Originally published in Idler 52.
I sometimes wonder about the person who decided to start flogging fizzy drinks and West End musicals through wall-mounted plasma screens instead of old-fashioned posters. The first time I saw the screens running along the escalators of the London Underground I thought “cool, just like in Bladerunner,” forgetting momentarily that the world of Bladerunner is a dystopia: a compromised and dytopic future to be prevented, not emulated.
At best, advertising is a nuisance visual pollution, stinking up our sightlines and distracting us from what we were doing or thinking about before it lumbered into view. At worst, it’s a nefarious attempt to modify our thoughts to in favour of someone else’s wallet. If an advert’s spell actually works, we part with money, committing ourselves to more wage slavery. When it doesn’t, it’s still contaminated our mental space with inane brand names, bad grammar, barked commandments, airbrushed humanoids, aesthetically tonedeaf CGI mascotry, and arse-handed attempts at humour.
The jury’s still out on whether advertising even works, many big companies having advertising budgets simply to avoid tax. Economics writer Joseph Heath says we could reduce advertising and divert huge channels of wealth to the public purse by campaigning to prevent advertising costs from being tax deductible. But until that happens, there are ways to largely if not entirely escape advertising.
Install AdBlockPlus on your Web browser. It’s a free application that banishes unsolicited guff from your Internet experience. Gone is the marginal clickbait of Google, social media and YouTube. Gone are the ugly banners and sudden, noisy pop-ups. If you’re concerned that favourite sites will die without advertising revenue, change the settings to allow ads on certain websites or keep them blocked but upgrade to the ad-free service at said websites to support them directly.
Don’t read newspapers or trashy magazines. The Idler is hardly trashy and its advertising is generally compatible with the idle life. Aspirational mags like Sunday supplements, however, are best avoided along with gossipy tabloids, women’s weeklies, men’s monthlies and printed newspapers crammed with barely-literate attempts on your wallet. Read your ad-free online news sources instead or, simply, stop reading the news since it makes you anxious anyway. There are also splendid magazines with no advertising whatever, such as Slightly Foxed, Adbusters, and (yes) New Escapologist. Viz has adverts, but it’s hard to get cross about slogans like “Special Brew: it’s central heating for tramps.”
Never listen to commercial radio. From anywhere in the world, you can listen to BBC radio, which is completely free free from advertising and is of an exceptionally high quality. It’s a wonder anyone ever listens to anything else. Classic FM is a special enigma: relaxing classical music incessantly interrupted by inane adverts for double glazing, completely negating the reason you tuned in—as if there were no alternative.
Read library books on public transport. It’ll stop you from glancing up at the witless posters above people’s heads, improve your grasp of the world’s literature, and, in being seen reading, helps spread the word that books and libraries still exist. If companies can advertise fizzy pop, idlers can advertise the thrifty good life.
Opt out of third-party emails. When a company you can’t help but do business with—the electricity company perhaps, or a purveyor of fine teas or cigars—asks if they can give your details to parties whose products may interest you, your answer must be firmly in the negative. Unsubscribe from any naughty email circulars that sneak through your highly-guarded perimeter.
Stop watching television. There’s generally ten minutes of advertising to thirty minutes of entertainment on TV. In my telly-watching days, a commercial break could sometimes seem so long, I’d forget what I’d been watching in the first place.
Arrive at the cinema on time, not early. Trailers before the film might be fun and informative, but arrive too early and we have to hear about cars and pizza restaurants. On the subject of film, we must learn to recognise movies that are essentially adverts. You can recognise this sort of film if it’s promoted on the side of a bus, is a reboot, prioritises title recognition over new ideas, features Benedict Cumberbatch or involves increasingly-obscure superheroes punching holes through buildings.
Don’t respond to advertising. To strike a blow against advertising you see accidentally, try not to dwell on it and never discuss it. Don’t ask people if they’ve seen the funny advert with the chimpanzee: you’ll extend its reach and influence without commission and sound like a witless, lowbrow twerp. Instead, treat it like the unfortunate glimpse of a dog’s bulbous testicles or a cat’s pinkish asterisk and discretely erase it from your mind.
Be an outsider. When walking in the urban environment, treat any advertising encountered as an anthropological oddity: as a flaneur you’re in the city but not of it, and so the only way to relate to advertising is as an artifact.
Adopt a leisurely pace of life. We can escape advertising by staying true to the idle life. Very little advertising is digested when absorbed in a game of chess, when playing lawn bowls, meditating, experimenting with LSD, being creative, reading books, studying nature or strolling alongside a river.
The fact that sci-fi films like Bladerunner so often depict futures diluted with invasive advertising should be a warning. We don’t want a world in which we’re endlessly cajoled into buying unnecessary things. Let’s stop that from happening, fortify ourselves to advertising’s siren song, embrace the time-honoured idle pleasures, and be free.