By Tomiwa Adeyemo, Staff Writer
In one of my previous articles “Is Facebook Worth It?” I devoted close to a thousand words presenting an argument as to why I believed it was way past time to question the presence and impact of Facebook in our society today. To recap that argument in a single sentence, it is my opinion that Facebook is no longer worth the hassle, given that the site is fast approaching a cesspool of harassment, false information and a harvest of personal data. There was, however, an important question I did not address in that article and that is: what pushes these sites (social media sites like Facebook or conglomerates like Google) to collect so much data from their users?
The simple answer—as usual—is money. Money gained through targeted advertising. The more personal information these sites collect about you, the more likely you are to be influenced by these custom ads to either buy a product or vote for someone. It’s an extremely valuable business model that netted Facebook $40 billion in advertising revenue last year, and Google more than doubled that at $95.4 billion. Politicians are in on the action too. 2012 was informally lauded as the data election where both Obama & Romney heavily utilized targeted ads in their campaigns. Trump is currently the biggest spender of political ads on Facebook. Advertising, digital or otherwise, is clearly woven into the fabric of our society and in this article I’d like to explore that.
They say nothing is impossible but trying to avoid an ad is pretty darn close. It’s like attempting to dodge raindrops. Advertising is everywhere. On the billboards you drive by on your way to work, in your ears while you listen to music (Spotify, Soundcloud), every 5-10 minutes on cable television, and let’s not forget on each and every website you visit. We’re exposed to thousands of advertising messages each day, sometimes all tugging us in different directions, and I can’t help but wonder what the effect is of these constant attempts to sway our spending habits. Despite their promises, the purposes of ads are not to provide us with discount offers but to encourage us to spend. Ads are inescapable in a capitalist society like ours. In fact, they grease its wheels. Philip Kotler, the father of modern marketing says, “capitalism flourishes as long as marketers can stimulate buying interest and gain public acceptance of debt.”
Hold up. Gain public acceptance of debt?
Kotler further argues that a second key task of marketing (of which advertising is a subset of) is to convince consumers to borrow the money needed to buy the products. He acknowledges that, “most people don’t have the income to afford a home, a car, or a college education, let alone a second suit, expensive meals, or foreign vacations.” Economists will tell you that private debt is essential to any economy. People will not always have, and they need to have to spend, and so they borrow. The problem with this model is when it gets out of control and it is my strong opinion that it definitely has. Americans are drowning in credit card debt with an average credit card balance of $6,375. Total credit card debt just surpassed a trillion dollars overall in 2017, and I don’t think its far-fetched to say our culture of excess advertising has played a subtle role in this. The majority of advertising serves to push us to buy products we don’t need, and a lot of times can’t afford. And our economic system provides a solution to this issue by allowing us the opportunity to gain debt (borrow).
It should go without saying but there’s no harm in being explicit: my criticism of advertising and a certain aspect of our economic system does not mean I am opposed to them. I am not a Marxist, and neither am I an advocate for a blanket ban on advertising. My issue is with advertising in excess, and the fact that drowning people in debt is a widely accepted and an almost essential feature of our economic system. As the saying goes, everything in moderation including moderation. Anything in excess is bad, even the purest of things. Chances are you probably don’t need the new iPhone, particularly if you bought one within the last couple of years.
Our society promotes a culture of materialism where the goal is to constantly attain the next thing, even though studies show this will neither satisfy us or make us happy. Rich people, the people with the most, tell us this all the time. The pursuit of materialistic things is just a circular loop that keeps us craving more and sometimes pushes us into debt. Excess advertising is the fuel that moves this loop.