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Imagine a World Without Advertising

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Not the world before advertising. Our world, the way it is now, just without advertising. Whether the average person is exposed to 3000-4000 commercial messages a day or 5,000 or some other vague, suspiciously round number, it seems abundantly clear we see damn plenty. They have quietly proliferated across every available surface and airwave our senses can detect; you see them when you’re in the bathroom now, in elevators, walking up stairs. They’re on hats and shirts and sunglasses; and all over our private texts. You can smell them in your hair sometimes.

In this world, products have packaging, and premises have signs. But that’s it. No TV or press ads, no outdoor ads, no online ads, no direct mail, no advertising above the line or below it. People buy products based on genuine need, recommendation or impulse. They buy things they see in shops. If it’s not in the shop they go to, they don’t see it, so they don’t buy it. They buy services from providers close by, usually those recommended by friends or family. Unless someone they know persuades them to, they probably won’t switch brands. They tend to buy on price, unless they have a good reason not to. If their friends don’t buy something, they probably won’t buy it either.

People consume less, desire less, envy less. They have less debt. They’re not troubled by sudden cravings for things they’d never heard of yesterday. In terms of material possessions, their circle of concern extends only slightly beyond their circle of influence. At the same time, people miss out. Products and services are available and affordable that could ease their pain, enhance their lives, delight their children. But they die without ever knowing they exist. Meanwhile, businesses have lots of spare cash. Maybe they invest it in better products, instead of trying to outdo each other’s marketing. Maybe they use it to help the community – or just enrich their shareholders.

It’s difficult to sell things that are bad for people, or don’t really help them. Without marketing to paper over the cracks, bad products quickly disappear, as do the companies that make them. There are fewer competing products, far fewer launches. Market shares are more equal; it’s hard to really dominate a sector. There’s no more commercial TV or radio. Programming has to be paid for out of licence fees, network providers’ charges or pay-to-view. Maybe there are a lot more crowdfunded projects. Or maybe content made for love, like podcasts and fan fiction, takes centre stage. Online, there are no banner ads, no AdWords, no sponsored links. BUZZFEED doesn’t exist. Twitter and Facebook either stayed small or closed down, crippled by server costs, because investors saw no reason to invest. Subscription news sites are the norm rather than the exception. In fact, a great many sites that might otherwise have funded themselves with ads now charge their users. Being online is an expensive business: nobody wants to subsidise your experience in return for your data, so you have to pay for it yourself.

There are fewer channels, fewer websites, less stuff overall. All content has to earn its keep directly from its audience. Not from those who want to sell them something. There are no more bad ads. No more B2B ‘solution providers’. No more ‘new year, new you’ gym flyers. No more ‘simply the best’ window cleaners. No more SUVs swinging round rugged mountain bends. No more harried mums serving up delicious roasts.

What would the world look like without advertising?

Websites would take you straight to what you came for, with no annoying boxes popping up and blocking your way like street children begging for candy. And web design would be free, not compelled to design around standard IAB ad sizes for banners that nobody clicks on. Magazines would feature great content on EVERY page. Instead of 100 edit pages to read on the left and 100 ads that must be manually ignored on the right, you’d get say 125 edit pages, with no interruptions and no place to stick your gum. Advertisers could sponsor individual articles and get in front of the audience for real, instead of taking adjacent pages and hoping for peripheral glances. The experience would be more like reading a book.

TV shows would deliver seamless entertainment. Instead of car commercials stealing six or eight minutes out of every show, you’d get the full 30 minutes, because the shows would be sponsored in a fully integrated fashion. Imagine an elite force that fights crime with a network of killer cars that just happen to be Dodge Chargers. Megan Fox stars as the by-the-book, yet smoking-hot police chief who keeps them all in line, in a mysteriously tattered POLICE tank top. If the show sucks, it gets no viewers and gets cancelled, just like in the “real” world. This blog post is dated, by the way, so don’t try to steal that idea.

However, there are no more good ads either. No Guinness surfers, no Smash martians, no John Lewis snowman. No J.R. Hartley, no Barry Scott, no Gio Compario. No ‘Lemon’, no ‘Epic Split’, no ‘1984’. No read-it-twice long copy on the tube. No Old Spice viral explosions. Not even any comfy, predictable display ads for decorated plates on the back of weekend magazines. Brands aren’t cultural icons, entertainment channels or objects of devotion. They’re just a way to tell one product from another. Almost devoid of aura, they’re just neutral symbols, like road signs.

There are no more agencies. No copywriters, art directors, creative directors, planners or account handlers. No social gurus or content ninjas. No mood boards, brand positioning statements or tone of voice guidelines. Those who want to be ‘creative’ must now become proper artists or writers; no-one will pay them to sit around having ideas. I don’t have a job, and maybe you don’t either. Maybe we’re working somewhere else, if we’re lucky. But apart from that, is this world better than ours, or worse?

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GradesFixer, 2019. Imagine a world without advertising. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 September 2020].
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