonesia across the Irian Jaya border). What was the point of these wars? In important ways  they were identity wars, of defining a home group against outsiders, and establishing the status of home group members. As my university students would explain to me when they turned up to class with broken arms and bandaged heads, “If I don’t fight for the tribe, no woman will marry me and I will lose all my land rights”. 

Well, if you think about it, maybe not so much has changed in the underlying psychology of citizens in so-called advanced economies from the more elemental organization of tribal societies. The mechanisms for establishing order and identity however have multiplied.

Take money. Money is not merely a medium of exchange and store of value. Money is a proxy for defining insiders from outsiders, and ordering the status of insiders. The prospect of money or its loss settles disputes and enforces tolerance where no other natural affinity exists. It is interesting that Abrahamic religions gave little rhetorical credit to this beneficial function of money (though the enthusiasts for all kinds of religions have frequently succumbed to opportunities for wealth ). The medieval biblical cliché in feudal Europe was that “money is the root of all evil” while God, in competition, was the source of all virtue. This was wonderful for keeping the peasants in their place. Now most of us live in a variety intersecting and fast moving orbits (roles) which could scarcely exist without the mediation of money.

The mother at the school fete may be a businesswoman wearing another hat, a shopper, the wife of an executive, an environmental activist, the member of a gym group … and so on. She will encounter all kinds of people whom she might or might not like, might or might not trust, but be able transact exchanges with them on a basis of mutual advantage, typically mediated by money. Without the money, little of this would happen. Money is an essential catalyst for both good and evil. Yet money alone is not sufficient for our new, complex ecology of survival. The other indispensable ingredient is information.


7. Marketing as a dynamic force behind information spread


It is through information that we know someone has something to sell or to share, and that other people want to buy, or be associated with a transaction (social or commercial). Information is the transmission  vehicle, usually coded in language, images or sound,  between our mind, our inner world, and the world of other people and objects.  There is a problem with this. Our individual capacity to absorb information and do something about it is limited. In self defence, we set up barriers to censor incoming information. The more complex our external environment becomes, the more complicated are the barriers we establish to filter information and disregard perceived unnecessary information. Every teacher, for example, is familiar with the personal barriers which students consciously or unconsciously erect against being influenced by new information. Enter marketing, which at street level typically takes the form of advertising.

If the description just given is realistic, advertising seems to be an essential component of the civilization we take part in. Advertising is the professional push, the dynamic external force, used to access our awareness, then encourage our participation in economic, political and social activity. Marketing, mostly in the form of advertising, channels the attention and actions of tens of millions of people into common participation. Where that mass participation involves spending money, then industries with successful marketing campaigns are the ones which survive in the marketplace, and in doing so shape the kind of society in which we live. None of this is to say that the industries (or politicians) who prevail in the contest of marketing actually have the best products, or even have socially beneficial products. The opposite may be true. That is, the marketplace is apparently quite amoral.


8. Can marketing, especially advertising, have a moral dimension?


We have just observed that morality need play no part in successfully marketing many kinds of information and hence selling many kinds of products. Both the good guys and the bad guys have always been aware of this. However, they have also known that once a worldview, or even a brand name, has been successfully promoted, then it acquires a “stickiness”. Wasn’t it Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530), England’s most ruthless and successful court intriguer of his age, who observed “ very, very careful what you put into those heads, because once it is in there, you will never ever get it out again..”. Dictators, like England’s Henry VIII of Wolsey’s time, may have a fairly free choice about what they “put into those heads” on any given day. The smartest of them also understand though that selling the wrong products or policies in unethical ways may well come back to give them grief in the future.

There is a good argument that social morality in the long term is a set of behaviours which make it possible for the largest number of people to live together productively in relative harmony. If this is true, then the violation of such a morality (whatever its expression) in the long term at least should lead to social and political breakdown. Certainly history is replete with tales of immoral and amoral kings/dictators/governments coming to bad ends (not that everyone believes such tales).

For the reasons just outlined, both companies and governments usually try to frame whatever they are trying to promote I terms of some ethical standard. Even the ideologies of Hitler’s 3rd Reich, or Stalin’s version of Communism, or Mao Zedong’s version of Communism, first tried to frame definitions of what was “good” and “bad”, then promote policies by those metrics. That tens of millions of people died unnatural deaths as a consequence of these promotions does not alter the general paradigm used to persuade large numbers of people to act in a certain way.


Representative governments, such as those found in so-called Western democracies, are not primarily about giving populations a choice among candidates promising this or that (both the voters and the candidates are frequently poorly informed). Rather free elections give these populations a chance to pass judgement upon what has been sold to them by incumbent governments. This is rather like a customer evaluating an insurance policy or a refrigerator he bought three years ago and deciding whether to become a repeat customer. In both cases, some standard of honesty in marketing is likely to be beneficial to the seller, whether a politician or a businessman. At the commercial level, it is a feature of advanced economies that their governments usually have detailed regulations and guidelines for the ethical conduct of business, such as Australia’s ACC “Advertising and Selling Guide”, which is backed by enforceable regulations. Even if reality never quite meets the stated intentions of such guidance, it’s very existence sets a standard which is in the best long term interests of both sellers and buyers.


9. How much advertising is too much advertising?


This paper has mostly argued that marketing, and advertising in particular, has a beneficial role to play in making possible and shaping the kind of society we live in. Lots of us might feel though that several thousand advertisements every day, in many guises, is too much of a good thing. There comes a breakpoint for managing the spam emails, ignoring the bill boards, tuning out from the honeyed voice of a TV saleslady … a point where our own energy to resist is being hijacked in unproductive ways. Some of us switch off reflexively from anything that looks like an advertisement, even if it may have been of some value to us. Under such conditions, the whole enterprise of advertising becomes a process of diminishing returns for both the advertisers and the targeted customers.


Can the gross quantity of information-cum-advertising impinging upon our lives be regulated in some way? The possibility of such regulation seems unlikely at a mass societal level, short of the kind of lockdown that occurred in 20th Century experiments with Communism. Even in those cases, commercial advertising was replaced with political advertising of the most intrusive kind, propaganda, which in the end probably did more than anything else to turn whole populations off the notion of totalitarian states. More and more modern states are defined less by homogeneity than by a collage of communities sharing common spaces. The values, beliefs and preferences of these communities (which may intersect even within single families) vary dramatically. These differences extend to the kind and volume of advertising they find acceptable. As mentioned earlier, there are large groupings, such as East and West Germany, which do show big overall differences in susceptibility to marketing, but for any particular company hoping to sell a product, their market research will show up a myriad of subcultures within, say, both East and West Germany.


10. Conclusions


Some conclusions from this brief review seem to be :


a) that a world without marketing, and hence advertising would be a world that we would not recognize and probably would not want;


b) broad controls for fairness in marketing can be imposed by a referee between buyers and sellers, but compliance will always be fuzzy around the edges;


c) mass marketing, hence mass advertising, is likely to alienate significant numbers of people who are hostile or indifferent to the message. This becomes particularly noticeable with mass political advertising;


d) as preferences become more sophisticated, niche marketing and hence niche advertising looks to be the most rewarding option for those with something to sell. However niche marketing itself requires sophisticated research, and always carries the risk of further alienating those inherently opposed to a particular product (e.g. think Oil Majors Vs Environmentalists);


e) As the sheer volume of marketing directed at individuals dials up, in the end it is only those individuals who can monitor or exclude the kind of advertising they dislike. This puts the less competent members of any society at an immediate disadvantage, but there are limits to how far they can be protected.






Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)



Australian Government (2015) "Advertising and Selling Guide". ACC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) online @

Brackeen, Rhett (n.d.) “Is Marketing Even Necessary in Online Banking?” Monetate website, online @

Cain, Alexandra (February 20, 2015) "The problem with ad agencies". Brisbane Times online @ 

Connolly, Kate (3 October 2015) German reunification 25 years on: how different are east and west really? After two and a half decades of growing back together, huge gaps remain between the two former halves”. [A really interesting account of how the brains of otherwise similar populations can resist re-programming to a different economic model, including the acceptance of marketing. Read the comments too]. The Guardian online @


Cotton, Stan (3 June 2003) “Life without advertising”. [witty piece] Boca Raton News (imaged newspaper) online @

Courtenay, Adam (February 11, 2014) "Yes, Big Brother is watching". Brisbane Times online @


Fenton, Jacob (Dec. 18, 2013) "Political advertisers and TV stations ignore disclosure rules". Sunlight Foundation (US), online @


Francis, Hanah (January 28, 2015) "Meet Criteo, the company behind some of the ads that stalk you online?". Brisbane Times online @


Graff, Andrew (11/04/2014) "Inventiveness Is the New Creativity". Huffington Post online @


Hacker News (2015) “Ask HN: Is marketing really necessary?” [recommended: sensible comments] Hacker News forum, online @


Kelly, Nichole (August 12, 2014) “Can marketers tell the difference between lies and truth? Or are we so trained in lying that we don’t even see it?”


Ma,Alexandra (2 October 2015) "China Just Opened A Communist Party Theme Park - It aims to highlight important facets of Communist Party history and outstanding Communist deeds". [political marketing, Chinese style] The Huffington Post online @


May, Thor (1998) ""Finding Truth: The Human Mind as an Error-Checking Mechanism". online @ [PDF] or [HTML]


Miles, Kathleen (1 October 2015) "Ray Kurzweil: Nanobots In Our Brains Will Make Us 'Godlike'. Once we're cyborgs, he says, we'll be funnier, sexier and more loving". [.. how will marketing change when we shortly become different creatures?] Huffington Post online @


Mitchell, Harold (September 19, 2015) "Advertising drives the nation's true sport ". Brisbane Times online @


Naughton, John (27 September 2015) "The rise of ad-blocking could herald the end of the free internet". The Guardian online @


Remeikis, Amy (April 30, 2015) "LNP's Strong Choices cost more than $70 million". Brisbane Times online @

Sandeen, Peter (n.d.) “7 Common Marketing Lies and How to Spot Lying Marketers”. Peter Sandeen marketing blog, online @ 


Sydney Morning Herald (January 3, 1900). Cigar advertisement.  Google newspaper archive online @ 

Tomlinson, Chris (October 8, 2015) "The truth about corporate ethics is still out there". Brisbane Times online @

Walker-Smith, Jay (19 March 2014) "How many ads do we see a day? Do you remember any?". UNO website (Sydney marketing agency), online @


Weissmann, Jordan (Jun 19, 2014) "What's the real value of online ads? Maybe not much". New Zealand Herald online @


Wikipedia (2015) “Advertising”. Wikipedia online @


Wikipedia (2015) “Attack Ad”. Wikipedia online @



Is a modern culture without advertising possible or desirable? ©Thor May September 2015




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