Are you sick of ads?
I sure am. It seems there’s a damned ad assaulting my eyes or blaring in my ears almost everywhere I go and whatever I do. They’re inserted into every email inbox, social media feed, and every video, news program, and other content I stream from the internet. They line the freeways. They take over more and more page space in my favorite magazines and papers.
They even interrupt most of my favorite podcasts now (in which, as my sister Therese points out, the host often hawks the product with the same enthusiasm and in the same style as they deliver the content, which is both distracting and disconcerting: do they really love that brand of mattress as much as they do the fascinating new discoveries about Pluto or Enlightenment history?). It seems there are few places to escape from ads anymore: asleep in bed, between the pages of books, in regional, state, and national parks (my favorites!). Thank goodness for the protective hand of government in public lands: I’m quite sure that if the pursuit of profit was allowed to decide the matter, ads would be staked along every few feet of trail and sprayed on every other rock, tree, and cliff.
I feel similarly about the increasing tendency to logo-ize everything, and not only everything, but everyone. A logo is the marketing art’s equivalent to a soundbite: while it’s sometimes effective in conveying a larger idea, it’s more often reductionist, valued more for its memorableness and its marketability than the substance of what it’s meant to convey. A logo is often a red herring: with its eye-catching design and vague yet approachable message, it’s meant to identify what it purports to represent with your longings and hopes, while in the end delivering little. The weaknesses of the logo are even more apparent when used to represent people and ideas, especially when we compare the poverty of the information conveyed with the complexity of its subject. I understand that the logo can be useful: when it represents a brand, organization, or company in an easily identifiable way, it helps us to identify what we’re looking for in a crowd of like things, such as a brand name item on a store shelf, a company logo on a mailer, or a shop’s logo on a shopping center sign. Such uses are not what concern me. It’s the hectic, noisy, distracting, thought-destructive encroachment of ads and logos into nearly every arena of our lives.
It’s not too hard to see what’s driving these trends. Social media, as least as visually as it is textually driven, favors communication that’s both snappy and eye-catching. Fewer and fewer kinds of interesting and life-enriching projects are sufficiently funded by government, institutions, and public benefactors, so they turn to ad support for funding. And I don’t blame them: advertisers generally don’t interfere or try to insert much control over content or the way a project is carried out much as other sponsors do. So long as the ads help generate revenue and brand awareness, the rest doesn’t matter as much, since these are the pretty much only measures of accountability. If independence in carrying out one’s vision is key, ad-support can be the best option.
People are also vying for personal attention and for jobs in a world that’s increasingly image-driven and market-centric. A catchy ad or attractive logo can easily fix one’s name and face in another’s memory in a way that a good resume, essay, or mission statement not always can, since the latter take much more time and effort to take in and digest.
The latter goes to the heart of what some social critics, philosophers such as Michael Sandel, and many of the rest of us worry about: we’re moving from a market economy to a market society (as Sandel puts it), perhaps already irreparably. While goods and services are in the province of a market economy, the commodification of everyone and everything pervades a market society. Sometimes it feels as if something doesn’t sell, it might as well not exist.
So is my attitude toward our ad- and logo-drenched culture just an example of retrogrouchiness, or is it really something to worry about?
After all, ads and logos are effective in many ways, and people like them. Just as a cleverly worded and perfectly timed joke can convey a wealth of information about social problems and the absurdities of the human condition, so an ad or a logo can convey a lot if similarly well-conceived, well-designed, and well-presented. They can be funny, attractive, clever, even lovely. I grant all of this. And ad or a logo that’s meant to start a train of thought, or to get you interested in something so that you are more likely to get involved, can be a little hard to criticize when it’s effective.
The benefits can be observed in some instances, but I’m not convinced this is the case in most. For one things, the very prevalence of ads and logos can make them all equally unnoticeable, like the drone of one bee in a loudly buzzing hive. In my case, I feel positive antipathy for companies whose ads pervade my favorite podcasts, since I’m sick of hearing them, even as I know the ads make these podcasts financially sustainable. For another, it puts us ever more in the habit of only paying attention to things that take very little attention, that require very little effort to take in and consider. In this way, ads and logos are driven to be ever shorter and ever catchier, conveying less and less information as they try ever harder to be the ones you don’t fast-forward, flip through, or scroll past. Sometimes they are reduced to little more to me than an annoying blue of noise or color as they distract me from what I find really satisfying, but reward me with little or nothing in the way of enriching my life. I’m finding that the ad-funded, logo-splashed world is just not very satisfying at all, and I want something better.
I want more logos, and less logos, in my life.
I want to re-learn the habit of regularly getting lost, with little distraction and for long periods, in things that take time, care, and close attention, like reading books, painstakingly researching subjects I’m interested in, and thoroughly engaging in making a piece of art and learning a new skill. Like so many of you out there, I find that the modern world of communication, while astoundingly useful and wonderful in so many ways, has some drawbacks. I am by no means alone when I bemoan my current tendency to get easily distracted among the flood of information, in which the ad and the logo thrive. I used to regularly sit for hours on end and read a book or make a piece of art with by undivided attention. Now, I find myself often jumping back and forth from one thing to another, pulled away from what I’m doing by the enthusiastic voice of someone hawking something or other over catchy music, or an image that entices me to click on it ‘just one more time’ as I had done with the last several.
Logos, Greek for word, reason, or meaning, connotes richness, complexity, something to revel in and explore that will keep rewarding you the more you engage.
Not so with ads: while the products they hawk can provide satisfaction and even great benefits in your life, I remain skeptical of their claims. I’ve worked years in retail, as a small business owner, and in salvage and recycling. These experiences have not convinced me in the least of a market society’s ability to increase general happiness and sustainably improve overall wellbeing. While shopping can be lots of fun and stuff can be delightful, even essential for a happy life, the obsessive acquisition of stuff as an end in itself doesn’t generally seem to make people happy, at least not for long; in fact, I’ve seen it significantly impair many lives. Immersion in a world of ads, I believe, is just not very good for mental health overall. It can give us the sense that the world is less meaningful when we’re not buying or thinking of buying, and it can make us long for more and more things that we just don’t need, and place us in a constant state of feeling overwhelmed and discontent. And when we consume all that stuff that doesn’t make us all that happy anyway, oh, the waste we produce, almost unimaginable volumes of garbage!
And not so with logos: while they can be cute, clever, and act as handy memory aids and identification tools, they can really fail in their objectives, because, as I objected earlier, they often try to convey too much with too little. The logo for the American Humanist Association, for example (as with many other humanist and freethought organization, sadly!) is a cold blue vaguely human figure with a circle for a head and no face, a bland and generic-looking symbol for a movement rich in history of righteous indignation, vigorous philosophy, and passionate activism for human rights. The logo for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was plastered everywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, and I thought then what I think now: what was that all about? What did that logo really mean? It was supposed to convey the idea of a fresh start with its stylized image of a rising sun, but that’s what every candidate runs on. It conveyed nothing of substance about the man and his ideas, his political convictions and how he intended to enact them, yet the logo proved as effective a rallying tool as it was slick and meaningless. I’ve even seen many people in the last few years logo-ize themselves in weddings, with symbols meant to cleverly and in a fun way show what they’re all about, but which to me seemed annoyingly reductionist, self-consciously image-crafting, and banal compared to the wonderful ways their loved ones tell of the real richness of their lives, in toasts, storytelling, singing of favorite songs, and so on. Yes, sometimes these wedding logos can be cute and clever, but they leave me somewhat depressed: even such a meaningful and deeply personal event as a wedding isn’t immune from our new habit of reducing things to relatively trite symbols.
Like many others like you who love ideas and who want their lives to be filled with better things, I want to find a way to lessen the presence and impact of ads, logos, and other generally noisy, ear- and eye-catching, but ultimately empty distractions. I want more words, more conversation, more books, more beautiful, impactful, and meaningful art, more ways to explore the fascinating world we’re lucky to find ourselves in.