How Marketing And Ads Ate Our Culture

How Marketing And Ads Ate Our Culture image

Only in the age of persuasion it is possible that the first thing we hear from our clock radio in the morning, and the last thing we see before our eyes flutter slowly shut at night, are advertisements.

Early each morning we might hear a half-dozen ads on the radio before our feet touch the floor. Staggering out of bed, we’ll pass brand logos on our clothing as we make our way to the privy, where we’re surrounded by bottles of Head & Shoulders shampoo, the toothpaste, the deodorant, a Gillette razor, and Ivory soap. We eye the Alka-Seltzer, remembering that glass-too-many of gin and tonic last night.

Marketing And Market Saturation Effects On Iconic Designs image
Marketing And Market Saturation Effects On Iconic Designs

Our breakfast table resembles a logo gallery, where we sit surrounded by the images of multiple corporate brands – on a box of breakfast cereal, a milk carton, a package of frozen blueberry waffles, and a bottle of syrup. Flip on the TV and we might encounter ads for air freshener, fabric softener, the latest Pixar film, Ford Focus, Monistat yeast infection remedy, and a neighbourhood slip-and-fall law firm. A quick flip through our morning newspaper might reveal dozens more sales messages. And they all happen even before we travel to work, shop, visit, or play – along roads and highways bedecked with posters, signs, murals, bus benches, billboards and store signs.

Our Daily Ads Intake

Metaphorically speaking, the world has come to look like a NASCAR driver’s racing suit, with every square inch occupied by a Logo. It’s impossible to measure the exact number of ads lobbed our way on a given day, but that hasn’t prevented educators, researchers, and journalists from wondering, or worse, offering educated guesses masquerading as scientific fact to calculate the number of ads we are exposed during a day.

How Marketing And Ads Ate Our Culture Image
An Example Of NASCAR Driver’s Racing Suit

The trouble is, no one can agree on criteria. Are we “exposed” to an ad if we scan it with our eyes and don’t consciously notice it? Do we count a radio jingle that plays in the car while we’re telling our three-years-old not to throw Cheerios at our eighteen-month old? If we place at our underwear label as we dress, does that count? David Shenk, in his 1997 book, Data Smog, set the number at six hundred. But recent studies show that we are exposed to 3,000 – 6,000 ads per day.

The Dawn Of Clutter

The first grumbling about ad clutter can be traced back to nineteenth century London, the granddaddy of “big” cities to emerge from the industrial revolution. At the beginning of the 1800s, fewer that a million people lived in the British capital, but by the end of that century, the population had grown sixfold, and during those years, sales messages (Ads) began to dominate the urban landscape. Soon, newspapers themselves would become leading purveyors of clutter. By the late nineteenth century, new-fangled typecasting machines made it easier to print more pages – and squeeze in more ads.

Today there’s even more ad space available in most major newspapers, to the point where you need a forklift to pick up their weekend editions. Advertising is a great money maker for the owners of the newspapers and magazines, whose rate can remain high no matter what the size if the publications, on the promise that advertisers will reach a given number of readers.

How Marketing And Ads Ate Our Culture Image
19th Century Device Ads Promised To Shrink The Bust


The thread running through the entire age of persuasion is the growth of technology – from Morse code to marketing goods by rail to mass marketing, to marketing and broadcasting to the Internet. In their haste to seize each “advance” in technology, marketers tend to embrace the short cuts and savings but overlook the hidden cost: the distance added between a brand and its audience. The greater the distance, the more a brand sacrifices intimacy, humanity, and with it, authenticity. Rather than correcting this, many marketers have fixed their eyes on short term profit, as opposed to long term brand building. The desire for transactions has displaced the need for relationships.

Only by recognizing this cost can marketers scale the wall of cynicism they have helped build and turn their attention back to forging genuine, long term relationships. To do this, they must invest time, finding meaningful ways to engage customers with something more that one-off guerrilla stunts and pithy, three word catchphrases. They must invest genuine personality in their brand, respect their customers, and above all, honour the Great Unwritten Contract, which requires them to give something back in exchange for the interruption caused by their advertising.


  1. The Age of Persuasion by Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant, Counterpoint (May 1, 2011), 352 p.

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