The Advertising Age

The Primacy of Control

Opinion / 04 September 2013 / by Josh Hudnall
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Modern advertising has been a part of our collective consciousness for as long as you or I have been alive. Television shows an average of almost 13 minutes of commercials per hour of content. Another 8 minutes in that hour is dedicated to “in-show brand appearances,” or product placement. Billboards are so ubiquitous that we hardly even notice them anymore. Radio, bus stops, writing in the sky, flyers, posters, the latest social media campaign and more are all clamoring for our attention in the hopes that a small piece of a (hopefully) large crowd will take notice.

Ads are everywhere, but why do we hate them so much: they’re annoying, sure. And they interrupt us. Many ads deceive us, sometimes outright lying to us. All of them manipulate us.

And the best ads, they convince us—often to do or buy something we never would have otherwise – similar to when I recently started buying real views on youtube, only because I saw a good ad. It is this reason, I think, that is the crux of the issue. A good ad will have an effect on our decisions and on our lives. Advertising gets a place at the table otherwise reserved only for our closest, most trusted friends and family.

Billions of dollars are spent each year on market research to understand us a little better, to keep pace with our evolving biases. This research, of course, determines how a product is marketed to us based on our age, gender, race, religion and a thousand other demographics. Almost every click you make, nearly every website you visit is being recorded, analyzed and quantified to place more effective ads in front of you. Advertising works. And that’s why we hate it so much.


Very few days go by where I don’t read about a new technology that will undoubtedly play some role in the future of advertising. Often these advancements are entirely unrelated to marketing, if not for the inventive minds of entrepreneurs and admen alike. New inventions designed to increase our quality of life will invariably be co-opted to sell us more things that are, of course, designed to increase our quality of life.

Today I learned about a new product that may guarantee a person’s identity using their own, unique electrocardiogram (ECG). A device like this, worn on the wrist, could eliminate the need for passwords, PIN codes, keys and more. But it can also be used to identify you and then show you, wherever you go, ads based not on your membership in any given demographic, but based on exactly who you are and what you do—possibly even how you feel. Think Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

While this is actually more convenient for us—we needn’t entertain any ads that aren’t specifically relevant to us—we have an almost visceral reaction to any level of personalization in the advertising space.

Privacy concerns are always cited when the conversation turns to personalization. But I think the issue is deeper. I believe the issue is control. We like to be in control. Humans need to be in control of ourselves—if not in control of others. It’s primal to our existence. We don’t fear what we can’t understand, we fear what we can’t control. And we would never consciously cede control of ourselves to someone else—especially someone or something we don’t know and trust.

Yet, advertising requires we do just that. To be successful, advertising must convince us that we don’t know everything and we need help. Its greatest trick is convincing us that we make the decision to buy Pepsi® instead of Coke®, or that we would rather gamble in Las Vegas rather than sunbathe in San Diego.

Of course, we make our own decisions, but most of us will never fully realize the extent to which we have been manipulated into doing exactly what we are meant to do. I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend just how much money I’ve spent under the careful guidance of the adman’s ad land.

Control—or our lack thereof—is why any advancement in the advertising space feels so sinister to us. It’s not just that they know so much about us (though it is that), and it’s not just that ads are annoying and/or deceptive (thought it is that as well), The reason we hate advertising so much is that advertisers know so much more about us than we know about ourselves, and they use that knowledge against us.

And we are complicit.