Is advertising evil?


Consider the following scenarios:

  • A blue whale swims through the Pacific ocean. When food is abundant it eats 8 tons of krill every day. There’s massive loss of life. Is the whale evil?
  • A lion has just chased down and killed a small gazelle. Her newborn child is left to fend for itself. Is the lion evil?
  • A carnivorous plant attracts a fly by exuding the scent of rotting meat. It’s a dirty trick and the fly dies. Is the plant evil?

Of course not. All of these organisms are hungry. If we saw any of these things on the nature channel we would accept them as an admittedly violent part of the natural cycle of life.

In the world of today’s economic and political systems, we are the krill, the gazelle, and the fly. Every waking moment, someone is trying to persuade us that it is good for us to do something that is good for them. They are our predators. The prey is our attention, our time, our money, our votes, and our minds.

“The Industry feeds off the human biomass of America. Like a whale straining krill from the sea.” – Neal Stephenson in “Snow Crash”

The task for any organism in a food chain is to focus on its own agenda enough of the time to survive, thrive and reproduce. In the case of humans, reproduction can be either genetic or cultural. Total immersion in a sea of persuasive messages that clamor for our attention steals valuable energy and focus away from those most essential tasks.

Yet it may surprise you to hear that I have no quarrel with advertisers, even sneaky ones. Sure they can be annoying, but I believe in most cases their actions are morally neutral. Just like the whale, the lion and the plant, they are not evil – they are hungry. In order for their business or memetic system to live another day they need to make a sale, and in order to make that sale they need to attract another customer.

I not only do not believe advertising is evil, there is a very good possibility that I will put ads on this blog at some point. The reason? I think communicating about this idea is the best way I can help other people right now, and I need to pay my mortgage. Will that steal a piece of your attention? Yes. Is it evil? You decide.

The problem I have with advertising is not the fact that it exists, but that it’s so distracting. The ratio of messages that benefit advertisers to the ratio that benefit us is wildly unfavorable to us. In fact, the ratio is not just unfavorable; it’s a shut-out.

Let’s say that in a given week you see or hear 1000 advertisements of some sort. In a typical week the number of those messages that advocate for someone else’s agenda would be probably be 1000, and the number that advocate for yours would be 0. That’s where I think the problem lies: those are terrible odds.

In the course of trying to stay focused on a goal you have set for yourself, you already have the considerable challenge of trying to balance it against the other necessities of life. At the same time you are juggling all that, you are reminded to eat pizza, buy a car, vote for someone, wear the right jeans, buy diamonds, refinance your house, and select the perfect gift for the holidays. It’s extremely difficult to also consistently remember what you want to be doing in that kind of environment.

We will never stop advertising. It is a fact of conducting commerce in a civilization. What Take Back Your Brain is about is improving the ratio a little bit in your favor. You will learn techniques to create ads that advocate for things YOU want, and use various forms of technology to deliver them to yourself a few times a day.

Going back to our original numbers, if you see 1000 ads in a week and the number that advocate for your agenda is 0, the ratio would be 1000 to 0. If you were able to add just one message every day about something important to you, the ratio would improve to 1000 to 7. That’s still not very good, but it’s better than nothing. In fact, my experience has shown that even that one ad is disproportionately powerful if it is about something I genuinely want.

But if you were able to put your ad in a place where you see it 15 times a day your ratio would be 1000 to 105, or a little better than 10 to 1. The mind that see those 105 ads is beginning to have some space for its own agenda. At that point you might notice some improvement on following through with things you want for yourself.

I just made up the number 1000. For most people the number of ads and branding messages you receive every week is actually much higher. The point is that by trying to insert messages about your own objectives into that message stream, you are becoming an active participant in the battle to influence your priorities. I have found it to be an amazingly effective method to help me achieve outcomes I want.

Related articles

This entry was posted in Personal marketing. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. rembrandtqeinstein
    Posted January 8, 2007 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    “All of these organisms are hungry.” The difference between man and animals is that men can make moral choices and animals cannot. The most fundamental moral choice there can be is the decision whether or not to harm someone for your own benefit.

    Advertising is harm inflicted on the recipient for the benefit of the advertiser. The advertiser could choose not to inflict the harm but makes the moral choice to do so. That is the very definition of evil.

    “We will never stop advertising.” I bet if you asked the average person on the street 200 years ago when we would ever stop slavery they would answer “Never!”

    As humans grow and mature as a species they will eventually decide that causing harm to others by stealing their time, attention, concentration, and peace of mind is an evil that won’t be put up with.

  2. Padraig
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion advertising is one of the greatest achievements of man and civilisation and is a marker of how incredibly intelligent we are as a species.

    If you can’t tell the difference between an mp3 playing at 192k and 256k, then there is no point going for the higher bitrate. Similarly, if you can’t decide what chocolate bar to take, you have no real passions about one of a number of bars and you take the one you’ve heard more, what bad is done?

    See what I’m saying? Your brain has distinguished no objective difference and so instead of being random, you go for the one that you have heard and which is probably of the highest quality anyway.

    Advertising is the most refined thing man has ever produced, it is the highest form of communication possible.

    That guy who was talking about advertisers being “moral”… give me a break. Is it immoral to try to argue a tv programme is better? After all, that is changing your opinion of it is it not? In fact, even by saying the name of a tv programme you are impinging upon that person according to you, what a joke.

  3. Posted September 7, 2007 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Advertising does not have to be evil, or deceptive; we must learn to make conscious choices instead of allowing ourselves to be brainwashed.

    Assuming that the brand that spends the most money on advertising is the best or highest quality is faulty reasoning.

    Advertising can be used for the greater good to help raise awareness of issues, to support worthy causes, and to create abundance for all.

  4. Maniac Jack
    Posted December 31, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Advertising isn’t the definition of evil, but brainwashing society from pregnancy test to shiny coffin is very much that.

    TBYB says we will never stop advertising; okay, but are we going to progress into a society where my toothpaste tube looks like a NASCAR car? The fact that economic gains are compared to survival tells me this guy has no idea what he is talking about.

    Get Rich Slowly says he doesn’t want to debate in a debate. Weak.

    The next guy finds advertising to be a product of intelligence. He uses a candy bar as an example and says it cannot be immoral, because a candy bar cannot be any more moral than another.


    This is a great example of someone brainwashed by advertising. He cannot see anything other than the candy. Nothing else in the world exists but him and the candy bar- er, whatever is sold.

    And If it is the most refined form of communication then you obviously haven’t tried talking much. There is only one person involved in an ad- you, the buyer. You shouldn’t do anyhting other than buy crap according to the ads. It quite possibly communicates the least amount of info in the most amount of space and money.

    Their is no morality is a greed based capitalist society that promotes bigger business and not business in general. That is why our housing market is on the brink of something 1920’s era, our dollar is now less than canada’s, and we are at war with more countries than the populace even cares about.

    If you cannot see the errors of your ways you cannot see the errors others see so obviously; you lead a life of biggotry and ignorance.

    I’m not trying to be a slander-server; just ask any non-american why advertising stinks– they’ll tell you.

    • Scott
      Posted January 29, 2017 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      we had all better stop using Google which gets its revenues from advertising. Pretty much stop everything really… return to a kind of maoist agrarian dystopia. There’s a plan.

  5. Phil Orca
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Advertising isn’t evil. If X pays X amount to show X to X, then X is OK and when X thinks about X, X will happen and we can all live our lives with X. A formula for happiness forever.

  6. Lily
    Posted October 24, 2008 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    “Similarly, if you can’t decide what chocolate bar to take, you have no real passions about one of a number of bars and you take the one you’ve heard more, what bad is done?”

    What the heck??? So if I pay more for a crappy chocolate bar when others exist which may be tastier, with better ingredients, cheaper etc… is that not bad???

    So, the laziness of not having to think is something good to you?
    Thinking what others induce you to think is good too?
    Persuasion instead of consciousness and information is good?

    Maniac Jack is SO right.

  7. Lynn
    Posted October 24, 2008 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    I wrote this article almost 2 years ago. Since then I’ve learned a lot about advertising — much of it appalling — and I think (I hope!) my ideas about it have evolved. I agree that consciousness is much better than persuasion, Lily! Although I still believe the fundamental act of promoting your own service in order to earn a living is morally neutral, some of the tactics used to persuade us these days are reprehensible. Conducting market research with brain imaging comes to mind. I worry a great deal about the cumulative effect of the ubiquitous marketing tsunami on our individual concentration and on our collective culture (Check out Holy piranha, Batman! and The Merchants of Cool). Still, the focus and philosophy of Take Back Your Brain! remains “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. TBYB! is committed to teaching you how to steal the tactics marketers use on you to influence yourself instead.

  8. Posted December 11, 2008 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    On the first day of school my Sophomore year, as an introduction to our first Unit, my English teacher asked us to write down our ideas on a topic: she asked us what we thought should be mandatory subjects in school.

    Most of the students didn’t think very far into it, they just listed classes that are already required. But I proposed that we should have a class for analyzing media – (Understanding advertising, learning how to distinguish quality products from crap, being aware of our power of choice, etc etc.) My idea was promptly discarded, laughed off. Not only by my peers, but by my teacher as well, who claimed I was being off-task. I attempted to elaborate on my reasoning, but she made me be quiet.

    Perhaps it is because my peer group is made up of teen-agers that I believe our nation is in such a sorry state. I don’t know how you adults are faring, but I’ll tell you what, kids these days are fucking brain-washed to the max, and it frightens me. School is a miserable place, now, where it seems always we are being trained to be mindless consumers.

    I agree that advertising its-self is not an evil concept. But when the motives behind the advertisement are meant to mislead, cheat, and create unwarranted profit, it becomes a matter of morals. True, we should not allow ourselves to become victims (it is in essence our own fault if we are taken advantage of, yes?) But what of it if we are not being equipped at an early age with the proper tools for thought? What about defenseless children who have no concept of value? To me, this is all fishy business and I am thoroughly angry.
    What’s worse is the vast amount of information these advertisers are ‘innocently’ gathering about us without our knowledge. Its sickening, to say the least. I’m 17, by the way, and not a single person in my school cares to discuss this matter with me; I think that says a lot about our problem here. We’re becoming a population of dip-shits.

  9. Lynn
    Posted December 28, 2008 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    You’re right – this stuff affects all of us but it’s especially disturbing what’s happening to your generation. Have you seen The Merchants of Cool?. Really sick stuff. What do you think about the idea of stealing their tactics and using them on ourselves for good? Also check out this post about your great comment.

  10. atul poddar
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Advertisement is a good process to reach to anyone’s mind as a busy person cannot always go to the shop and have the knowledge of what new things have come in the market. Advertisements help him

  11. Ian
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    So if I start a new company that sells a really cool and useful product, how do let people know about it?

  12. Angela
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink


  13. Aaron334
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    “In the world of today’s economic and political systems, we are the krill, the gazelle, and the fly”

    Then you people need to back down (on what is essentially the love of making money, no doubt). When you start weaving racial and political ideologies into my Tony the Tiger cereal commercials, then that’s where this ‘krill’ jumps out of the net…

One Trackback

  • By Get Rich Slowly » Take Back Your Brain! on February 20, 2007 at 5:01 am

    […] But the site that I like best, and the one I found first, is Take Back Your Brain. Lynn Brem offers tips for how we can actively implement advertising techniques in order to pursue our goals: I am not opposed to advertising per se. I believe it is neither good nor bad. Nor am I that interested in debating whether it influences us. I believe it does, but that doesn’t really matter. My gripe is with how much mind space it all consumes, and how distracting that is from other, quieter, deeply important agendas we may have for our own lives. TBYB is interested in taking back some of that mind space for ourselves. […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>