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A Life Less Ads

Angry man yells at late stage capitalism

Spring 2023

The bad consumer

My TV is eleven years old. The model itself is older, but I bought mine eleven years ago. It's not smart, and that's how I like it. An even older Playstation 3 is connected to it (but not to the net), still good for watching blu-ray and DVD movies. I own two laptops, the oldest of which is ten years. After doubling its RAM to 8 gigabytes and replacing the hard drive with an SSD, it still does everything I need an everyday PC to do. Apart from my Amiga computers and associated peripherals, I don't own many gadgets: My vacuum cleaner is of the old, manual variety. My lightbulbs are stupid. I don't have Sonos speakers (or even a traditional stereo system). The company I work for provides me with a smartphone upgrade every two years, but I most likely wouldn't own one if this wasn't the case.

I've spent considerable amounts of time and money on my six Amiga computers, the screens I connect them to and the hardware upgrades needed to keep them functioning. I am, however, not a collector. I have no plastic figurines, no shrink wrapped computer game boxes, no display cabinets. I spend money on my Amigas because I want them to last for as long as possible. They are all tools to be used, and used they are.

I just don't buy a lot of stuff. I'm not interested in lifestyle products and tastemaker brands. When I do buy something, it's usually something I need - as in, not frivolous luxury spending (though I'm certainly not immune to this behavior). I typically won't replace something unless it's broken beyond repair.

I'm not saying this to score points for frugality, a minimalist aesthetic or because I believe my particular consumer habits will in some way save the world. It's just that by and large, I despise the experience of buying things.

The market won't provide

I fear the day my TV gives up, because you can't seem to buy one without the smart anymore. I've previously written about how "voting with your wallet" is, in most cases, impossible. It may be applicable to kitchen knives, scissors, hammers and other items that have looked the same for at least the last century or so, but not for electrical gadgets and certainly not for digital ones. And that's not even mentioning all the gadgets that have suddenly turned digital in some way, in order to simplify planned obsolescence and/or data harvesting.

There are so many touchscreens in my life now that I'm starting to get dull aches in my fingertips. Gone is the satisfying tactile response of mechanical buttons and knobs. My induction stovetop requires incessant thumb mashing just to raise the temperature a few notches. If a small amount of water falls on it, it starts beeping. This is in absolutely no way an improvement over my old mechanical one with ceramic hotplates.

Newer is worse

In fact, for every improvement in speed, energy consumption, image resolution or audio fidelity, there seems to be a tradeoff in increased frustration: input lag, incessant bickering about connecting to WiFi, and ever more contrived software mechanisms designed to make me watch ads. I'm old enough to remember both software without built-in marketing schemes and TV:s that turned on instantly and switched channels in the blink of an eye. Streaming services may give better image quality than an old VHS player, but the VHS had zero boot time and never required you to enter a password using a flimsy remote.

Recently, my five year old kitchen lights broke. Not the light fixtures themselves, mind you, or even the LED:s inside them. What broke was the little wireless remote control which was the only way of switching them on and off. I couldn't buy a new one: the manufacturer had of course stopped making them in order to force a replacement of the entire system, fixtures and all. Buying new "wireless" fixtures was also what every electrician I spoke to recommended, and why not? More business for them, too. I eventually replaced the lights myself, with carefully sourced fixtures, each sporting the unlikely feature of an old-fashioned rocker switch.

In other news, my razor handle of 20 years recently needed replacement. The new one - of the same brand - now has a groove close to the blade holder, no doubt saving the manufacturer money on material but also weakening a spot sensitive to mechanical stress, making it less durable.

Nobody wants that

Some of these forced changes in consumption patterns are often explained away by manufacturers and retailers alike with the phrase "Nobody wants that anymore." Laptops with 4:3 or 5:4 screens, for example. Or slightly bulkier laptops but with decent thermal design. Or a laptop with a DVD player that will let me watch one of the many movies I own that's not available on a streaming service. Or, indeed, ceramic stovetops with mechanical knobs. Nobody wants any of that anymore.

This isn't just applicable to electronic gadgets. In Sweden, it's nowadays impossible to buy a decent bar of soap or ethanol-based after shave in supermarkets and pharmacies. Apparently, nobody wants that anymore. Least of all the manufacturers, who are of course happy to sell liquid soap and after shave "lotions" that require refills much more often than the products they've replaced. Nobody wants it, because nobody buys it, because one day, all of a sudden, it just wasn't for sale anymore.

Curiously, there's still a booming market for these products, because several specialty online stores do sell them. The difference is that instead of just grabbing these items when also getting a carton of milk, I now have to keep track of my consumption rate, plan and place online orders on sites of dubious usability, and deal with the erratic behavior of delivery companies. Small inconveniences, sure, but ones that add up to quite a long list of similar small inconveniences.

In short, part of why I dislike buying new stuff is because every time I do, either the product itself or the process of acquiring it seems to have gotten slightly worse than last time.

Ad attack

Another part of why I dislike buying things is all the advertising trying to make me buy a thing of a particular brand. This advertising is everywhere: In mailboxes and inboxes. In software, including operating systems. On the net. On television and radio. At the cinema. Plastered across billboards. As someone calling during dinner. As someone on the street, with a clipboard, hassling hurried commuters. During the commute, on a small TV set mounted in every train car, fighting for attention. As flyers appearing on bicycle luggage carriers, inconveniencing unsuspecting cyclists to deal with the resulting waste. As loudspeakers outside stores, blaring loud music at innocent passers-by in what's supposedly a public space. And sometimes - though, thankfully, rarely - as someone ringing the doorbell, intending to perform the marketing equivalent of a home invasion.

From overly enthusiastic store clerks to contrived online tracking, marketing blatantly disrespects my privacy and pollutes my brain. It's not just that it tries to make me buy things I don't need, it's that it makes my quality of life noticeably worse in the process. I like peace and quiet. I like thinking, eating, relaxing, reading, socializing - existing - without constant interruption. Advertising breaks my train of thought, it dilutes my attention span, it's noisy, it's ugly, it creates trash that I'm forced to dispose of, and most importantly, it's almost always lying to me. As explained above: No, I probably won't think the new product is an improvement. And yes, buying it will likely be both annoying and inconvenient.

I'm willing to go as far as to say that the accumulated societal cost of advertising and its externalities vastly exceed whatever profits from increased sales it supposedly creates. It lowers productivity. It takes time out of work and leisure. It increases resource expenditure, from individual utility bills to massive server farms to truckloads of dead trees. It doesn't just gobble up material resources: producing it preoccupies talent that could have been better utilized elsewhere, from artists, engineers and transportation workers to programmers and skilled craftsmen.

Attacking back

Despite my distaste for advertising, I have no delusions about being impervious to its efficacy. Considering this and all of the grievances listed above, avoiding advertising is imperative to my general sense of happiness. There seems to be little political interest in banning or limiting advertising, so I'm forced to take matters into my own hands. It's impossible to avoid all types of marketing, but even drastically reducing my exposure to specific types has measurably improved my quality of life. It does take a little bit of effort, but I've found that to be vastly preferable over letting the ads reach me.

Print ads

A "No advertising, please" sign on my letterbox is thankfully mostly respected. If something slips through, it goes straight in the dustbin.

Telemarketing

Listing my phone number in the Swedish NIX registry works surprisingly well. I'm now at very low levels of telemarketing calls. The remaining ones are easily identified and swiftly ended, followed by blocking the offending number in my phone. Interrupting their pitch with a simple "Not interested" will suffice before immediately hanging up. I'm not the rude one here; they are.

Street marketing/sales

Few things in marketing are as annoying to me as being ambushed on the street. The best solution is of course to just keep walking. Sometimes a brusque "No thanks" is needed to interrupt their pitch, but not replying at all is also a good option. Once again, I'm not the rude one here - they are.

Television

I haven't watched broadcast TV for more than ten years.

Online

Avoiding online advertising is a constant arms race, but there are thankfully still good options. I often use Links2 for examining sites I'm dubious about, and otherwise stick to uBlock origin in Firefox. I use yt-dlp for watching Youtube and services like Nitter if I need to read a tweet.

Moral rationale

It's true that a lot of the content I consume online is financed by advertising - money which I'm depriving the authors of through my avoidance tactics. The simple truth here is that I just don't care. I don't care if a company or individual loses out on ad revenue. I don't care if someone thinks it makes me a freeloader or otherwise morally questionable.

Why, or perhaps how, don't I care? Easy: almost all of this content consists of temporary distractions. My life would maybe be a bit less interesting without them, but I would be OK with that. In fact, I think most of us would be better off without the constant stream of distractions offered to us in the gluttonous abundance it is today.

Don't get me wrong. These distractions aren't inherently bad. We need a bit of entertainment from time to time. I am however convinced there will always be plenty of distractions to go around, advertising or not. The ones I produce myself, for example, are, will always be and have always been completely free from ads. I'm of the firm conviction that the net was actually both funnier and more interesting before it turned into the incessant stream of sponsored content it consists of today.

Efficiency

I haven't heard a tele- or street marketing pitch in years. The amount of print ads I'm exposed to are kept at a practical minimum. I'm so disconnected from the current goings on in advertising that I've mostly forgotten how bad it actually is.

On the rare occasions I do catch a glimpse of a TV commercial or unfiltered website, it's by mistake. Usually it's when someone not running an adblocker wants to show me something on their computer, or when I visit someone who watches broadcast TV. Every time it happens, I'm surprised by how many ads there are and how brazen, condescending, repetitive and just plain disgusting they come off.

These few exposures merely serve as sobering reminders that my decision is correct and well worth my efforts. I wish you the best of luck in your own!