The Sad Math of Ads

Advertising permeates modern life, drowning us in messages of inadequacy and promises of salvation through consumption. Ads have become so commonplace, that we’ve stopped questioning their existence. This article is my attempt to change that, if only a little, by introducing advertising's costs in a simple formula: ads add waste, subtract wellbeing, divide attention, and multiply endlessly. By understanding and changing this equation, we can reclaim control and envision a society where integrity and purpose prevail over profit-driven manipulation.

Add Waste

Advertising squanders physical and mental resources. For instance, over 100 billion pieces of junk mail are sent a year in the United States alone, as well as trillions of marketing and spam emails. Intellectually, ads deprive us through deception, promoting censorship, and creating monopolies. More generally, advertising manufactures wants and insecurities, manipulating us into buying unnecessary products, all at a higher price to recoup the costs of annoying ads.

“You can manipulate consumers into wanting and therefore buying your products… is it ethical? I don’t know. It’s a game. Our role… is to move products.”

Lucy Hughes, co-creator of “The Nag Factor”

Subtract Wellbeing

Research consistently shows that ads reduce our wellbeing, both at the individual and national level, but how? As the saying goes, “comparison is the thief of joy,” and advertising is just that. Ads push us to compare our life, belongings, achievements, and experiences against their idealized world, suggesting their product will bring us there. This fuels feelings of inadequacy and a culture of materialism, both of which are linked to unhappiness.

Divide Attention

Ads hijack our attention to inject their messaging, sometimes for a few minutes with a video ad or a few seconds with a billboard. While the first is annoying and a waste of our time, the second can be fatal. A recent study estimates that digital billboards increase the chance of a crash soon thereafter by 4.5% and certain roadside safety billboards actually cause 17,000 more crashes a year across the United States. While the distraction of an individual popup, poster, or sponsored break may seem trivial, the cumulative effect has created an attention crisis with far-reaching consequences.

Multiply Endlessly

We're exposed to thousands of ads a day, but it wasn't always like this. New media often start without ads to attract customers, then add advertising once customers are locked in. Television, radio, and the internet all started ad-free, but are increasingly filled with commercial messages vying for our attention. Ads continue to encroach in more places, like schools, public transportation, restaurants, movie scenes, walkways, and taxis. Where the profit motive dominates—which is increasingly everywhere—our attention is up for sale.

“Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It's yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.”


What You Can Do

There’s several things you can do to minimize advertising impact on yourself: 

What We Can Do

While you have some control in reducing advertising in your life, society dictates what, when, and where advertising is allowed. For instance, installing adblock on your computer does nothing against billboards, junk mail, and the resulting culture of materialism. Collective issues require collective solutions:

“If you own this child at an early age, you can own this kid for years to come.” 

Mike Searles, Former President of Kids “R” Us

Together, we can break free from advertising's deceptive and intrusive messages and create a world that values more than just profit—a world where our attention, integrity, and happiness come first.