Mark Bartholomew


On his book Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing

Cover Interview of June 06, 2017


An intricate ecosystem of laws, regulatory agencies, legal actors, and social and cultural norms exist to determine advertising’s proper role. A series of historical battles over marketing innovations formed this ecosystem. What this book suggests is that the ecosystem has remained static when it needs to dynamically respond to a series of new technological threats.

There are no simple solutions to the dangers of adcreep. Concerns over the cognitive abilities of consumers, the competence of government regulators, and the professional ethics of advertisers make resolution of these issues difficult and complex. As the legal scholar Arthur Leff said forty years ago, “There is no ‘whole story’ that can be told about anything, especially anything as socially, economically, literarily, anthropologically, philosophically, legally, historically, and politically complex as advertising.”

Nevertheless, the costs of doing nothing are too great. Individually, strategies for surveilling consumers on social media, selling to children in public schools, commandeering public space, and swapping neurological data for conscious dialogue are all concerning. Together, they may fundamentally change the advertiser-consumer relationship.

My hope is that this book causes people to think about advertising more critically. The problem is that the more advertising we are exposed to, the less objectionable it becomes. Advertising’s growing presence numbs onlookers to the techniques of commercial persuasion. It normalizes the individualist and materialist ideologies championed by businesses, threatening to crowd out alternative philosophies of human flourishing. Few ads tell us to shop less or to focus on our civic responsibilities.

Over time, the presence of ads in a particular territory becomes an acceptable part of the environment. Take, for example, pre-film advertising. Commercials before films (aside from previews of coming attractions or requests to visit the theater’s snack stand) are a relatively new phenomenon dating from the early 1990s. Initially, these pre-film ads triggered outrage. Moviegoers howled at them. Lawmakers proposed legislation to stop the practice. But, eventually, the resistance faded. The legislation died in committee. Public outrage became grudging acceptance.

This leads me to believe that the window for action is short. Adcreep argues that we are at a tipping point. The host of invasive marketing techniques described in the book are already changing the environments in which we live. The character of our homes, our schools, and our public spaces hang in the balance. We shouldn’t just let this commercial tide wash over us. We should interrogate these changes. And, when the social costs of these changes seem too great, we should demand that the law halt adcreep’s advance before it’s too late.