Thursday, March 22, 2007

How much is advertising worth?

Let's say you took a baby and insulated the kid from all knowledge of advertised products for the first twenty years of life. Somehow the person still walks through daily life on an otherwise normal basis, it is just that the kid cannot see, hear, or feel the ads. The kid also can't ask his friends what the ads have to say, or which products they promote. So the kid will notice that Coca-Cola is in every convenience store, but he has to figure out for himself that the product is famous.

Now our insulated 20-year-old is about to enter the so-called real world. How much worse off is he?

I'm not asking about the net value of ads, but rather their gross value for a single individual. What benefits is the kid missing? Will he be a simple moron, unable to understand whether a Starbucks coffee is to be slurped or poured down the carbureutor? Or will he figure out the right cues in some other way?

I think the individual benefits from watching ads are pretty small. Is this just because the kid is still free-riding upon others' knowledge of advertisements? For the ads to provide their social benefits, how many people have to view the ads? Five hundred? Five hundred in each community?


seamus said...

Culture matters. See Grant McCracken making this point at length here:

Estimates of the number of marketing messages we see a day vary but tend to come in around 3k-5k (here's the NYT discussing the numbers

So one question becomes how much of our shared culture is expressed as advertising messages? The sheer quantitative input of those messages - 3k-5k a day - argues a lot. The amount of time/space that each medium gives over to ads - Umair Haque cites a figure of 12:01 minutes of ads per hour of TV in 2001 - argues similarly.

Would an ad-free citizen find themselves adrift in their own culture? You suggest that a handful of people watching the ads might be sufficient for everyone to pick up the cues. I'm not so sure - try joining in a conversation about a book you haven't read on the basis of what you've picked up from other people's quotes and in-jokes to see.

Finally...volunteering to experience ads is increasingly a way of getting free stuff. Easy Mobile is about to relaunch in the UK with free calls for people who submit to ad interruptions. (I talk about this model, which Simon Waldman calls "freeconomics", here: Your subject would be denied those benefits. As targeting gets more sophisticated - which, in the digital age, it should - that could become an increasingly serious impediment.

Philip said...

It is worth piping up for the value of adds as well-formed aesthetic products. I truly think I am better off from having seen various Nike ads in just the same way I think I am better off from having seen Bergman films. Well, maybe not just the same way...

Events like the Superbowl would be altogether less rewarding cultural experiences if it weren't for the ads.