Imagine a world without advertising.
Not the world before advertising. Our world, the way it is now, just without advertising.
I don’t know how it happened. Maybe the government banned it. Maybe businesses agreed a truce. Or maybe it turned out to be one of those things that’s essential one year, forgotten the next, like space exploration or men wearing hats.
In this world, products have packaging, and premises have signs. But that’s it. No TV or press ads, no outdoor ads, no online ads, no direct mail, no advertising above the line or below it.
People buy products based on genuine need, recommendation or impulse. They buy things they see in shops. If it’s not in the shop they go to, they don’t see it, so they don’t buy it. They buy services from providers close by, usually those recommended by friends or family.
Unless someone they know persuades them to, they probably won’t switch brands. They tend to buy on price, unless they have a good reason not to. If their friends don’t buy something, they probably won’t buy it either.
People consume less, desire less, envy less. They have less debt. They’re not troubled by sudden cravings for things they’d never heard of yesterday. In terms of material possessions, their circle of concern extends only slightly beyond their circle of influence.
At the same time, people miss out. Products and services are available and affordable that could ease their pain, enhance their lives, delight their children. But they die without ever knowing they exist.
Meanwhile, businesses have lots of spare cash. Maybe they invest it in better products, instead of trying to outdo each other’s marketing. Maybe they use it to help the community – or just enrich their shareholders.
It’s difficult to sell things that are bad for people, or don’t really help them. Without marketing to paper over the cracks, bad products quickly disappear, as do the companies that make them. There are fewer competing products, far fewer launches. Market shares are more equal; it’s hard to really dominate a sector.
There’s no more commercial TV or radio. Programming has to be paid for out of licence fees, network providers’ charges or pay-to-view. Maybe there are a lot more crowdfunded projects. Or maybe content made for love, like podcasts and fan fiction, takes centre stage.
Online, there are no banner ads, no AdWords, no sponsored links. Buzzfeed doesn’t exist. Twitter and Facebook either stayed small or closed down, crippled by server costs, because investors saw no reason to invest.
Subscription news sites are the norm rather than the exception. In fact, a great many sites that might otherwise have funded themselves with ads now charge their users. Being online is an expensive business: nobody wants to subsidise your experience in return for your data, so you have to pay for it yourself.
There are fewer channels, fewer websites, less stuff overall. All content has to earn its keep directly from its audience. Not from those who want to sell them something.
There are no more bad ads. No more B2B ‘solution providers’. No more ‘new year, new you’ gym flyers. No more ‘simply the best’ window cleaners. No more kooky creatures frugging to pop rock from the eighties. No more SUVs swinging round rugged mountain bends. No more harried mums serving up delicious roasts.
However, there are no more good ads either. No Guinness surfers, no Smash martians, no John Lewis snowman. No J.R. Hartley, no Barry Scott, no Gio Compario. No ‘Lemon’, no ‘Epic Split’, no ‘1984’. No read-it-twice long copy on the tube. No Old Spice viral explosions. Not even any comfy, predictable display ads for decorated plates on the back of weekend magazines.
Brands aren’t cultural icons, entertainment channels or objects of devotion. They’re just a way to tell one product from another. Almost devoid of aura, they’re just neutral symbols, like road signs.
There are no more agencies. No copywriters, art directors, creative directors, planners or account handlers. No social gurus or content ninjas. No mood boards, brand positioning statements or tone of voice guidelines. Those who want to be ‘creative’ must now become proper artists or writers; no-one will pay them to sit around having ideas.
I don’t have a job, and maybe you don’t either. Maybe we’re working somewhere else, if we’re lucky. But apart from that, is this world better than ours, or worse?