Mark Bartholomew


On his book Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing

Cover Interview of June 06, 2017

In a nutshell

By some counts, the average American is exposed to over three thousand advertisements each day. It is not just the number, but the nature of these ads that are different from those in the past. They are more personalized, more insistent, and, somewhat paradoxically, more clandestine. What does it mean to live in a world of non-stop selling? Are consumers adequately equipped to deal with modern marketing’s use of new technologies to surveil our activities, study our brains, and score our social interactions? Are there costs to this fundamental rebalancing of the relationship between advertiser and audience? If so, why hasn’t there been more resistance on the part of lawmakers and the general public?

Adcreep exposes the initiatives that advertisers try to keep hidden. Each chapter in the book describes a new advertising technique and its accompanying social dangers. Advances in neuroscience have become a tool for subconsciously stimulating shoppers’ appetites. Corporate infiltration of schools, state parks, and other civic territories alters the way identities are formed so as to best suit Madison Avenue. A world of non-stop digital surveillance leaves consumers open to blackmail and discrimination. Celebrity advertising on social media creates a false equivalence: the famous possess special VIP tools to manage online disclosures while ordinary citizens must forfeit control of their posts to false friends, hostile outsiders, and data-hungry marketers.

This is a book that should especially appeal to readers with an interest in history. To explain why advertisers have been allowed to proceed with these new selling techniques, it helps to have a historical backdrop in mind.

Past controversies over invasive advertising strategies triggered a series of legal battles, ultimately producing a regulatory framework meant to keep business freedom and consumer protection in balance. The book describes this regulatory framework, and uses historical examples to show how it has dealt over time with a variety of advertising innovations. Disputes over billboard regulation, snake oil salesmen, subliminal advertising, and the use of digital technology to reanimate dead celebrities are all instructive examples. They illustrate how the new advertising techniques of today echo the forbidden techniques of the past.

The book’s ultimate conclusion is that, on a variety of fronts, the legal system is allowing invasive advertising to proceed unchecked. Novel interpretations of the First Amendment, contract law, intellectual property law, and the publicity rights of celebrities all handcuff fledgling efforts to adjust the law to account for commercial innovation.

By the end of the book, readers should be convinced of two things. One is that modern marketing has entered a new, profoundly different era. The other is that, in contrast to the past, lawmakers have done little to safeguard consumers from adcreep.