Bombarded by advertisements

Are we really exposed to 5,000 advertisements a day? And does it even matter?

We are bombarded by advertising each day. This is obviously true, and it is not even a new problem. As far back as 1759, Samuel Johnson said, “Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetick.” And that was before Facebook!

If you try to look up data on exactly how many advertisements people receive each day, you will find wildly different statistics. I’ve seen numbers that range from 500 to 10,000, with 5,000 being the most often quoted. While this is great for sensationalist stories, is it accurate?

How many advertisements do we see each day? The first premise is that we are looking at city dwellers, who spend a normal amount of time out and about each day. Where do the ads come from?   Billboards, obviously, either on the train and bus or by the road side on your way to work. Ads on TV – watching the news as you get up, or as you relax at the end of the day. Online ads as you check Facebook in the morning and then as you Google things during the day. Radio ads, perhaps, if you listen to the radio during work or on your commute. And, of course, email. Physical mail? Probably some both at home and at work.

Does our definition of “advertisements” include any brand exposure? Store names as you walk to a restaurant during lunch? Product names in the store front windows? How about the logo on the clothing of the people you pass? The logo on the mug of your co-worker? On your laptop? Logo exposure ups the game quite a bit.

But 5,000? That still seems like a lot. Let’s look at it another way. Assuming 8 hours of sleep in a day, that leaves 16 hours of waking time. That comes to around 5 ads a minute. Obviously the only way you can hit that number is to get large blasts of advertising during the day, and that means huge logo exposure as you walk down the street. To be honest, we should separate brand exposure resulting from a glimpse of a logo, from actual advertising that includes messaging and possibly some CTA. And just based on numbers, that has to take us well below 5,000. In fact, just intuitively 500 now seems a bit high when we start to think of it.

And also beside the point.

The real point is not whether we are flooded with advertising (we are), or how big that number might be, the real point is what our tolerance is for an invasion of our personal space. And that is quite low. Witness how we readily spend money to avoid them. I “Tivo” through advertisements on TV and while the ability to manage and time-shift my TV viewing is the primary function of my Tivo, I would cheerfully pay the same price just to avoid ads. I throw away, unopened, any physical mail that smells of an advertisement (which is how I almost threw away my passport recently because it came in an unmarked envelope). Network providers, companies, and individuals all spend money on spam filters. People install ad blockers for their browsing.

These ad-avoiding tactics all reflect a basic desire to be left alone and not bothered by advertising, and one that we are willing to spend money on. If you were really subjected to 5,000 ads a day you’d probably start walking around with a bag over your head. As it is, we spend good money to block a mere handful of intrusions. So in the end, while 5,000 or even 500 sounds like a scary large number, it really isn’t accurate. But even though the real number is much lower, what counts is how much the real number is above our level of tolerance, And that level of tolerance is quite low. So perhaps you only receive 100 ads a day, or 50, or even 10. That may be enough to send you over the edge and start implementing ways to block those ads. At that point, advertising itself begins to fail as a tactic. Oops.

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