If markets are so ideally “free,” then why do we hate advertising?

The next time you hear a news editor explain a failure to cover a story by saying some variation on “there’s nothing new here to report,” you might point them to a New York Times story yesterday (February 20, 2016) on the battle between ad-blockers and advertisers.[1] This has been going on for a while, but as far as I know, first started showing up as an issue outside technical forums in 2013.[2] The Times story adds absolutely nothing really new. The best the Times can muster to justify its story is to say that “[w]ithin the last six months or so, ad blocking has left the geek realm and gone mainstream,”[3] which is to say they really haven’t been paying attention to this at all.

Okay, I haven’t been paying all that much attention either. I just routinely install AdAway on my rooted Android devices, Adblock Plus on desktop browsers, and check the box to forbid all advertising. But the Times story did get me thinking. If indeed, capitalism is such a wonderful system, if it is, as capitalist libertarians claim it to be, a system in which “freedom” and “democracy” are ideally expressed in the marketplace, then should we not at least tolerate advertising in the way we do political speech? Should we not celebrate advertising as “free speech?”

At best, this is damnation by faint praise. One thing that makes the 2016 political campaign interesting is a rebellion on both left and right against the establishment, against functionalist conservatives who, feeling entitled to their privileges over everyone else, imagine that how they’ve been treating everyone else is just fine, that there aren’t any problems that can’t be solved or at least ameliorated through “incremental change.” Before that, political speech has often been regarded in the same league with used car sales pitches. It is often obnoxious and deceptive (authoritarian populists give Donald Trump a pass because he tells them what they already believe and they find his insults toward non-whites and non-males “honest”[4]).

Which is to say, we generally despise advertising. Apparently, “the use of ad-blocking software grew 41 percent last year [2015], with 198 million active users worldwide.”[5] Advertisers may protest in vain that “ad-blocking itself [is] outright theft” or that Adblock Plus’s scheme to make large advertisers pay to evade blocking “non-intrusive” ads (Adblock Plus means to forbid intrusive advertising entirely) “bears more than a passing resemblance to a protection racket” but Adblock Plus reportedly claimed only “50 million active users” in that 2013 story I found. Adblock Plus isn’t the only blocking software available, so directly comparing that 50 million to that 198 million is fallacious, but Adblock Plus is, reportedly, “by far the most popular”[6] so with that 41 percent growth in 2015, it’s probably safe to say that the number of active ad-blocking users worldwide has much more than doubled since 2013.

If there are any capitalist libertarians among those 198 million users, they’re hypocrites. And capitalist libertarians and neoliberals generally might want to consider that their notion of “freedom” might be out of touch.

  1. [1]Kate Murphy, “The Ad Blocking Wars,” New York Times, February 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/opinion/sunday/the-ad-blocking-wars.html
  2. [2]Andrew Leonard, “The Internet’s next victim: Advertising,” Salon, September 2, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/02/the_internets_next_victim_advertising/
  3. [3]Kate Murphy, “The Ad Blocking Wars,” New York Times, February 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/opinion/sunday/the-ad-blocking-wars.html
  4. [4]Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy W. Peters, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold: Polls and People Speak,” New York Times, August 22, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/us/politics/why-donald-trump-wont-fold-polls-and-people-speak.html; Chris Cillizza, “Donald Trump is leading an increasingly fact-free 2016 campaign,” Washington Post, November 23, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/23/the-2016-campaign-is-largely-fact-free-thats-a-terrible-thing-for-american-democracy/; Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/; Kathleen Hennessey, “GOP strategist talks to Trump supporters and comes away believing he could win the nomination,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-trump-supporters-20150825-story.html; Janell Ross, “Donald Trump is now reaping what he has sown,” Washington Post, September 19, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/19/donald-trump-is-now-reaping-what-he-has-sown/; Jeff Stein, “Here are 9 times Donald Trump’s campaign should have imploded,” Vox, February 9, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/2/9/10952772/donald-trump-new-hampshire; Matthew Yglesias, “Republicans are trying to beat Trump with wishful thinking and it’s not working,” Vox, December 15, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/12/15/10270608/trump-won-debate
  5. [5]Kate Murphy, “The Ad Blocking Wars,” New York Times, February 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/opinion/sunday/the-ad-blocking-wars.html
  6. [6]Andrew Leonard, “The Internet’s next victim: Advertising,” Salon, September 2, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/02/the_internets_next_victim_advertising/

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