Mark Bartholomew


On his book Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing

Cover Interview of June 06, 2017

The wide angle

Given its nearly ubiquitous presence in our lives, advertising is one of the most important economic and social drivers in American society. Yet its sheer ubiquity lulls us into complacency. When no space is off-limits to commercial appeals, we become numb to the ideology of advertising.

That was my experience. I went about my daily life, not really noticing the commercial forces constantly whispering in my ear. Then two things happened.

I was teaching intellectual property and privacy law at a law school. I came to realize that the latest developments in those fields often centered on new advertising technologies. In recent years, companies trying to cement their informational advantages over consumers propelled big changes in First Amendment law, privacy law, and trademark law. These changes benefited businesses, not consumers.

I also had children. To the extent that I thought about the commercials all around me, I thought I could handle them. Sure, sometimes advertisers stretched the truth or appealed to my emotions. I assumed, however, that I, myself, and other consumers could rationally evaluate advertising’s messages, and adequately discount their non-informational aspects.

Then my kids became subject to their own torrent of commercial appeals. Of course, I tried to screen some ads from their field of vision. But advertising in the modern age is inescapable. My kids repeated the messages they heard through the car radio and saw when they rode mass transit. They expressed both interest and annoyance at the constant requests to click on online ads, even when they were using school-approved apps and websites. After this, I became less sanguine about my own capability for resistance, realizing that my best efforts to shield my kids had failed. Over time, relentless product proselytizing takes a toll on anyone, child or adult.

To really appreciate the consequences of advertising’s expansion, we need to understand how the process works. One of the central questions about advertising is its relationship to consumer agency. If advertising simply offers opportunities that consumers are free to accept or reject, then its presence in new spaces becomes less objectionable. If it exercises significant influence over its audiences, then advertising’s spread becomes cause for concern.

So how do the power dynamics of advertising expansion work? The French philosopher Michel Foucault distinguished between disciplinary power and direct punishment. In a historical shift, he argued, authorities moved away from social control through brute force to using techniques that allowed them to govern their subjects without their awareness.

Modern advertising uses these same disciplinary techniques. By monitoring and shaping the expressive content found in particular territories, advertisers project norms for others to follow. They also suggest the “abnormal” behavior audiences should avoid.

Ultimately, advertising’s advance into new territories is a project of governance, meant to monitor, inform, and persuade. Even acknowledging that consumers resist and reconfigure many marketing messages, there is little doubt that advertising shapes our sense of self while masking its own ability to do so.