originally published June 1, 2012

Do you ever get the feeling that someone is watching you? That they’re studying your every move, your subtlest nuances, even your thoughts? If so, congratulations on being so astute! There are people watching you at all times, with the sole intent of manipulating your choices, your behaviors, your purchases. These people are advertisers.

I’m not going to fire off some condemnation of Don Draper and the world of advertising – this is the society in which we live. Advertising is pervasive and unavoidable, like herpes in a Taiwanese brothel. You know what I’m talking about.

It’s hard to avoid donating some fraction of one’s attention to the cute animals in the cell phone commercials, or that stupid dancing green thing that keeps asking me to play World Of Warcraft. But knowledge is power (when actual power itself is unattainable), so here are some of the terms advertising executives are using while they discuss you, and whether or not you’ll be willing to pay extra to wipe your ass with toilet paper that smells like lilacs. (hint: yes!)

Puffery is everywhere. In 1984 the Federal Trade Commission ruled that they would not take action against puffery in advertising, because ordinary consumers won’t take it seriously. No one can prove or disprove the statement that Dirty Dwayne’s Fish Sandwich is “The greatest fish sandwich in the history of freaking ever.” Nor will anyone other than those too stupid to deserve any pity believe that extensive, unbiased testing has occurred in order to produce this claim.

So “the most accurate watch in the world”, “the only nasal enhancement polish you’ll ever need” and “the most pleasure-inducing muffler bolts you’ll try this season” are allowed to be printed on billboards, because you are expected to know better.

Q-Score is the secret reason that our culture is weighted down under a flood of useless and talentless celebrities. A Q-Score measures the familiarity and appeal of a celebrity, a brand, a company, a product, or a TV show. Marketers decided that Kim Kardashian should have her own line of cosmetics because her Q-Score among their target consumers was quite high.

In the world of television, a Q-Score can mean more than high ratings because it reflects how people feel about the show, not simply whether it’s popular. The more people consider a show among their favorites, the more likely they are to pay attention to the commercials running in the breaks.

In 2000, IBM wanted to check the Q-Score of Deep Blue, the supercomputer that conquered Garry Kasparov in a man vs. machine chess match. They found that the computer’s score was 9, about as familiar and appealing as Carmen Electra, pre-satellite Howard Stern and Bruce Wayne. I’m not certain what they did with that information, but if you want to do some digging yourself, check out qscores.com. Or don’t. You have to pay for information there, and unless you’re in the business, you probably don’t care that much.

It took far too long for some show to get around to pointing this out. Thank you, Seth McFarlane. Ad creep refers to the ooze-like spreading of advertising into previously sacred spaces. It didn’t matter much to me when sporting events started throwing ads onto the back of tickets, or when popular magazines decided that the first 28 pages before the table of contents should be filled with full-page perfume and hair product ads (sure, I read Cosmo… who doesn’t?). But when they started dropping ads for TV shows in the middle of other shows and movies, deciding that that lower rectangle of space was probably unimportant, I became both enraged and ensconced in douche-chills.

You can see ad creep all over the place now: in elevators, above public urinals, in doctor’s offices, on the sides of garbage cans, even on the plexiglass at NHL games. Not just the boards – the damn glass. The world has become a blank canvas for advertisers.

This little quote from graffiti artist Banksy has been circulating the web for a while now – I’ll withhold comment, but it’s worth a read:

The guy has a point.

The Nielsen folks who keep track of our TV ratings developed the Sweeps Period system, probably to keep from having to spurt out twelve paper-heavy editions every year. Here’s how it works – there are four periods (November, February, May, July) in which Nielsen sends out paper diaries to random homes for people to keep track of what they watch and who watches it. At the end of the month, the data is calculated and published, and that’s the data which determines advertising rates in various commercial breaks around the dial.

It’s a complex system with a barge-full of statistics, but to us it means that we can expect most Very Special Episodes, baby births, character deaths and ass-clenching cliffhangers to occur in those few months. If you’re wondering why your favorite show has broadcast so many reruns lately, they might be saving up the good stuff for Sweeps.

If you’re an experienced web-trekker, you probably suffer from banner blindness. This is one of those ‘good’ blindnesses, like… I don’t know, being blind-drunk.

Banner blindness actually picks apart the effectiveness of banner advertising online. Studies have been performed in which subjects were asked to search through a website for specific information. It was discovered that they either consciously or subconsciously paid no attention to the banners on the page. Not just the ads, but useful banners with quick links and navigation tools that would have probably made their task a little easier.

This is happening because we have all seen enough websites that we tend to know where the useful information is going to be. 99% of the time we look for the smaller type, maybe with some hyperlinks sprinkled in. Big, bright and flashy won’t necessarily attract people to your ad.

Banner blindness is not an established phenomenon yet – the vote’s still out, and that’s probably why we still see (or don’t see) so many banner ads. It could just be a form of inattentional blindness, where we’re overloaded with incoming data, so we filter it before it hits any significant part of the brain that will commit it to memory.

I taught my kids to accept advertising as an inevitable part of their lives, but I also taught them to question it. Don’t believe every claim, and be vigilantly aware that the point of every ad is almost always the same – they want to direct how you spend your money.

One way around this is to do what I do: don’t have any money to spend. It works every time.

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