A couple weeks ago I was visiting Rome. The city was gorgeous, incredibly historic, walker-friendly, and overall life-changing. One of my new most favorite places in the world. However…something felt…off.
I couldn’t put my finger on it for the first couple of days. I figured it was just because I was in a different country. But then I realized that Paris hadn’t felt strange. And then it hit me.
There were hardly any ads anywhere.
Subway walls? Nothing but blank tiles. TV screens at the train station: just a few fuzzy powerpoint slides that looked like they were from the 90s. City streets: just beautiful buildings. Billboards nowhere to be seen. Plates and cups in restaurants: absent of the Coca-Cola logo. Big gaudy sponsor logos in parks and museums? Nope.
And let me tell you, the lack of ads certainly contributed to making the city more beautiful and romantic and secluded.
But. It was eerie.
And it made Rome feel strangely empty, even now when I think back on it.
I think that we Americans (and at least Parisians, since their walls were well-plastered) have a love-hate relationship with ads. Of course we’ll always whine about how annoying ads are, and we’ll always claim that we don’t want them. Our “hate” for ads is well-documented and often the first emotion that comes to mind.
But in Rome I discovered that we subconsciously love them.
1. Ads make you feel wanted
The whole time in Rome I found myself asking, “Why don’t these people want my money? Don’t they know that I have discretionary income that I’m going to spend? Don’t they want my business? Don’t they know I’m a tourist!!?” In a strange way, it left me feeling hurt. I know that we’re annoyed with ads always trying to sell us something, but ads are also ego-boosting.
As consumers, we’re always the guy who the captain wants to pick first in dodgeball. We’re always the hot girl at school everyone wants to ask out. And we always get to tell the advertisers, “No, thanks, I’ll spend my time and attention on a different suitor.” And it feels good.
2. Ads entertain
What if there was an industry whose entire job it was was to get your attention, intrigue you, make you laugh, shock you, or make you interested in something? Well, there is. An entire industry! Ad agencies are cranking out creativity 24/7, and there’s no denying that some of the stuff they come up with is dang entertaining. For all the crappy, annoying ads out there, there are just as many clever ones that give you a laugh or a gem or a new perspective. And they’re only getting better.
Think back on the last 10 YouTube videos you enjoyed, watched, or shared. I bet you that half of them were made by somebody trying to sell you something.
3. Ads inform
In Rome I had no idea what the top (or at least the biggest-budget) movies were, which restaurants were the sheik thing in town, what there was to do, etc.. The only entertainment ad I saw was for Rainbow Magic Land. Teehee.
Ads often give us ideas about what’s going on this weekend, what TV shows are premiering soon, what we should put in our hair, what we should read, etc.. Imagine a world with no banners or billboards or commercials. The only way you’d know about…anything…would be through word of mouth and google searches. Yes, ads are biased and manipulative, but at least they give you a place to start.
4. Ads fund…everything
Want to know why your favorite TV show exists? Commercials. Want to know how your high school year book was funded? The ads in the back. Band uniforms? Sponsors. 5Ks and city festivals and free food and sports arenas and athletes and musicians? Ads, sponsorships, endorsements.
It’s astounding how much businesses will pay to put their message in front of people. And without these businesses forking over their cash, our lives as we know them would be completely different, and our schedules would be much more open.
5. Ads make you forget that you have real problems
In a strange way, ads make you feel like you have control over choices, over consequences, over your life, and even over death. I know it seems like a stretch, but think about it. Ads give you the illusion that your world consists of easy choices of what to buy and what to do, and drowns out more important questions of priorities, families, and mortality.
Ads send us to little imaginary playgrounds and send us shopping and coupon-cutting and thinking about how to spend our money in our little made-up world, while causing us to forget that we’re only on the playground. Ads constantly push us back into that little playground world of insignificance. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it does push the more “weighty” matters out of sight and out of mind.
So, as you go out today, or turn on the TV, or check your mail, or ride the bus, or look at almost any flat surface, imagine a world without ads. That world would be much more different than you might expect.