An ad on every surface

February 2, 2019 (1405 words) :: The logical endpoint of capitalism is a world where every inch of existence is both commodified and contains an advertisement for something else.
Tags: advertising

This post is day 33 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Did you see the egg? You must have seen the egg. A few weeks ago, an anonymous Instagram account (with the username @world_record_egg) showed up with nothing more than a very wholesome photo of an egg, and an earnest desire to generate the most-liked post on Instagram:


It worked: the post currently has 52 million likes, beating the previous record by miles (18 million, held by Kylie Jenner).

The saga didn’t end there, though. A few days later, the egg started cracking:

Egg cracking

And just yesterday, it revealed itself as an ad: the egg sprouted football stitches and exhorted its fans to watch the Superbowl on Hulu to discover the egg’s big reveal.

Egg football

This was bound to happen, of course. Just two days ago, Taylor Lorenz wrote in The Atlantic about the potential advertising value of the egg: The World-Record Instagram Egg Is Going to Make Someone Very Rich, which featured a quote from an advertising executive valuing the egg’s unspoiled surface at $10 million for the right brand.

Even if the egg was originally not created for the purpose of advertising, its perfect, smooth, eggy exterior was just too lucrative to be left blank. Of course it was going to become a vehicle for advertising. What brand would pass up the chance to be associated with something that had so clearly captured the zeitgeist on social media? And who’s going to turn down $10 million for an Instagram account?

Did you know that Amazon has been showing ads on its boxes? Not all of them, but here’s one I saw recently:

Photo of an Amazon shipping box with a Chevrolet ad on it

I’m not sure why, but seeing that ad kind of just broke me. Will every surface eventually have an ad? How many more ads do we really need? How much more consumption is necessary? What is the world these advertisements are trying to bring about? Imagine if everyone had 2, 3, 4 cars. And a smart garage that conveniently rotates the cars according to which one you need, with an automated valet. And like every conceivable item of clothing in every colour, and a subscription to every movie streaming service, and always the latest iPhone. And in case you ever run out of wants, never fear, for there will be an ad within eyesight convincing you that you need to buy something else.

The system that culminates in all these advertisements - driven by the need to win mindshare, and lower the cost of customer acquisition, and close the loop between marketing and sales - it’s so mindless. It optimises for nothing more or less than getting people to purchase things whether or not they need them. Fyre Festival was a genius effort in advertising terms, and McKinsey did wonders for Purdue Pharma in helping them sell Oxycontin to people who would become addicted. Advertising is purpose-agnostic, at least in terms of ethics; it always aims to maximise profit, though, which makes it a useful tool for those who get a big cut of those profits.

Jean Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society (1998) suggests that our current phase of capitalism has essentially solved the problem of production. At the level of the “technostructure”, productivity is basically unlimited; we have developed the managerial and technical know-how necessary to produce most of the consumer goods we need. The main challenge, then, is no longer how to produce new things, but how to sell the things being produced. How to shift product, by creating demand: “It becomes vital for the system in this phase to control not just the apparatus of production, but consumer demand; to control not just prices, but what will be demanded at those prices.” (p.71)

So advertising is now key, not just for individual products, but for capitalism as a whole. It’s the fuel that keeps the engine running. As Wolfgang Streeck writes in How Will Capitalism End? (2016):

consumption in mature capitalist societies has long become dissociated from material need. The lion’s share of consumption expenditure today – and a rapidly growing one – is spent not on the use value of goods, but on their symbolic value, their aura or halo. This is why industry practitioners find themselves paying more than ever for marketing, including not just advertising but also product design and innovation. (p.65)

This manufacturing of symbolic value has become a massive industry, as the drive to sell commodities seeps into everything, not limited to what’s directly treated as advertising (billboards, posters, commercials, etc). After all, existing forms of advertising tend towards a saturation point eventually - we get used to them, and they become less effective.

So the industry has to constantly innovate. Thus we get “influencer marketing”: people who are perceived as authentic on YouTube/Instagram/etc become brand ambassadors through monetising their audience’s trust. We get native advertising, where the brand hires the publication to write an article promoting some product while making it seem like an natural, organic. We get treated to an agonisingly long shot of the word “Panasonic” on a USB drive in a movie about aliens that appear as cars. We get a Instagram photo of an egg, telling us to watch the Superbowl on Hulu.

David Harvey has this concept of a “spatial fix”, in the context of capitalism’s crises of profitability. In its original context, it refers to the outward expansion that occurs once you’ve saturated one market (your home market): you start to look towards distant lands, both for their natural (or human) resources and as a potential market for goods. This is basically what’s happening with advertising: it’s colonising more and more surfaces, and vectors, and spaces, not because that is what is actually good for us, but because it needs to, in order to maintain itself.

Did you ever see those photos of bus stops in North Korea? The surfaces are covered with pictures: landscapes, cities. There are no ads.

Imagine what it would be like to live in the West without ads. If you could just exist in the world without encountering endless calls for your attention (and your money). If you could ride the subway without a constant barrage of promotions for pills to make your hair shinier or relieve your fatigue. If you could drive along the highway without having the landscape blighted by deliberately vague ads about cloud computing or asking your developer. If you could watch videos on YouTube without having to sit through ten million infuriatingly cheerful videos about Grammarly that you cannot skip and absolutely refuse to ever consider using, solely for that reason.

We all know the consquences of this consumption-centred mode of production on the planet; it’s become cliché to speak of oceans and landfills seeded with plastic that will never decay. And yet, most of the time, it’s shrugged off as an inevitability: sure, that sucks, but we need to keep consuming, so let’s deal with that later.

But we don’t need to keep consuming. We don’t need to live in a world where every surface is an ad. It does not have to be this way. The reason we live in a world where we all feel obliged to constantly consume, and moreover, where we know that individually opting out of consumption will not actually fix the problem, is because mass consumption by the many is profitable for a few.

We’re trapped in this system for now, because those who benefit from this system of mass induced consumption have enough ideological control to convince the rest that this will make us happy. This is what we want after all, and anyway, there is no alternative.

All of us know this is BS, of course, even if only on a subconscious level. Buying more shit won’t make us happy, and we know it - there’s a reason Marie Kondo’s method has become such a sensation, especially in the US.

But we’re enmeshed in an all-encompassing mode of production whose primary driving dynamic is the need to make people buy more shit at scale. And if that mode of production doesn’t spark joy

[This post came a little after midnight, oops. I’ve been living a little too close to the edge lately.]

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