Is advertising evil?

Would our society be better off if advertising were wiped off the face of the Earth, and people only promoted products as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to make money? If so, does BzzAgent, a “word of mouth” marketing firm, help solve this problem by only rewarding people for giving people their honest opinions about a product and then reporting on people’s responses? Or does it allow advertising to spread into personal life, essentially creating “conversational spam” by encouraging people to mention your products when they talk to their friends?

This is actually an important question, because BzzAgent offered to do a pro bono marketing campaign for Creative Commons, and Creative Commons accepted (although it is now having second thoughts). There is now significant backlash, including my own comment. However, the founder of BzzAgent, Dave Balter, also made an interesting comment which I didn’t read before I made my comment, and which makes some good clarifications.

Ultimately, I’m unsure of what to say. I might be upset about a volunteer organization like FreeCulture.org having to compete with BzzAgent for money from Creative Commons, but BzzAgent is doing this for free, it’s not competing with my organization for resources. So it’s really just a question of whether BzzAgent will hurt the movement or help it, and I’m not sure that I can tell.

If Creative Commons were to reject BzzAgent, would it have to reject all advertising? How is BzzAgent more manipulative than any other kind of advertising?

Yes Dev, this is a test of whether you’re reading my blog or not 😉 (locke61dv works at BzzAgent.)

18 thoughts on “Is advertising evil?

  1. I definitely do read your post – I honestly didn’t feel like talking about it (this is silly, but I get sad when people disagree with what I’m doing, be it politics or my work – which means I definitely can’t handle politics), but I’ll do the weighing in.

    0. Should Creative Commons be paying for advertising, if it could? Generally speaking, I’d say yes, and it seemed to help with SpreadFirefox (although even there, there were disagreements about implementation). But I’d say advertising is just another tool.

    1. Is it different because it’s free? Not really. It’s an easier case because it’s not member funds being spent, but associating with a company is staking of reputation, which is a more important resource.

    2. So, how about BzzAgent itself? Is it okay? Open question, and a complex one. There are definitely kinds of “word of mouth” that are offensive shilling that’s going to ruin the social space, and the truth is that’s going to evolve, and it’s going to be *terrible*. (Social norms will evolve to keep real shills out, yes. But, it’s a bad thign still.)

    2a. I really don’t think BzzAgent is that, and we don’t encourage shilling. Granted, the model is influc – IMHO, parts of the model can incentivize faking or shilling, but I’m not really skilled/experienced to change the company model, I just do web development.

    But, BzzAgent’s description – and I think this is the best one – is “maven marketing”. We find people (who self-select themselves) and want to try new stuff, and would talk about good things they try. We through stuff at them that we think is cool. If they think the stuff is cool, then that company gets more profit. We reward folks for reporting back to us in order to have some stats to prove return on investment.

    You can still disagree that this model is true, and indeed, and reject BzzAgent, while still accepting other advertising help. I can see how not everyone likes the BzzAgent model, even as I disagree. But, it’s not mean tto be covert marketing / shilling / any of that.

    That said, let me vent…

    • my own experience as a bzzagent…

      the campaigns seem only to be as offensive as the company makes them. so if you’re scared about the marketing aspect (which it seems you aren’t,) fear not. in the case of products, especially penguin books’ partnership, i think it’s a positive thing. most books only get picked up after the “bzz” is generated by them anyway.

      as far as your comment on donation… even nonprofits have the ultimate goal to succeed. don’t think about advertising as that big, scary, soulless corporation, but as an actual and necessary business tactic. advertising is an investment in CC itself. with the growing popularity of CC, perhaps more popularity (and thus donations and business) will come in, providing future funds for freeculture.org.

      CC’s cause is very relevant, and yet the generation whose consumer rights are being threatened by the digital age don’t even know it exists. If anything, this could be a relatively positive impetus for growth.

  2. I am really turned off by some of the implied meanings behind the anti-BzzAgent post. Right after our New York Times article, there were some inherently elitist claims made against us. Like:
    * people need to be protected from marketing & advertising
    * people need to be protected from products & companies
    * people who choose this service are “fooled” by advertising
    * people are sheep

    Something in this vein. Then, out of the anti-BzzAgent people, I’m seeing a lot of being offended by the “taint of commercialism”, and the belief that “non-creative masses” aren’t going to care about this (because they just care about Big Macs and sneakers!), and the fear that no one else will “understand CC properly”. They say that these “new” CC people would have nothing to contribute.

    Basically, there’s a lot of sterile elitism charging this. There’s a desire to keep the Creative Commons and Free Culture movements small, pure, hardcore, inviolate.

    And I’ve seen this many, many times before – Left-Liberals, libertarians, the Adbusters crowd…

    I say: fuck the elitism. I’ll parley about the disagreements about BzzAgent, but I’ve got not patience for the fundamentalist mentality screwing over the most important issues of our time.

    • Example from the Lessig thread

      “For a movement where ethics and the law are in the forefront, using representatives with a dubious grasp of both (i.e. the BzzAgents) is just not a smart thing to do.”

      If you keep treating potential supporters like sheep, they’re not going to give a fuck.

      • Re: Example from the Lessig thread

        Well, if you’re referring to this comment, the guy had a legitimate reason to question that particular BzzAgent’s grasph of ethics and the law. Although it’s not right to generalize from one person’s mistake to all BzzAgents, or to the company itself, you can see that having people who don’t immediately identify themselves as BzzAgents running around could be a problem.

        Although the company code of conduct says that you should be open about being a BzzAgent, the only adequate way to avoid the problem that this BzzAgent ran into is to preface anything you say with “I am being paid by BzzAgent” (which could never fit naturally into any conversation that is not specifically about advertising).

        • Re: Example from the Lessig thread

          Or, “I got the new thing from BzzAgent, the …”. Or even just “I got sent a thing from this company”. I think that is a decent flag, and not totally unfittable.

          Also, I feel that the “I am being paid by BzzAgent” is factually false, strictly speaking. I break down my view of the model below (in response to ngoandy) – do you agree?

          • Re: Example from the Lessig thread

            You’re right, there are probably ways that you can fit it naturally into conversation, and if BzzAgents were expected to do that it would reduce the problems with the model (i.e. people paranoid about “secret advertisers”).

    • You make some very good points… do people need to be protected from marketing and advertising?

      No, they just need to learn to do critical thinking, and learn how to deconstruct what’s being thrown at them. Nothing is completely objective, everyone has some sort of agenda that they’re pushing, and people have to be prepared for that. That’s why media literacy is so important, people have to be able to understand how media is made so that they can see how it’s trying to manipulate them. As Paulo Freire might put it, people need to become Subjects, those who know and act, in contrast to objects, which are known and acted upon.

      As long as they remain objects, you could say that they need protection from advertising, but the man who would attempt to provide such protection is a fool. It’s the old fallacy of attacking the symptom rather than the disease, and one will always be playing Whack-a-mole with Joe Camel after Joe Camel unless we bring up our children to be critical thinkers. They will never become critical thinkers in a sterile bubble.

      • Matt Price posting

        Independent of the general arguments made on the lessig blog, there’s this elitist sentiment that cc would be tainted by some other organization, even if no money exchanged hands. Boo that.

        When it comes to American critical thinking skills in the face of advertising, the book that immediately comes to mind is Chris Lasch’s _Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations_ (recommended reading too!).

        When is it reasonable to expect young children to have critical thinking skills? Do we even know which ones are necessary? Neuroimaging studies indicate that we’re not sure by my estimateion. Is it reasonable to argue that advertising targets young children, people with lower levels of education, or those otherwise lacking critical thinking skills precisely because of that deficit? Is it ethical for parents to expose their children to advertising they know they can’t evaluate critically under the assumption that acculturation to this advertising will aid in developing those critical thinking skills?

        • Re: Matt Price posting

          Well, obviously I’m against the “throw them in the water and see if they’ll swim” strategy. I’m not suggesting that people just stick their kids in front of a TV and let the kids figure out how to deconstruct commercials by themselves. But I am saying that you need to allow some exposure to the world in order for them to be able to deal with it later, even if it’s filtered exposure while you’re holding their hand.

  3. Re: As an adbusters type of guy

    I agree with that; but there’s a difference between that (which is shilling) and what my company is trying to do. Let me try to break it down, as I see it:

    * people volunteer to get free samples / exposure to new things. (In the case of CC, there’s no free stuff to get, just new ideas.)

    We then know these are the kind of people who like to find new things and, if they’re good things, talk them up. (We see this a lot, in a healthy way, with DIY products because they especially create, and need, word-of-mouth trust and evangelism. Also, think of any friend who talks about his new favorite band all the time.)

    So, companies try to show us products that they think are “cool”, and if so, we pass them on to these people who want to see new, cool things. If they don’t like them, then they really don’t have to promote them. (And yes, we’ve had this trouble, where a lot of people tried something and were just like “uh, this is shit, sorry”.)

    There are rewards, though: we need a some stats about *how* that word-of-mouth gets around, to prove that companies should hire us. That means, we need those volunteers to write back to us, tell us what happened. *But*, we need to incent that – people aren’t just going to write back to us for no reason (even if they’ll honestly like and talk about some new thing). So, we offer points when the write back to us, which can be redeemed for stuff or (now) donations. The neat thing is that we give points *regardless* of whether their “buzz” was positive or negative – it’s content neutral.

    So, our model is trying damn hard to *not* pay people to shill. It isn’t perfect, but do you see the difference?

    • Re: As an adbusters type of guy

      You may be right that you can’t really call this paying someone to shill for a product, since they get rewards whether they say positive things or not.

      However, in order to get rewards, they have to file reports. That sounds like getting stuff for “spying” on your friends instead… Are there any legal privacy considerations? What if people don’t want you filing reports on how they respond to a product you’re promoting?

      • Re: As an adbusters type of guy

        IANAL so I’m not sure legally. There is a line – we have no use for “spying” on friends, but there’s still describing the effect of what you said – “I did X and then Y folk said ‘oh, ok'” Of course, there’s no reason to use any specifics / names / details of people you’ve talked with, and it’s better not to reveal that much data.

        What *is* getting reported on is the general story of what happened, and some people wouldn’t like your private story being told to other people. So, I don’t know.

        • Re: As an adbusters type of guy

          It seems pretty straightforward to me that there’s no privacy rights in a conversation unless there’s an expectation of confidentiality. Which, in a conversation about sausage, there isn’t.

  4. remember Paul Conrad’s cartoon…

    Advertising is not evil… just like the VCR and the gun is not evil.

    Advertising is a sword.

    I like the way Wil Wheaton puts it, something along the lines of “I support gun rights though I don’t like guns, and I wish we live in a world where they’re not necessary”

    Fact of the matter is everyone advertises. Especially big corporations and the RIAA.

    A small disclaimer though; I did major in advertising at college, and I had to learn to love it to graduate.

    More on my blog Real Soon Now™ (I hope) –Lemi4

    • Re: remember Paul Conrad’s cartoon…

      “Fact of the matter is everyone advertises.” NOT. Just to give a silly example (hopefully silly), I don’t come home to find the post box full of advertisements of my friends: “watch a movie with me tonight, popcorn free”, “come see the cool dude”, etc., all printed up on glossy paper. and look, marta even managed to hire that cool guy from the ice cream parlour to appear in her add.
      let’s not go too far with the ad/gun/vcr comparison, the analogy is as weak as any comparison of material things and ideas/information.

      oh, and by the way, the argument that bzzagent is good because it rewards not just praise, but any sort of activity is so dumb. after all, it’s called bzzagent not praiseagent, companies today now that all you need today is attention, not necessarily positive. just think about the commercial value of any scandal.

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