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There are huge advertising budgets only when there's no difference between the products. If the products really were different, people would buy the one that's better. Advertising teaches people not to trust their judgment. Advertising teaches people to be stupid.
Carl Sagan, Contact[1]

Advertising is used by manufacturers of products, providers of services, politicians, and even governments to project truths, half-truths, and outright lies about their products, services, abilities, and countries to the target audience, usually for the purpose of selling said product, service, or ability.

It's morning in America, buy me[edit]

Traditionally (meaning more than 50 years ago), Madison Avenue used advertising to sell you crap you neither needed nor wanted by filling your vacant head with the idea that you both wanted and needed it, and if the Joneses next-door had it and you didn't, they were better people than you. Nowadays, however, advertising is also used to elect politicians to offices such as the President of the United States, and has replaced the outdated and broken system of elections in democratic countries. The United States — the traditional leader in 'votevertizing' technology — has discovered that the best way to determine who should run the free world[2] is to calculate who has the most money, then spend that on advertising in the country with the most money. This advertising budget, typically in the hundreds of millions of dollars, is partially diverted to feed and clothe the starving poor who are forced to toil 20-hour days in the creative departments[3] at advertising agencies.[citation NOT needed]

TV advertising[edit]

If you've ever watched television in the United States — especially nationally televised sporting events like the NFL, or "talking heads" current-affairs shows like Meet the Press or Face the Nation — you've probably noticed a lot of advertising for companies and organizations that the "Joe Six-Packs" in the audience would never directly patronize. Examples of these advertisers include AIG, Boeing, the American Petroleum Institute, Credit Suisse, and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF).[note 1] These entities don't pay huge sums of money to the TV networks to sell their products.[note 2] Rather, they pay huge sums of money to affect/influence the content of the network (and, in some cases, local) news-shows.

Whenever any of these advertisers finds out that a pending news story is critical of it or any of its clients, that advertiser can get the story killed merely by threatening to pull its multi-billion dollar ad-campaign from the network. Also, by repeatedly pushing bullshit memes — like the benevolent defense-contractor and the benefits to the environment of clean coal — these advertising campaigns function as a means to propagandize the viewers.

Once upon a time, this was not allowed. The news divisions at the networks and local stations were not-for-profit.[4] This allowed them the freedom not only to produce controversial news-stories and documentaries, but also to call out any entity that tried to threaten them for doing their jobs. That started to change beginning in the 1980s, when politicians began to believe that everything should be for-profit. With the discontinuation of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, limited-ownership policies[note 3] and the requirement that stations broadcast programming designed to serve the public interest, American TV- and radio-stations became little more than propaganda-generating machines for large corporations.

The sole benefit of this to the consumer is that a person in New York can bitch with their friend in California about the same ad on television.

In Russia, on the other hand, television advertising can tease the viewers with relevant and useful new-fangled concepts like swish bank-accounts and privately-developed pharmaceuticals.

Technological challenges[edit]

Time shifting[edit]

Time shifting is the practice of recording television shows to be later viewed at a time chosen by the viewer. This originally began in the 1960s with the availability of home-based video cassette recorders. Initially the impact on advertisers was mitigated by the need to manually pause the recording if a viewer wished to avoid including advertisement breaks in their recording — implying that anyone present to pause the recording would likely be seeing the advertisements anyway. There may still be an impact though if the viewer should choose to fast-forward through the adverts when viewing the recording. Following the introduction of digital television, a recording device known as TiVo has resulted in viewers easily skipping the commercials. This threat to our modern civilization is currently undermining the electability of the candidates from the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and beyond, and is part of a covert operation by the CEO of the TiVo corporation to become Ruler of the Free World. Without advertising, no one will know the lies the candidates want them to believe, with the result that no one's vote can be controlled. If they cannot be stopped, it is expected that the US Army will attempt to overthrow the TiVo insurgents with an air and ground invasion.

The rise of Internet broadcasting[edit]

Contextual advertising doesn't always reflect the stance of the content. This is why anti-religion sites may appear to have an odd habit of advertising pro-religious materials.

Television has traditionally been broadcast in such a way that advertisements could be appropriate to the market in which the signals are to be viewed. Advertising works best when targeted towards a demographic more likely to have an interest in the product or message being disseminated, meaning that adverts were chosen appropriately for their appeal to the viewing audience. Local affiliates of national broadcasters will often insert adverts more appropriate to their target market.[5] This of course is dependent on what the advertiser in question has paid for.

The problem of broadcasting indiscriminately to the world as a whole is that advertisers will see little use in their adverts being shown in markets in which they do no business. This is compounded by the issue that adverts that work in one market may be completely inappropriate when shown in another. An example of this would be the sponsoring of national sports teams. The United Kingdom subsidiary or affiliate of a Danish brewing company may wish to show adverts supporting the local teams in all regions in which they operate, and it's hardly a good selling point in Denmark to be the beer that supports the England football team. As by way of another example, Coca Cola may feature music and songs in their western adverts, but would be strongly advised to take a different approach when broadcasting in countries in which the majority of the population consider the ending of the movie Footloose to be a rather unhappy one.

The physical location of viewers can generally be determined based on IP addresses, allowing them to feed adverts appropriate to that region. This approach can be hampered by use of proxy servers and other privacy-related measures that mask the true location of the viewer.

Blocking of web-based adverts[edit]

Adverts delivered via the Internet can generally be blocked by some web browsers, often through the installation of extensions, or by the disabling of the technology required for viewing the adverts.[6] Adobe Flash-based adverts in particular are prone to the latter due to some operating systems, such as Apple's iOS, lacking support for Flash, and also because Flash adverts are among the most intrusive and irritating adverts ever conceived by the fevered brains of marketing demons.

Backlash against tracking[edit]

Honey, why does Google think we'd be interested in this kind of thing?

Advertisers can track the effectiveness of their campaigns through the use of HTTP cookies. This allows them to more easily target the visitor with adverts they expect to be of interest to them. Advertisements will default to be targeted at the demographics expected to be visiting the website in question. For example, if RationalWiki used adverts served by Google's Adsense scheme, they would likely be related to the article currently being viewed. For example, articles critical of religion would likely feature adverts both for and against religion. Tracking allows advertisers to serve adverts specific to the viewer in question — not just the site or article they happen to be visiting at that time.

One approach is based simply on tracking the sites that the user in question visits. This only works on sites that have adverts being hosted by the same advertising company:

  1. John visits RationalWiki, and is served adverts for fascinating science-related books and gadgets[note 4]
  2. John, after a night of heavy drinking, discovers the fascinating world of online goat dating agencies.
  3. John, the next day, invites Sally around to read RationalWiki's fascinating article RationalWiki Atheism FAQ for the Newly Deconverted. His friend is surprised to note that the adverts being displayed to John are curiously different to the ones that Sally sees when she visits RationalWiki on her own computer.
  4. John admits to being aroused by goats and is welcomed back in to polite society.[note 5]

Another approach is to record adverts that the users has clicked on:

  1. John clicks on on a few adverts for goat dating agencies.
  2. John's wife wonders why, when she logs on to the computer as John, it is now showing her adverts for ungodly love when she visits the website of her local newspaper.
  3. John possibly wonders why his wife is logging on as him instead of as her.

Both of these approaches can be employed in tandem. Realistically, many sites will impose restrictions on the nature of adverts that can be served to their users, so the goat example is not that likely when visiting mainstream websites. In practice, though, many things that appear relatively inoffensive could cause issues in the right circumstances. Adverts for dating websites or herpes treatments are fairly innocuous, but may raise questions in the context of a married couple.[7]

This tracking can be mitigated by preventing cookies from being stored willy-nilly. Most browsers allow control over the acceptance of cookies, ranging from refusing all cookies, to a more fine-grained approach that either requires manual acceptance of cookies, or only allows cookies to be set by sites being visited. As most advertising cookies are set by the sites serving the adverts, the latter is fairly effective. An approach used in Unix-based systems is to add known advertising sites to a file found at the path /etc/hosts. The technique redirects requests to the sites in question to another IP address — often the loopback address of[note 6] The latter approach is a form of blacklisting, which is only as effective as the blacklist is comprehensive.

Search engines allow advertisers to build profiles; either by encouraging users to create accounts, or just through the use of cookies, advertisers can track the interests of users in order to feed them targeted advertisements.

The beauty of advertising — a product approved by Mr. Draper[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The four railways that merged to form Burlington Northern in 1970, plus the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which merged with BN in 1996, all carried passengers before the formation of Amtrak. Now the BNSF only carries freight — millions of tons of freight on trains that can stretch for over a mile.
  2. Really. How many football fans are in the market for a 747?
  3. Broadcasting companies were limited to 7 AM stations, 7 FM stations, and 7 TV stations nationwide — and only one of each per market — until the late 1980s.
  4. RationalWiki is not funded by adverts. It relies primarily on donations from its users.
  5. Unlikely.
  6. Wikipedia has an articleWikipedia describing how the hosts file is used.


  1. Sagan, Carl (2016). "13: Babylon". Contact. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 225-226. ISBN 9781501172311. Retrieved 2017-10-10. "There are huge advertising budgets only when there's no difference between the products. If the products really were different, people would buy the one that's better. Advertising teaches people not to trust their judgment. Advertising teaches people to be stupid." 
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Free World.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on creativity.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Not-for-Profit.
  5. A guide to local television advertising
  6. Consumer Use Of Ad-Blocking Technology Doubles by Thomas Claburn (December 5, 2006 03:00 PM) InformationWeek (archived copy from 19 Nov 2013 13:05:56 UTC).
  7.'s overview of how advertisers can track their potential customers