When The World Is Falling Apart, Does Advertising Still Matter?

The whole world is unhinged. Itchy trigger fingers poised above big, red buttons. The crazies are in control. Amongst all of this, how can something as trivial as advertising be considered important?

Let’s not kid ourselves – though often seen as intrusive, indulgent, and pointless, advertising wields incredible influence across culture and politics, though this is not often openly acknowledged.

The media we consume, whether online or TV, is largely facilitated by ad buys. Streaming and broadcasting cost money, especially if you’re seeking to command large audiences and deliver stories that stand out from the crowd. If you screw up publicly and advertisers pull investment, then decisions become foregone conclusions. Just ask Bill O’Reilly.

It’s not even that the content of the ads themselves are the focus here. Rather they are products – votes even – which can be used to influence and sway public opinion. They can provide endorsement of a show’s credentials, or revoke support in a very public way. Pulling your ads from a show doesn’t simply leave a hole of a few hundred grand and thirty seconds in a show’s airtime, it also comes with extensive media coverage.

Then there’s the instrumental role advertising plays in building behemoths. Corporations such as Google have become as large as they are primarily through revenue stemming from advertising. Brands dig deep into their pockets to have their logos, their products, their sales pitches at the top of the pile when seven billion people go in search of something. Google’s $19.1 Billion ad buy haul in 2016 is just one obvious demonstration of this. Advertising likely accounts for nearly 90 percent of their total revenue, which shows it not only pays to be #1, it costs a fair amount, too.

So ads cost – and make – money. They determine the existence of media. As countries are considering going atomic, what fucking relevance do either of those things have, truly?

Again, perhaps more than we immediately realize.

When Armageddon is imminent, it certainly helps if you’re backed by your entire nation, that you can whip up patriotism and attract volunteers without immediately introducing conscription. Nothing did that quite like James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam in 1917 when he proclaimed in block red-and-black lettering that he wanted YOU for the U.S. Army. Four million posters were slapped on pillars, fences, and walls across the entire country, contributing to a wave of patriotism that fueled a desire to fight for one’s country and helping draw one of the most devastating events of human catastrophe to a close. We can argue the wrongs and rights of such a campaign, but we can’t argue its impact.

Then there is our old friend propaganda. Biased by nature, it takes a certain form, the most obvious being that of sweeping communication techniques. Today, that means social posts, tweets, even memes. While invented by well-meaning millennials, these medias have been explored and refined by advertising to take full advantage of their mass appeal as delivery methods for communication.

What is funny and seems simplistic or wry could actually be an ad pushing a surreptitious agenda.

Again, this is not an article designed to judge the pros and cons from an ethical perspective of advertising – as with Nabokov; there is “no moral in tow” – rather it’s intended to merely highlight its ongoing meaning and influence in an age of major concern. That propaganda has a seat at politicians’ tables in times of impending upheaval cannot be questioned. It is a tool that cannot be ignored and which conveys a sizzling degree of power when used effectively.

So, whether frightening, morally corrupt, vindicating, calming, reassuring, or bat-shit fucking crazy and inappropriate, I would argue that, yes, when the world is falling apart, advertising matters very much indeed.