Exercises in Futility: Wasting Advertising Budgets On Me

One of the things Hulu does that perennially amuses me is ask me if advertising is ‘relevant’ to me. I got in the habit of voting down advertisements that really annoy me in the hopes that Hulu will stop displaying them, but the question got me thinking about a larger issue: My relationship with advertising. To put it bluntly, advertising budgets are pretty much lost on me, because advertisements don’t play much of a role in my decisionmaking.

I am not completely pigheaded. I am aware that I am subconsciously influenced by advertising and that at various points in my life, I have undoubtedly bought products because of their advertising campaigns. Likewise, obviously I am indirectly influenced when I buy a product recommended by someone else and that person makes a recommendation on the basis of exposure to advertising. So it would be foolish to say that I am not reached by advertising. But it would not be foolish to say that I usually mute/ignore ads and am often not exposed to them.

Hulu has been displaying an ever more amusing array of ads in an attempt to find something ‘relevant’ to me and I keep saying ‘no.’ Because for the most part they are either advertising products that I do not buy, have no intention of buying, and have no interest in (say, Latisse), or they are advertising products that I already own and use, and don’t need more of. I will continue to buy those products not because of the ads, but because I like them. Conversely, if I decide I don’t like them, I will stop buying them.

I have the same experience with campaign advertising, something I was recently deluged with in the leadup to the election. Every week, I would go to empty out the mailbox and there would be a stack of glossy fliers telling me to vote a given way or to vote for a particular person. With campaign advertising, there’s actually an inverse relationship; I keep track of all the crap I am sent and vote the exact opposite[1. Before you quail in horror, I would like to point out that this is not my only metric, but it’s actually pretty solid. When I am on the fence about a person or proposition, I reason that the person or cause that sent the most glossy fliers is the one I wouldn’t support, because glossy fliers usually means there’s a lot of money invested in it, and thus feel comfortable voting no on it. And when I look my ballot over to see how I voted on things I felt strongly about and knew how I would vote on after extensive research, I note that my votes correspond pretty much exactly to the Number of Glossy Campaign Fliers Rule.]. So, if the goal is to get me to vote for a given person or cause, I’d recommend actually not sending me crap in the mail, as a general rule[1. That includes you, Democratic Party. I’m not even a Democrat so I don’t know how you got my contact information, but stop it. Republicans, you can keep going, your campaign materials amuse me].

This makes me really wonder about the relationships that other people have with advertising. Do people really buy stuff because they see it advertised? How much of a role does advertising play in their decisionmaking? Obviously advertising must be effective because otherwise companies would not use it. It’s just that my decisionmaking is based primarily on personal evaluation of the product; I look at cost, I ask my friends for recommendations, and I try to look up reviews. Things that don’t influence me as much? Packaging. Promotional materials. The ads that interrupt my Bones viewing.

Advertising is recognised as having a profound impact on our culture. I’m sure that I could think up some advertising catchphrases and jingles to illustrate the way advertising has penetrated my brain, but even though I wish I was an Oscar Meyer Weiner, I still don’t buy Oscar Meyer Weiners. This might be because I don’t buy wieners at all, which leads me to conclude that the real reason I’m not as heavily influenced by advertising as such campaigns would seem to suggest that the general population is is that I don’t buy shit.

I really don’t. The bulk of my purchases are books and food, and I buy raw ingredients rather than packaged and prepared food for the most part[2. This is not a function of food snobbery, although it once was; I just don’t really like things like TV dinners and meals in a box and thus choose to avoid them. Sometimes this means that I am too tired to prepare food and I eat a spoonful of peanut butter for dinner, but such is life.]. My tastes in books and food are not the sort of tastes that advertisers really try to reach, as a general rule. Occasionally I buy shoes and more rarely I buy clothing and once in a blue moon I buy an appliance like a blender or a vacuum cleaner. I didn’t really think that my buying habits were all that unusual for the bulk of the population, but maybe they are, because most of the stuff I see advertised just puzzles me. I think ‘why would anyone want this’ or ‘who are they marketing to here’ and ‘how do people have room for all this weird crap?’ And thus I wonder if advertising is about selling products themselves, or about selling the idea of selling products. Getting people to internalise the message that they need to buy things, and hoping that, along the way, they will decide to buy the things they see advertised.

Advertising culture intrigues and fascinates me so much, I suspect, because it is so alien to me. Writing this piece, I cast back on my most recent major purchases and every single one of them was predicated either by price/availability (my laptop, for example, was incredibly cheap compared to other options and it seemed like it would suit my needs, which it does) or by recommendations from trusted friends (the vacuum was the result of extensive research including recommendations from a number of people who share values with me).

Thus, to me, the most insidious advertising campaigns are the ones that rely on building up credibility by getting people to recommend things to friends. The ‘get your friend to buy our product and we will give you a voucher’ campaigns. Those are the campaigns that scare me because they lead me into a realm where I start to wonder if recommendations are actually reliable; does someone really think something is a good buy, or does that person just want the 10% off card? And how little is required to get someone to sell out?