Bryan Caplan  

Tranquility for A Dollar a Day: An Open Letter to Adbusters

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Dear Adbusters:

While your publication seems to have little use for neoclassical economics professors, there is at least one topic where you have my sympathy. Like you, I find most advertising to be extremely painful. Commercial radio, with its shrill and mind-numbing sales pitches, is the worst. But the ads on t.v. are almost as bad.

A couple years ago, however, I managed to eliminate 98% of the advertising-related aggravation in my life, and I'd like to share how I did it. While the following may seem flippant, I mean it in all seriousness. I freed myself from the pain of advertising by:

1. Subscribing to XM Radio. This product, available for $12.95/month, allows me to enjoy a fantastic variety of music, completely commercial-free. Unlike public radio, moreover, there are no excrutiating pledge drives.

2. Getting a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) from Dish Network. As long as I plan ahead, I can conveniently pre-record any program I want to watch, then fast-forward through all commercials. It's not quite a good as not having commercials in the first place, but it's close. The cost: $4.98/month.

Admittedly, another downside of commercial television is that it tends to be bland and insipid, because bland and insipid gets ratings, which means advertising revenue. But the solution for this problem has been around for decades:

3. Subscribing to HBO. For $13.99/month, you can watch high-quality programs with artistic integrity, like The Sopranos and Rome. Combined with a DVR, you get even more value, because you can pre-record everything worth watching.

The total monthly cost of tranquility: $31.92, or about a dollar a day. If you can afford the $35.00/year annual subscription fee to hear people complain about commercials in Adbusters, you can easily afford to pay a dollar a day to actually solve your problem.

My solution obviously does little to rid our whole culture of advertising. It is only an individual-level solution. But at minimum, my advice will significantly improve your life. Call it "corporate blackmail" if you must, but don't cut off your nose to spite your face.

Furthermore - and now the economist in me re-emerges - beyond the individual level, the "problem" of advertising shouldn't be solved. Hard as it is for me or you to fathom, many people don't mind - or actually like - commercials. When I visit my dad, he yells at me for muting them. As with religious disagreement, the best solution to commercial disagreement is live and let live.


Prof. Bryan Caplan
Department of Economics
George Mason University

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The author at in a related article titled Adbusters writes:
    pointer from caplan, food for thought [Tracked on November 17, 2005 2:04 PM]
COMMENTS (16 to date)
KipEsquire writes:

I would substitute "Netflix" for "HBO," but otherwise you're spot on!

Scott Nesbitt writes:

I concur. The combination of XM Radio, ReplayTV, and Netflix removes me from most audiovisual advertising.

On the downside, I got tired of not being able to discuss the rare _good_ commercial at work, so I have begun to sample one now and then to be sociable.

Lord writes:

I have noticed broadcast TV now seems to have fewer commercials than your average cable channel (not HB0). One way to make their value greater apparently.

Hunter McDaniel writes:

Yes, spend $18/month on Netflix as a replacement for the $5/month DVR and the $14/month HBO. And if you live close enough to the city to get Digital TV reception, you can drop your cable subscription as well - another $30 to $50.

Netflix has everything that's any good on HBO except what they're showing THIS YEAR. Patience has its rewards. And, of course, Netflix gives you access to everything else that's any good (of which HBO has only a small part).

About the only things I watch on broadcast TV anymore is SPORTS, and for that a DVR is useless - I really have no interest in watching a game that's already over.

Paul N writes:

I know I'm in the minority but I often find ads as interesting as movies or TV. I think they tell us stuff about ourselves, the way we are going, what we value. Note: I don't have any use for seeing the same ad more than once or twice, so I also use a DVR (if you hate fast-forwarding through commercials, you should build your own Myth-TV-based system - it skips through them automatically).

Certain magazines (e.g., W, Vogue) are only really interesting for the ads, and who doesn't love the creative Mini or Hitachi ads they stuff into magazines?

Rafal Smigrodzki writes:

One more layer of anti-commercial shielding that is worth mentioning is the use of browser helper apps, capable of selectively removing commercials from www content. I am using Proxomitron, with excellent results, being able to get rid of 90% of commercials, and almost all blinking content (which is known to induce raving madness). Grrr!

The XM-linked, DVR-shielded, Proxomitron-proxied users (like me) can live their lives almost totally unmolested.

Marcus writes:

A dollar a day? Wow. That's not much more than the $300 "donation" that will get me a two year subscription to Adbusters and a "Friend of the Foundation" package.

Don't forget to discourage people from buying (or, more importantly, buying into) Adbuster's ethically ambidextrous sanctimony on Buy Nothing Day.

Paul T writes:

Adbusters is the sort of self-deluded marketing fraud that gives capitalism a bad name and makes Madison Avenue look like the very picture of judicious clear-eyed sobriety.

Marcus writes:

Blackspot Sneakers (under the "Blackspot" brand name don't-ya-know). Self parody? Or cynical marketing ploy?

Who says radical progressives don't provide a positive alternative?

bree writes:

My fiance and I have been mulling getting ourselves a DVR for Christmas this year. I'm only really annoyed by commercials when they're too repetitive or when the premise of them is insulting, but it would be nice to have the option to skip them.

This discussion relates really well to a book I picked up recently, The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can't be jammed, by Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter. I'd definitely recommend it.

mobile writes:

Dear Prof. Caplan,

I visit your blog to hear your insights into economics and how they apply to the issues of the day. But I didn't come here just so I could read a bunch of ads for XM Radio, Dish Network, and HBO. Please cancel my subscription immediately!

Ivan Kirigin writes:

The less-legal options abound. For music they have been around for a while.

For movies, you can download them, but often quality is poor.

You can get a DVD burner for less than $100. Then you increase your netflix throughput by burning and returning them immediately. You don't have to wait to watch it first.

For $19, you can get ~20 DVDs a month (more than most people can watch), and actually get to keep them, for ~$10 for the DVD-Rs.

Toby Evans writes:

Dear Professor Kaplan,
1) Government has to get its revenue from somewhere.
2)Advertizing is a socially useless business activity because good products advertize themselves. This makes advertizing a prime target for taxation in my mind, right along with alchohol, cigarettes and jewelry other than wedding bands/engagement rings.
3) The cost of political advertizing drives campaign financing and its concomittant corruption. Candidates can not be everywhere at once unlike products. Therefore, political advertizing is not stupid. Various schemes exist for government to support political advertizing, mostly they don't work.
4) Government subsidies are stupid because government collects money, hires beauracrats to sit on it and then gives a portion of the money back: its better to exempt collection of the money in the first place from the activities we wish government to support. Therefore, I suggest a local tax on advertizing and an exemption to that tax for political advertizing.

Not central to my argument, I think our federal government is bloated, especially the military/DOE/Homeland Security, while local governments - which primarily help people rather than kill them - are underfunded. That's why I suggest a local tax, but federal or local, the advertizing tax and exemption for political advertizing is still a good idea.
As for free speech claims, I would point out that broadcasting licenses specifically are a restriction on free speech to begin with, because only someone with that license can broadcast in that frequency range. I think licenses should come with more responsibilities and taxes atttached to them or government should stop regulating the EM band. The EM band belongs to all of us, not just the rich.
Similar arguments apply to cable and the internet - government imposed restricitons on IP addresses and domain names. Dish maybe. Print obviously not.
Toby Evans

Scott writes:

Government has to get its revenue from somewhere.

Perhaps they should consider getting it the way the rest of us do: by asking rather than taking.

Marcus writes:

One more thing about Adbusters. During "Buy Nothing Day", I went to Fry's Electronics and picked up a 80 Gig hard drive for $0 (after rebates). Had I listened to high-minded harpies at Adbusters, I would have missed out on an opportunity that may only arise once or twice a year. I would now be one 80 Gig hard drive poorer than I am now.

Brian Macker writes:

".. hires beauracrats to sit on it and then gives a portion of the money back ..."

What! I never got any back!

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