‘Tis the season to be bombarded with adverts for useless crap you don’t need or want. But it's not Christmas you say? Correct: it is always the season to be inundated with adverts. Continuing the tradition of ad-bashing on LessWrong, I want to pick up on a particular 'bad of ad': cultural poisoning. 


I find ads infuriating and depressing. But not just any ads, the worst offenders are those which start off with some wholesome scene, tugging at the heartstrings, only to transition to selling shoes or a car. Why? I think it’s because they poison our cultural environment. The notion of ‘cultural poisoning’ is, however, a little unclear, and I want to give it some more shape using the concept of the Semantic Commons. 


Semantic Commons 

Shared concepts can only suffer so much misuse in a community before their meaning changes. Consider the sad fates of ‘literally’, ‘actually’, ‘in reality’, 'liar’, and ‘girthy.’ These terms have either lost their force; had their meanings altered to something different; or had unpleasant connotations grafted on. Now they are useless for the wider community.[1]

It seems the frequency; visibility; and vividness of the misuse all contribute to this process. And many times it is deliberate. Take, for example, the strategic expansion of situations considered ‘rape’ for political purposes. Scott Alexander conceptualises this as the semantic commons: the more users ‘take’ from the commons and use a concept to make a point, the more they risk denaturing and diluting its meaning. 


Thermodynamics of Cool

Adverts are possibly the heaviest users of the semantic commons. Many (though not all) adverts rely on linking existing terms, concepts, and shared experiences in a community to the products they sell.[2]They thereby abuse what my father calls the ‘Thermodynamic Laws of Cool.’ Take an advert which shows Ceilidh dancers drinking Coca Cola. Ceilidhs are cool because they are fun, social, sincere cultural events. Coke less obviously so – it’s a sugary drink produced by a multinational conglomerate. Advertising Gurus know Coke seems cooler if it is associated with the spontaneous dancing of the Ceilidh so they make adverts showing Ceilidh dancers drinking Coke. 


But the Thermodynamic Laws of Cool suggest the total amount of coolness in a system is constant: for every bit Coke seems cooler, Ceilidhs seem less so. If there are enough vivid adverts linking the two eventually we reach a bland average point where Coke is kind of cool but commercial and Ceilidhs are kind of commercial but cool. And coolness is just one phenomena adverts leech off. Take socialising with friends and family; small acts of kindness; revolution; invention; exploration; gift giving; emotional healing, reconciliation. Similarly political and social movements (Rainbow capitalism) and traditional culture (Christmas Sales). If people like it, advertisers will use it. We inherently sense this abuse of the Commons. Hence why adverts which link the most important parts of life to mundane products are especially frustrating: we sense something is being stolen or abused. 


When we say that our culture is ‘poisoned’, I think it is a vague gesture to this kind of theft. The poison is the dilution of otherwise pure or strong feelings, emotions, and memories with unwanted connotations. And because we share the use of concepts with one another, we are often helpless to stop it happening. 


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Adverts are bad: they act parasitically on existing concepts and dilute the strength of their meaning. For now, these negative effects are unavoidable. This is because:

  1. Governments have decided adverts are passive providers of information and thus their display is allowed virtually everywhere[3]
  2. Shared communal concepts can have their meaning changed without every individual user taking part; adverts destroying such a meaning can therefore affect you regardless of whether you believe or even know about them

The most we can do is form sub-communities which reject the pervasive effect of adverts. Ultimately, as a collective problem, the solution is a political one[4]


  1. ^

    Likewise, this can occur for sets of concepts connected to communal practice. Eventually if there is sufficient misuse the discourse dies and the concepts end up referencing nothing. Their use becomes a shell game in social power plays. We could call this the ‘Heat Death of the Cultural Universe.’  

  2. ^

    This is the 'emotional inception' model of how adverts work. This article has a different approach, suggesting adverts work by convincing the target that other consumer will probably believe the advert's message, even if the target doesn't. Thus, as a matter of social signalling, buying the product is desirable. This does not seem to explain how targeted adverts can be effective even if the watcher knows it is curated. In any event, the two are not necessarily in tension - both may operate simultaneously. Roughly, the 'inception' model suggests adverts communicate at the second simulacra level; the article suggests adverts try to get consumers to communicate at that level. 

  3. ^

    Further, some people like watching adverts. Consider the viral superbowl ads, the invented tradition of the John lewis advert, and the bizarre phenomenon of Teleshopping. https://repository.uwl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1241/

  4. ^

    For a similar argument in the context of data protection, see https://academic.oup.com/jla/article/doi/10.1093/jla/laz005/5578488


New Comment
14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:44 PM

But the Thermodynamic Laws of Cool suggest the total amount of coolness in a system is constant: for every bit Coke seems cooler, Ceilidhs seem less so.

This seems to be an interesting claim but I don't see you making any arguments about why the reader should believe it.

If the claim would be true it seems like one inference would be that beauty standards about having to be thin would be weakened when thin models get used to promote nondesirable products.

We however frequently hear about beauty standards being enforced when models that follow the standards get used to promote products.

Interesting point. One counterpoint is that most criticisms of 'beauty standards being enforced' reference beauty products or other products sold with the implicit promise they will make you beautiful. Eg, leeching off our shared notion of beauty by linking it with a dieting product. 

But something more complicated definitely seems to be going on here. We have a constructed notion of beauty ('model-thinness') being used to sell random products, such as Ibuprofen. It is almost as if one advertiser is leeching off the other's constructed notion of beauty (Hyperreality?) 

The criticism of 'enforcing beauty standards' in an ibuprofun case may flow from this double falsehood: the advertising target might see thin models in a swimwear advert and thinks 'so the advert is trying to tell me that I should buy this bikini because beautiful people wear it, and that thin model is supposedly beautiful. I don't think she is, but others might, and the fact they use the association suggest a lot of people do, so I should play along' 

That would follow from the other model of advert operation mentioned in one of the footnotes: promising others might buy into the advert, even if you don't. 

This is a little provisional - do you think this is what's going on, or could there be more going on I've missed?

I'm really looking forward to the day I can wear glasses that automatically replace all visual advertising with beautiful scenery (and advanced adblock for sponsorships). I don't live in a city and when I visit one it's amazing what an attention drain is caused by adverts, and how they subtly shift things around in your mental models if you're watching closely.

Interesting, what have you noticed being shifted in your mental models while visiting cities?

Mostly noticing patterns trying to bring my attention to them.

I agree with some of the premises - adverts are often harmful, and can degrade the common intelligibility of groups.  I think you go too quickly to conclusions like 

Governments have decided adverts are passive providers of information and thus their display is allowed virtually everywhere

My counter-model is that governments have decided that communication among citizens is something that should not be judged or interfered with except in dire cases.  It's not positive decision to allow it, it's just not a decision to prevent it.

The most we can do is form sub-communities which reject the pervasive effect of adverts. Ultimately, as a collective problem, the solution is a political one.

I fully disagree with that.  even if "form sub-communities" were a viable action that anyone knows how to intentionally do, it's at best part of the solution.  We can also individually reduce consumption of ad-laden content streams, and get better at noticing and counteracting the interference of ads on our beliefs and communication.

Thanks for the comments - you're right on the first point, I didn't want to go into too much detail on the regulation of adverts because it raises many political and philosophical issues. 

The freedom of advertising is almost certainly a facet of the liberal state. Certain counter-examples stick out, such as limits on tobacco advertising, fast food advertising, and advertising aimed at children. The former two seem premised, at least in the UK, on a notion the wider public is burdened by the consumption of these products, and possibly on the basis we can all agree on health as an unqualified good. The latter is an instance of the advert target being regarded as too susceptible to manipulation. Whether these are plausible or sustainable exceptions is a wider question. 

On the second point, my point was a little opaque. Even if we individually reduce consumption of adverts, and notice how they affect our beliefs, that doesn't change the fact we must interact with others who consume adverts unquestioningly. Further, these interactions will involve the use of shared concepts, which can be altered and undermined regardless of the vigilance of specific individuals. So, in terms of action we could attempt to inform others of the harms of advertising and convince them to be more critical; likewise, we could associate with others who share our view on advertising and work together in this educational project. Within these groups, we would also be able to communicate and spend time together without as much influence from the effects of adverts. 

The emphasis should probably have been on the second part of the sentence - that this is a collective issue so will require some form of collective action if we wish to change the broader cultural landscape. 

we must interact with others

This is a general argument, and there's nothing specific to advertising about the questions of how to deal with not-me, who have different pathologies and irrationalities than I do.  Advertising is the least of our worries in the modern world of deeply interdependent individuals and groups.

Not wanting to go into detail is no good reason to make claims that are false.

I agree but I am not convinced ThomasMore attempted to use not wanting to go into detail as an excuse for making false claims: my reading is that ThomasMore believes the claim he made, but agrees with Dagon that to convince others he would need to say more than he did.

(I am not claiming that TM's claim is in fact true, which it may or may not be; only that TM believes it, which means that he can fully agree with you that "not wanting to go into detail is no good reason to make claims that are false" while still making that claim.)

the solution is a political one

What would you like to see?

I'd love to see a quantification of the negative externalities of advertising that incorporates a high value of attention, and then tax unavoidable public advertising to cover that externality. I'm by far the most concerned with things like billboards and park bench ads, which are designed to eye-catching and literally can't be avoided without giving up wide swathes of life. Things like TV ads are much more opt-in, so while we maybe should tax those more heavily, it feels much less urgent to me. 

The downside of this is that it's essentially taxing speech, which is such an incredibly slippery slope that I think I might be against the whole thing.   I feel like we ought to be able to tax eyecatching public displays in particular, but maybe that ends up being a tax on beauty which also seems bad.

Ideally, an open public debate on (A) the extent to which we allow money to determine the strength of voices in a community, and that advertising is one of these voices with as much cultural and political baggage as, say, a local political party; (B) adverts are becoming increasingly effective using micro-targeting, and will only become more so; and thus (C) we need to consider more limits on where and when adverts can be shown. 

Pragmatically, more restrictions on online adverts and adverts in public spaces would be a start, in terms of size, spending, and possibly developing categories of adverts depending on their source (multinational versus local business). Perhaps certain areas could be zoned to allow greater advertising, such as shopping districts, where the individuals in them likely want to see adverts. Overall, a greater ability to 'opt-in' to advertising should a person want to. 

The counterargument that this would decrease consumption on the basis people would not know what there is to buy is probably true and a real tradeoff. Without advertising we lose the opportunity to stimulate consumer desires beyond what they would be otherwise, slowing down the market. 

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