Opinion Op-Ed
Column

Why bad ads deserve to die, and what might replace them

In the not-too-faraway past, advertising didn’t hunt you down the way it does now. When it popped up on your television set, you could change the channel or go get some ice cream from the freezer. When it showed up in the newspaper, or a magazine, you glanced away, or turned the page. Now it’s right there in your pocket, on your phone, often standing between you and something you want to read or watch. You are a prisoner of Madison Avenue. That is why — although the world’s businesses spend about a half-trillion dollars a year on ads to persuade you to buy their stuff — more Americans than ever are buying ad-blocking software.

Now comes Andrew Essex with his book “The End of Advertising,” at least advertising as we know it. Essex was CEO of the ad agency Droga5, and explains here that from Don Draper’s ashes there may — there must — rise better ads.


The title of this book will leave some people saying, “Hey, that’s great,” and other people going, “Oh, damn.”

Well, I think if you’re a consumer, you haven’t been a big fan of advertising for a long time. And if you’re in the advertising business, you recognize that the industry isn’t dying, it’s just changing.

Advertising has been around for a very long time. Are you saying it has been a devil’s bargain for a very long time and now people are saying, ‘We don’t need to deal with this devil any more’?

It has been a devil’s bargain. We’ve been asked to watch something in exchange for something else. You can watch this program if you agree to have it interrupted every few minutes by something you didn’t ask to see; that was always part of the understanding.

But now, because of all these new formats, over-the-top television, the Netflixes, the HBOs of the world, we’re seeing television without interruption. And then we’re also seeing the advent of things like ad blocking, getting rid of most digital advertising. So the canvas is being taken away on which advertising is usually seen. And people are saying, why do we still need to see it?

Consumers have choices like never before. In other words, ad-free television or ad block, they have tons and tons of weapons to avoid advertising.

There’s a history of advertising as a part of the culture. You have ad campaigns that people for decades — “finger-lickin’ good,” and “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” — a part of the culture even apart from the products.

Yeah, advertising has always been part of culture. It’s created jingles, it’s created images. You just have to watch an episode of “Mad Men” to know that. But the culture changed and advertising stayed behind. And that’s why it’s going through such a hard time.

Half of your book is about people trying to avoid ads, and the other half is about advertisers trying to get around people trying to block what they have to say.

Pretty funny, isn’t it? There are 495 scripted shows on TV right now, so there’s so much content. There’s really no appetite for interruption. So people are finding ways to avoid unwanted interruption like never before. Then you’ve got advertisers forcing people to watch ads with new forms. It’s just a crazy dynamic that we live in right now.

The canvas is being taken away on which advertising is usually seen. And people are saying, why do we still need to see it?

Some people think it may have a direct effect on the economy, but the [advertising] industry is a $600-billion business. The money’s still being spent — the question is just, where is it being spent? There used to be only three networks and they ingested the lion’s share of revenue. Now with over-the-top formats and people subscribing to TV, advertisers have to find new places to spend that money.

You point out how much money is made by ad-blocking software; before, if you read a magazine, a newspaper, you just turned the page.

It’s just technological innovation. Someone once argued that the original ad blocker was the human head. People used to use the commercials as just an opportunity to go to the bathroom. But we never had a technological format that allowed us to block ads, so I think that’s just the repercussions of 50 years of underestimating consumers’ willingness to put up with something they didn’t want.

Is it the ads themselves, or the nature of the ads on iPads and iPhones that people really object to?

That’s a really good question. The context and the proliferation of content have probably made the ads more objectionable. But then there’s contextually relevant advertising, so when something seems out of context, it’s particularly egregious. If you’re reading about plumbing and you get an ad for archery, you’re going to be infuriated.

If you’re looking up something about hip pain and you see a pop-up ad about hip replacements, isn’t that on the other end of offensive?

Sometimes it suggests that people are spying on you or know too much about you, although I will argue it makes more sense to get a hip pain ad while you are reading about hip replacement than to get an ad about a cruise ship. I suppose some people will see an ad for running shoes — that would really be out of context.

It might be nice to have gotten an initially contextually relevant message about hip pain medication, but if you get it over and over and over again, it’s sort of like being stalked by an ex-lover.

I wonder whether ads are like what they say about Congress. People say they hate Congress, but as it turns out, they may hate the idea of Congress, yet they keep reelecting their members of Congress.

Look, people love brands. People’s hearts beat faster for the brand they love, but they just don’t like being interrupted. I like my congressmen when they’re helping me; I don’t like them when they’re infuriating me. Unfortunately, most advertising is built on the premise of being rude and interruptive, and that’s infuriating.

What does a good ad look or sound like in this day and age? Or is there any such thing, when there are so many platforms?

People love ads in the Super Bowl. “The Lego Movie” was a great 90-minute ad. There are tons of examples of great ads. Unfortunately, they’re the minority, not the majority. So whether it’s advertising of movies or interpretive dancing in Times Square, the good stuff succeeds and the bad stuff sinks like never before. In an economy of unprecedented abundance, good is going to win and bad is going to fail.

Let me give you an example. Are you familiar with Citi Bike in New York City, the bike-sharing program? Today that’s as important as a season’s worth of “60 Minutes.” It is a transformative example of how advertising can make the world a better place.

It provided a communications channel that was subsidized by a big brand, and it helped people reduce their waistline and their carbon footprint. So advertising and brands can aspire to do great, meaningful things, subsidize the arts, help solve massive societal problems. But it mostly doesn’t.

Do you think we are going to a place where people will just say, OK, here’s my $50 a month; I’m going to get my $50 worth of what I pick and choose to watch — with no ads.

Yes, I do. Unfortunately, that creates another sort of divide, like the digital divide, with the haves — those with some wealth can live in an ad-free society — and those who don’t will be forced to endure tormenting advertising. It’s an unfortunate class divide.

You mentioned the Super Bowl. Why is it the exception? People don’t just put up with ads in the Super Bowl — they actually look forward to them.

That’s a unique anomaly in the ad industry. It’s the only business where you expect greatness one day of the year and mediocrity 364 days of the year. There’s this huge audience being delivered, so people try harder. I just don’t think that’s a very sustainable model.

Remember the 1984 “Where’s the beef?” ad for Wendy’s? That line came up in a 1984 Democratic presidential primary debate. I just don’t see ads any more that get that kind of life and bounce.

Correct. But that’s a function of ubiquity. You’re talking about the loss of a great iconic line. So better to see something like “The Lego Movie” or Citi Bike — that’s the new version of “Where’s the beef?”

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