Is Advertising Harmful To Society?

Hiding from ads
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Some studies would lead us to believe that we are constantly bombarded with advertising messages. It's everywhere. On our phones, laptops, tablets, in restrooms, on buses, trains...you name it, there's probably an ad on it. 

In fact, some estimates have posited that we see 20,000 marketing and advertising messages every single day. That, clearly, is nonsense. Considering we sleep for a minimum of six hours, that leaves 18 hours, or 64,800 seconds in which to cram 20,000 ad messages. Basically, one ad every 3 seconds. You are not seeing an ad every 3 minutes, let alone 3 seconds. 

Yes, we see a lot of ad messages a day - subconsciously. But those, that we actually notice and pay attention to, are few and far between. We most likely see a few hundred messages at most and pay attention to no more than 1 percent of them.

Still, that leaves at least a few ads per day that get into our heads. And the question is…is that harmful in some way?

The Argument Against Advertising

Those who say YES, advertising is harmful, have many justifiable concerns. Here are some of the biggest examples: 

  • Unrealistic Body Image Expectations
    Our self-image is definitely being affected. Most men in ads are chiseled hunks with ripped abs and perfect hair and teeth. For women, it's even worse. The standards of beauty set in advertising are beyond ridiculous, and even when advertisers try and empathize, they still come out with ads that heavily favor good-looking women. Dove has done a good job of trying to embrace real women with its "campaign for real beauty," but even then the ads sometimes stumble.
  • Creating an Unnecessary Need
    Most ads out there push products that very few people actually need. Think about it. Any product or service that people actually need to survive and thrive does not need an ad campaign; consumers are actually seeking them out. It's why you rarely, if ever, see ads for gasoline or utilities. But when it comes to the "stuff" that we fill our lives with, advertising can implant deep-seated longing for those products. "You need that new car." "Your life would be so much better with this diamond ring." "How could you possibly live without an iPhone?" From new cars to music players and the latest candies and junk foods, advertising can literally make people crave something they didn’t even know they wanted a few seconds earlier.​
  • Targeting Younger Consumers Using Sex and Violence
    Advertising blatantly uses sex and violence to make products appear cooler to the youth audience. And advertising, especially political advertising, can sway the course of a nation through deception and misinformation.
  • Cluttering Our Lives With Endless Messaging
    Advertising is both pervasive AND invasive. It's everywhere. Outdoor campaigns bombard our eyes with bright selling messages. Pop-up ads ruin any kind of website experience, often slowing the site down to feed you with ads you don't want to see, and making it hard to close them. Ads are on radio, TV, and even in the products we purchase (the cheaper Kindle Fire comes with ads built-in to the device). It's hardly surprising that people are paying significant monthly subscription fees so that they can avoid ads on YouTube, Hulu, and radio.

    The Argument For Advertising

    Just like most professions, advertising is a double-edged sword. Yes, it can be harmful. But it can also be extremely beneficial to society.

    • Spreading Awareness of Public Health Concerns
      Advertising is an incredibly effective and powerful way to spread the word about important issues and products, such as AIDS awareness, diabetes monitors, tobacco and alcohol risks, and other health-related concerns. If it weren't for mass market multi-media campaigns informing us about public health and safety concerns, the world would be a much more dangerous place.
    • Funding Free Content
      Just think for a second about all of the incredible things you have in your life that you don't pay for. All those TV ads that interrupt your favorite network and basic cable shows might be annoying, but guess what...without them, there wouldn't be any shows to watch. Most of the internet is free because of online advertising. If you took away advertising, you'd suddenly find yourself without a lot of the entertainment you take for granted.
    • Helping Businesses Grow and Hire More People
      How would small businesses ever hope to succeed without advertising? They need to find a way to spread the word about the products and services they provide, many of them essential to our way of life. And how would big businesses spread the word about innovative new products, or improvements to existing ones? Without advertising, would you know how to choose between the phones you use, the cars you drive, and the TVs you watch? Would you even know what choices you had or what existed?
    • Keeping Prices Competitive
      Advertising also brings prices down for consumers. When a business like T-Mobile nationally advertises a plan like two unlimited 4G lines for $100, the others all sit up and take notice...and drop their prices.

    In summation, it's worth noting that advertising has both positive and negative aspects to it, but without it, society would probably be worse for wear. What's more, advertising is not the only outlet for glorifying attractive men and women, and sex and violence are prevalent in many aspects of society, including movies, TV series, video games and even homemade YouTube videos.

    So, back to the original question. Is advertising harmful to society? The simple answer doesn’t exist. But the more complicated one seems to be that the benefits outweigh the negatives. For now.