We have a serious ad problem. You probably expect some ads in your life, right? You probably expect ads when you’re watching cable TV. And you might expect ads on the radio. But we now have ads in every area of our lives. There are ads at the gas station, there are ads when you’re in the back of a ride share. There are even ads in the night sky. Now when you pause a show on Hulu, an ad pops up! It seem never-ending! Today we’re going to explore just why ads are harmful and how to avoid them.
The Average American Sees 5,000 Ads a Day
It’s estimated that the average American sees about 5,000 ads a day. And that number is only growing. This is a huge problem, mostly because advertising is another way of saying emotional manipulation. Ads prey on our emotions, they want us to feel happy, or sad, or inadequate. They evoke this emotional response, and then try to tell you that their product is the solution.
Fundamentally, ads all doing the same thing. They’re all telling you what your life could like. If you buy our product, it will look this way. Some ads might be educational, some ads might be inspirational, some ads might even be funny, but at their core, ads are all saying the same thing: “Hey, your life kind of sucks in this specific way. You don’t have this thing or this feeling. But if you buy our product, your life could be better.”
Now that we’re living in such an online world, ads are more insidious than ever before. Advertising is designed to capture our attention, to divert our attention from something that we were doing, and to place that attention on the ad and thus the product. Then with repeated advertising, seeing the same ad or the same brand over and over and over again, that’s designed to build familiarity in our brains with this brand. So that the next time you’re in Target and you’re staring at a wall of 40 different cereals, your brand will default to the one that it’s seen most often.
Ads are more insidious than ever
I think that ads are more insidious than ever before in the online space because companies have started using our own data against us. Now we have things like ad tracking and targeted ads. So when we talk about the dangers of advertising, what we’re really talking about is attention theft. The more of your attention that companies can command and the more information that they can collect about you, the more opportunity they have to try and sell you something.
It’s my opinion that this is bad. It’s bad for us, it’s bad for our money, it’s bad for the planet. And all of this advertising is leading to this unsustainable world. I mean that literally, but I also mean that mentally and emotionally. Hyper consumerism has taken over the internet and it’s well on its way to taking over the whole world. Ads to buy stuff are really the gateway to hyper consumerism. But the internet itself is kind of becoming one giant fog horn alert for shopping.
Social media is an advertiser’s dream
I want to mostly focus on social media, because that’s where I spend a ton of my time. But it’s also where most of us are spending a ton of our time. A typical person spends about two hours on average per day scrolling on social media. Everywhere you turn on social media, you are being sold something from the must-have kitchen items, to the just perfect holiday decor, to the sweatshirt that I’m living in this season. Everything that you see is designed to be sold to you.
Hyper-Consumerism is Driving Climate Change
Hyper consumerism is driving climate change. Hyper consumerism is truly at the root of a lot of our climate problems. Up to 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the production and sale of stuff— stuff like our Halloween costumes, our American Girl dolls, our cars, anything plastic, this is driving the climate crisis.
I want to talk about this for a second because a lot of people get really defensive when you point this out. Because it basically sounds like if you’ve ever bought anything, you personally are responsible for killing all of the polar bears. Instead, what we’re saying is zoom out for a second and consider the impact consider every single step that leads up to create that one thing.
It’s a micro and macro issue
Think of the big picture climate issues, deforestation, melting ice caps, air pollution, and then think to yourself, why? Why are we cutting down all those trees in the Amazon? Well, it’s so that we can plant more soy. Why are we planting soy? Because soy is what we feed a lot of cows. And then we turn those cows into beef, and then we sell that beef to McDonald’s, who then sells you a hamburger.
So while all you did in this chain was buy a hamburger, the chain does in fact exist and comes with huge consequences. It’s a macro and it’s a micro issue; the obsession that we all have have for convenient and constant consumerism fuels things like deforestation in the Amazon. A lot of our social media and time on the internet is working over time to normalize hyper-consumption.
Hyper-consumption robs us of our hard-earned money too
I made this Tiktok video a while back talking about how when we glamorize over stuffed celebrity closets that normalizes hyper consumption and shopping as a hobby for us normal people. This cycle not only continues ecological destruction, but also robs you and me of our very hard-earned money. We’re spending it on a bunch of stuff to imitate a bunch of people that we don’t know.
I just have to say, as your favorite sustainable money internet friend, every time you drop 300 bucks on a SHEIN haul, that’s $300 bucks that you are not saving or investing for your future self. These $200 Amazon hauls full of those “must have items” are robbing your future self. They’re hurting your chance to retire, or your chance to buy a house, or your chance to enjoy something that you actually deeply enjoy– like maybe taking a trip to Iceland, as opposed to having another plastic bowl in your kitchen.
Tiktok shop is inescapable now
Ads are at the centerpiece of this consumeristic cycle. Let’s take the insidious nature of Tiktok shop, for example, which has completely taken over the app. For those of you who don’t know in Tiktok shop, you make a video and in the video, you are allowed to have a link that you click on. The viewer will click on it, and the page to buy that will pop up in app and all of your information will be saved and you can buy it. Tiktok shop is truly inescapable on your For You page. Even if you wanted to curate your Tiktok experience and only stay in the following tab, you still might find that you’re following someone who uses Tiktok shop, so you can’t completely escape this form of advertising.
It’s this form of advertising that I think is the most insidious because tracking our online activities is how a lot of companies make their ads. Now ads follow us around the web. You might be on Facebook and you see an ad for a pair of shoes, you click on it, then you go to a news website and in their banner ad, it’s the same shoe that is following you. That ad has followed you around the internet. This is called behavioral retargeting and it’s also known as ad remarketing.
Ad Retargeting and Remarketing
This strategy enables a company to redisplay a product to you on different websites. So if you look at something on website ad remarketing allows that ad to follow you to the next website. Companies do this in hopes that you will be reminded that you did not complete the transaction on website A. But you will now complete the transaction on website B. This is an incredibly successful form of advertising.
Instead of the old days, where you would put a billboard up on a highway and hope that your target customer would drive by eventually, these ads will follow a customer who has already shown interest. The website where you’re shopping implements a little bit of code, which is called a cookie. When you go to a website, usually you get a pop up that says “accept all cookies.” That’s implementing a piece of code into your browser. This cookie allows that website to monitor your browsing habits. They can see what you’re looking at, how long you looked at it, how many times you clicked on it or how many times your mouse hovered over the link, and they can follow you from website to website.
The amount of data companies collect is breathtaking
This type of ad is so much more dangerous than old school forms of advertising. The amount of data that companies have on us is truly breathtaking. These companies can know that you’re a 27-year-old man in Iowa who two weeks ago purchased a new cabin filter for his 2015 Honda Accord. They can know when you’ve liked a page on Facebook. Let’s say that this same man has liked a page for F1 racing and spent 47 seconds watching a video where a dog was riding a skateboard. These social media companies can now take that profile and sell it to advertisers who then put together ads specifically designed to get a 27-year-old man who’s interested in racing and dogs on skateboards to buy specific products.
You might be thinking damn, this is dystopian AF. And I’m feeling a little bummed or I’m feeling really angry. I would like you to follow that anger for a second here because I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed by this. Instead, I want you to question why is this happening? What is going on here? And I want you to ask yourself, “Where does this lead?”
Ads are leading to increased consumer debt
As of Q3 2023, total consumer debt balances increased to 16.84 trillion, up from 16.1 1 trillion in Q2 2022. This nonstop onslaught of ads is leading us to spend more money and it’s leading a lot of us to spend money we don’t have. As I previously mentioned, this is robbing from our future. So outside of the financial aspect, outside of the environmental aspect, hyper-consumption and non-stop ads is not good for our mental health.
Constantly being told by different advertising companies that we are defective in multiple ways, that our hair is too frizzy, our skin isn’t clear enough, our shoes aren’t as fashionable as they should be. It’s like constantly being nagged by the entire world. That’s no way to live. It will probably not surprise you to hear that rates of shopping have just been going up and up and up, especially since 2020 with the Covid pandemic. It also probably won’t surprise you to know that the rates of depression and anxiety have also been on the rise.
No one item can bring you permanent happiness
That’s because we’re being sold a lot of bull. We are told over and over and over again, “Hey, if you buy this thing, you’ll finally be happy. If you buy that thing, you’ll finally be pretty. If you buy this other thing, you’ll finally be smart.” But it’s a faulty formula. It doesn’t actually work. No one item can bring you permanent happiness. So the formula breaks down and you need to go back and repeat, repeat, repeat and keep shopping.
So how do we escape it? What do we do here? Well, besides getting completely off the internet, and also going to live in a cave, there are a couple of things that you can do in order to minimize the amount of ads that you see.
How to minimize ads
Step 1 to minimize ads: unfollow
First, you can unfollow the hyper consumers and hyper sellers. If someone has 11 Stanley Cups and they’re on your FYP every three months trying to sell you another Stanley Cup, go ahead and click unfollow.
Step 2 to minimize ads: shop in-person
Second, you can shop in-person. If you’re not online, they can’t track your data online. I feel like I’m the only millennial in the world who prefers shopping in person, but I like to try things on. I like to really understand what fits my body or what colors work well with my skin-tone. Also by shopping in-person, it gives you a really good chance to shop secondhand. Shopping secondhand is a fantastic way to decrease the consumerism and to decrease the amount of raw materials that we ‘need’ every single day to make new stuff.
Step 3 to minimize ads: utilize offline hobbies
Number three, try and find offline hobbies. This is something that I’ve been focusing on a lot in my life. Because like I mentioned earlier, I spend a ton of time on social media and I spend a ton of time on the internet. I’m going to sound like Ken here, but my job is just “internet.” And so every day I’m sitting in front of my computer screen and I’m scrolling on my phone for hours and hours and hours. It’s not good for my mental health and it’s not good for my eyeballs.
If you follow us on Instagram, you may have seen that I have joined a tree planting group in my new city and I have gotten out and regularly volunteered with them. I’ve helped them plant over 200 trees, just in the last couple of months. It gets me outside, it gets me offline, it gets me interacting with real people in my community, I’ve met a ton of people that I otherwise would never have had the opportunity to meet. And it’s really, really fulfilling. So I encourage you to find your version of tree planting.
Step 4 to minimize ads: unsubscribe from emails
Number four: You can unsubscribe from brand emails. Some brands send emails every single day like I was getting emails from Uber Eats every day which is super weird because I’ve never even used Uber Eats.
Step 5 to minimize ads: use subscriptions to avoid ads
And number five, you can subscribe to things to avoid ads. Listen, advertising is actually a problem you can throw a little money at. Youtube Plus, for example, it’s a fantastic way to avoid the ads on YouTube and it’s a fantastic way to help support the creators like me. On YouTube, ads are often the price that we pay when we are consuming something for free. Instagram and TikTok are free to use and that means the platforms themselves have to sell space to advertisers in order to pay all the employees who work at Tiktok and Instagram. And if you pay for a service, you can sometimes avoid the ads.
That is my rant on advertising. I am sure that I will revisit this topic. There’s a lot more than I want to say! And for my visual learners out there, I posted a video about ads below. Be sure to subscribe over there for more content!