No, advertising is not signaling

JDN 2457373

Awhile ago, I wrote a post arguing that advertising is irrational, that at least with advertising as we know it, no real information is conveyed and thus either consumers are being irrational in their purchasing decisions, or advertisers are irrational for buying ads that don’t work.

One of the standard arguments neoclassical economists make to defend the rationality of advertising is that advertising is signaling—that even though the content of the ads conveys no useful information, the fact that there are ads is a useful signal of the real quality of goods being sold.

The idea is that by spending on advertising, a company shows that they have a lot of money to throw around, and are therefore a stable and solvent company that probably makes good products and is going to stick around for awhile.

Here are a number of different papers all making this same basic argument, often with sophisticated mathematical modeling. This paper takes an even bolder approach, arguing that people benefit from ads and would therefore pay to get them if they had to. Does that sound even remotely plausible to you? It sure doesn’t to me. Some ads are fairly entertaining, but generally if someone is willing to pay money for a piece of content, they charge money for that content.

Could spending on advertising offer a signal of the quality of a product or the company that makes it? Yes. That is something that actually could happen. The reason this argument is ridiculous is not that advertising signaling couldn’t happen—it’s that advertising is clearly nowhere near the best way to do that. The content of ads is clearly nothing remotely like what it would be if advertising were meant to be a costly signal of quality.

Look at this ad for Orangina. Look at it. Look at it.

Now, did that ad tell you anything about Orangina? Anything at all?

As far as I can tell, the thing it actually tells you isn’t even true—it strongly implies that Orangina is a form of aftershave when in fact it is an orange-flavored beverage. It’d be kind of like having an ad for the iPad that involves scantily-clad dog-people riding the iPad like it’s a hoverboard. (Now that I’ve said it, Apple is probably totally working on that ad.)

This isn’t an isolated incident for Orangina, who have a tendency to run bizarre and somewhat suggestive (let’s say PG-13) TV spots involving anthropomorphic animals.

But more than that, it’s endemic to the whole advertising industry.

Look at GEICO, for instance; without them specifically mentioning that this is car insurance, you’d never know what they were selling from all the geckos,

and Neanderthals,

and… golf Krakens?

Progressive does slightly better, talking about some of their actual services while also including an adorably-annoying spokesperson (she’s like Jar Jar, but done better):

State Farm also includes at least a few tidbits about their insurance amidst the teleportation insanity:

But honestly the only car insurance commercials I can think of that are actually about car insurance are Allstate’s, and even then they’re mostly about Dennis Haybert’s superhuman charisma. I would buy bacon cheeseburgers from this man, and I’m vegetarian.

Esurance is also relatively informative (and owned by Allstate, by the way); they talk about their customer service and low prices (in other words, the only things you actually care about with car insurance). But even so, what reason do we have to believe their bald assertions of good customer service? And what’s the deal with the whole money-printing thing?

And of course I could deluge you with examples from other companies, from Coca-Cola’s polar bears and Santa Claus to this commercial, which is literally the most American thing I have ever seen:

If you’re from some other country and are going, “What!?” right now, that’s totally healthy. Honestly I think we would too if constant immersion in this sort of thing hadn’t deadened our souls.

Do these ads signal that their companies have a lot of extra money to burn? Sure. But there are plenty of other ways to do that which would also serve other valuable functions. I honestly can’t imagine any scenario in which the best way to tell me the quality of an auto insurance company is to show me 30-second spots about geckos and Neanderthals.

If a company wants to signal that they have a lot of money, they could simply report their financial statement. That’s even regulated so that we know it has to be accurate (and this is one of the few financial regulations we actually enforce). The amount you spent on an ad is not obvious from the result of the ad, and doesn’t actually prove that you’re solvent, only that you have enough access to credit. (Pets.com famously collapsed the same year they ran a multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ad.)

If a company wants to signal that they make a good product, they could pay independent rating agencies to rate products on their quality (you know, like credit rating agencies and reviewers of movies and video games). Paying an independent agency is far more reliable than the signaling provided by advertising. Consumers could also pay their own agencies, which would be even more reliable; credit rating agencies and movie reviewers do sometimes have a conflict of interest, which could be resolved by making them report to consumers instead of producers.

If a company wants to establish that they are both financially stable and socially responsible, they could make large public donations to important charities. (This is also something that corporations do on occasion, such as Subaru’s recent campaign.) Or they could publicly announce a raise for all their employees. This would not only provide us with the information that they have this much money to spend—it would actually have a direct positive social effect, thus putting their money where there mouth is.

Signaling theory in advertising is based upon the success of signaling theory in evolutionary biology, which is beyond dispute; but evolution is tightly constrained in what it can do, so wasteful costly signals make sense. Human beings are smarter than that; we can find ways to convey information that don’t involve ludicrous amounts of waste.

If we were anywhere near as rational as these neoclassical models assume us to be, we would take the constant bombardment of meaningless ads not as a signal of a company’s quality but as a personal assault—they are needlessly attacking our time and attention when all the genuinely-valuable information they convey could have been conveyed much more easily and reliably. We would not buy more from them; we would refuse to buy from them. And indeed, I’ve learned to do just that; the more a company bombards me with annoying or meaningless advertisements, the more I make a point of not buying their product if I have a viable substitute. (For similar reasons, I make a point of never donating to any charity that uses hard-sell tactics to solicit donations.)

But of course the human mind is limited. We only have so much attention, and by bombarding us frequently and intensely enough they can overcome our mental defenses and get us to make decisions we wouldn’t if we were optimally rational. I can feel this happening when I am hungry and a food ad appears on TV; my autonomic hunger response combined with their expert presentation of food in the perfect lighting makes me want that food, if only for the few seconds it takes my higher cognitive functions to kick in and make me realize that I don’t eat meat and I don’t like mayonnaise.

Car commercials have always been particularly baffling to me. Who buys a car based on a commercial? A decision to spend $20,000 should not be made based upon 30 seconds of obviously biased information. But either people do buy cars based on commercials or they don’t; if they do, consumers are irrational, and if they don’t, car companies are irrational.

Advertising isn’t the source of human irrationality, but it feeds upon human irrationality, and is specifically designed to exploit our own stupidity to make us spend money in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. This means that markets will not be efficient, and huge amounts of productivity can be wasted because we spent it on what they convinced us to buy instead of what would truly have made our lives better. Those companies then profit more, which encourages them to make even more stuff nobody actually wants and sell it that much harder… and basically we all end up buying lots of worthless stuff and putting it in our garages and wondering what happened to our money and the meaning in our lives. Neoclassical economists really need to stop making ridiculous excuses for this damaging and irrational behavior–and maybe then we could actually find a way to make it stop.

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