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People talk about the digital revolution. I think it’s an apocalypse”
George Nimeh – What If There Was No Advertising? – TEDx Vienna 2015


A bigger part of my world is becoming ad-free. My TV viewing is probably 80% ad-free now. Same with my music listening. Together, that costs me about $20 per month. It’s a price I don’t mind paying.

But what if we push that to its logical extreme? What if we made the entire world ad-free? Various publications and ad-tech providers have posited that scenario. It’s actually interesting to see the two very different worlds that are conjectured, depending on what side of the church you happen to be sitting on. When that view comes from those in the ad biz, a WWA (World Without Advertising) is a post apocalyptic hell with ex-copywriters (of which I’m one) walking around as jobless zombies and the citizens of the world being squeezed penniless by exploding subscription rates. Our very society would crumble around our ears. And, for some reason, a WWA is always colored in various shades of desaturated grey, like Moscow circa 1982 or Apple’s Big Brother ad.

But those from outside our industry take a less alarming view of a WWA. This, they say, might actually work. It could be sustainable. It would probably be a more pleasant place.

adspendingLet’s do a smell test of the economics. According to eMarketer, the total ad-spend in the US for this year is $189 billion. That works out to just shy of $600 per year for each American, or $1550 for the average household. If we look at annual expenditures for the typical American family, that would put it somewhere between clothing and vehicle insurance. It would represent 2.8% of their total expenditures. A little steep, perhaps, but not out of the question.

Okay, you say. That’s fine for a rich country like the US. But what about the rest of the world? Glad you asked. The projected advertising spend worldwide – again according to eMarketer – is $592 billion, or about $84 for every single person on the planet. The average global income is about $10,000 per year. So, globally, eliminating advertising would take about 0.84% of your income. In other words, if you worked until January 3rd, you’d get to enjoy the rest of the year ad free!

So let’s say we agree that this is a price we’re willing to spend. What would an America without advertising look like? How would we support content providers, for example? Paying a few one-off subscriptions, like Netflix and Spotify, is not that big a deal, but if you multiply that by every potential content outlet, it quickly becomes unmanageable.

This could easily be managed by the converging technologies of personalization engines, digital content delivery, micro-payments and online payment solutions like ApplePay. Let’s imagine we have a digital wallet where we keep our content consumption budget. The wallet is a smart wallet, in that it knows our personal tastes and preferences. Each time we access content, it automatically pays the producer for it and tracks our budget to ensure we’re staying within preset guidelines. The ecosystem of this content marketplace would be complex, true, but the technology exists. And it can’t be any more complex than the current advertising marketplace.

A WWA would be a less cluttered and interruptive place. But would it also be a better place? Defendants of the ad biz generally say that advertising nets out as a plus for our society. It creates awareness of new products, builds appreciation for creativity and generally adds to our collective well-being.

I’m not so sure. I’ve mentioned before that I suspect advertising may be inherently evil. I know it persuades us to buy stuff we may desire, but certainly don’t need. I have no idea what our society would be like without advertising, but I have a hard time imagining we’d be worse off than we are now.

The biggest problem, I think, is the naiveté of this hypothetically ad-free world. Content will still have to be produced. And if the legitimized ad channel is removed, I suspect things will simply go underground. Content producers will be offered kickbacks to work commercial content into supposedly objective channels. Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but I’d be willing to place a fairly large bet on the bendability of the morals of the marketing community.

Ultimately, it comes down to sustainability. Let’s not forget that about a third of all Americans are using ad blockers, and that percentage is rising rapidly. When I test the ideological waters of the people whose opinions I trust, there is no good news for the current advertising ecosystem. We all agree that advertising is in bad shape. It’s just the severity of the prognosis that differs – ranging from a chronic but gradual debilitating condition to the land of walking dead. A world without advertising may be tough to imagine, but a world that continues to prop up the existing model is even more unlikely.


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