7 min read

Man Against Marketing

The Lifeboat №4: A new kind of old narrative conflict we are all engaged in
Man Against Marketing
‘VirtuaVerse’ in-game footage

A New Kind of Old Narrative

To our grief, most of the tech we use now exists only because of ads.  Advertising and technology always go side by side. First, pictures and text, then audio and video, then high-quality audio and high-quality video. Soon, with the mass adoption of AR and VR, we'll have ads there. Then, with the further development of Neuralink-like tech, we will watch ads, porn and 4.5-second cat videos in our brain, drinking a banana smoothie and not using those outdated devices called ‘eyes’. People get dopamine, companies get their products sold, NeuralAd inc. gets money, the economy is growing, everyone is happy. Brave new world, huh?

I am thinking about it strolling through a white-tiled Tube's corridor at Angel station in London. The corridor meanders leading me to moving steps. I put my feet on them and the steps start transferring me down in surroundings of colourful ads imagery neatly tiled with low-resolution screen panels.

Did you know that marketers lobbied for underground design and architecture? Long labyrinths and slow escalators allow marketers to exhibit hundreds of hypnotising billboards. And monochrome walls make every ad a high-contrast object that immediately draws the eye.

Angel is the station with the longest escalator in London. The vertical rise is 27.5 meters and the total length is 61 meters, making it 3rd longest in Europe. Flashing pictures don't bring me joy but the long escalator reminds me of the time when I was living in St. Petersburg. The average underground escalator in there is deeper and longer than the average escalator in London, and probably anywhere else. They even have the longest escalator in the world on the Admiralteyskaya station. Steps move you into a depth of 67 meters with a total length of 130 meters. That means only one thing. A shitload of ads. Still not convinced?

Marketers can build only a finite tunnel in the physical world. Unless it’s a circle or something like a Möbius strip (but I would prefer a rollercoaster designed by Julijonas Urbonas). Dante should have thought of adding the 10th circle. Just below the very bottom, after the funnel narrows to the Treachery circle, it expands again and creates the Advertising circle, where people who want to reach spiritual refinement are circulating inside watching ads endlessly with eyes wide opened like in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Yet that’s all just a fantasy. We live in the era of the internet, high tech and virtual spaces where everything is possible. What if marketers can build an infinite shithole of ads inside the virtual world instead of the physical? Wait, hold on a second...

Thanks to tech, advertising metastasized into a greedy abomination called AdTech. Do you know how it works? Now door-to-door canvassers don't need to knock on every door to find you. Not anymore. They have the precise coordinates of your porch because you gave consent to spy on you. And they don't even need to knock. The door is always open because you do it voluntarily, offering them cookies when they come.

Most of the social media companies or search engines are in fact digital advertising companies. Their products are free, but as was famously said, if a product is free, then the real product is you. The tech giants buy, HODL and sell your attention in real-time with millions of transactions happening every second. The highest bidder gets you first. However, for absolute success, the bidder must have a perfectly designed ad. An ad network that sells placements doesn't want to waste bullets. They value your attention more than you do. So, in a case when the bidder pays for clicks or app installs, the advertiser is interested in showing only ads that you are more likely to click. Having the best ad is not enough, you must also have a lot of money to show it. Who wins? The casino, as always.

The grand delusion is a belief that you are anaesthetised to ads. The vast majority of websites have tracking and ads enabled. Many scripts responsible for that take up to a few seconds to load and worsen your browsing experience. It devours your time, your internet traffic, and therefore your money.

People say they hate junk mail and fliers. But these artefacts of the physical world are much less intrusive than anything you see on the web. To start using a website, you, scared by the pop-up, need first to navigate your shaking hand to a tiny cross to liquidate it. Ironically, together with the emergence of AdTech, the code was written for Adblock commencing the resistance.

Once you're through the ads jungle, you enter the content maze. Many things you read, watch or listen are designed to sell you something (subscribe, by the way, and leave a comment). The aim is to get more sales, a bigger audience, more clicks, more money, more attention.

The evilest inventions of the XXI century are not “better” guns, bombs, dubstep, vape, shoe-umbrellas, climate change, Netflix adaptations, or 5G. The cruellest and the most inhuman creations are infinite scroll and push-notifications. Your attention is continuously bought and sold: before you start scrolling to get you scrolling, during the scrolling to keep you scrolling and when (if?) you stop scrolling to get you back to scrolling.

There is no algorithm that optimises well-being or well-thinking. These concepts cannot be explained mathematically with all their beauty and complexity with results visible only in the long term. Ads want clicks and sales from you. The smartest people on Earth constantly optimise them to make you click without thinking. For advertisers, you are not a modern homo sapiens making intelligent decisions. By default, you are a savage given a rectangular piece of plastic and metal, deeply confused, poisoned by dopamine and lost in the loneliness of the brave new world.

It’s a new chapter in the grand narrative, a new type of conflict we are all engaged in. All realms, physical, spiritual and virtual, have blended together into one surreal creamy mash. And this new world wants only one thing from you. Your attention. The opponent with the ancient archetype has taken a new chthonic entity. It leverages the power of science, exploiting our primal instincts, and the ability of technology to make the impossible possible.

Selling Dreams, Buying Whims

“It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.” ― David Foster Wallace

In the ninth episode of the first season of Rick and Morty, an eccentric old man Mr Needful opens a vintage store called Needful Things. Summer, Rick's granddaughter, works in that shop. Rick gives her a ride to the job and after meeting Mr Needful there, he becomes suspicious that the merchant is the devil.

All items sold in Needful Things are cursed. An aftershave sold to one of the customers is supposed to capture female attention. It works, yes, but also makes you impotent. Any desire fulfilled by a needful thing turns into misery as time passes.

Rick invents a device that identifies all cursed items. He uses the device to reveal the truth to the customers which leads him and Mr Needful into a fight. But Summer, who among others doesn't believe Rick and trusts and admires Mr Needful, pushes her granddad out of the shop. Rick opens a new shop across the street – Curse Purge Plus! He can instantly cleanse any item from curses for a small fee. This pushes Mr Needful to attempt suicide but Summer saves him. Later, Summer arrives at Rick's shop to concede her defeat.

At the end of the episode, Mr Needful, wearing a black turtleneck sweater, opens a new business, now on the internet under the domain n33dful.com. While Mr Needful congratulates employees with the opening, he receives an SMS saying that their startup has just been bought by Google. Mr Needful fires Summer knowing of her betrayal and she accuses him of "Zuckerberging" her. In response, he says, "I was Zuckerberging people before Zuckerberg's balls dropped", which probably is the best line of the entire series.

The irony of the episode works on multiple levels. First, dramatic irony. Nobody believes Rick, although it is apparent to us and him that Mr Needful is the devil. We learn that even before Rick learns. It's obvious from the first scene when we meet Mr Needful. Second, the situational irony. Every needful thing makes the customer expect one thing but they get the opposite. Third, the story makes a full circle returning back to where it started. But instead of a vintage shop full of cursed things, now Needful Things is the startup bought by a tech giant.

Rick And Morty is famous for cultural references and deconstruction of different aspects of our modern life. In this episode, the authors took a widely used storytelling trope and turned a cliché into a powerful satire. One of the variations of this Satanic archetype, a wish seller, tends to enter bargains by helping others in the short term and then screwing them over in the long run. Remember Demiurge who first created the physical world and then kept mankind away from all that is purely spiritual? As Mr Needful says about his shop, "Nobody ever pays here... not with money" (the newsletter is free, for that matter).

In this trope, the devil relies on the way people desire things. He uses whimsical desires and turns them into a bargain with a high price that is not money. We want things for various reasons. Sometimes we don't have a choice because of life's circumstances, sometimes we just have a dream caused by either internally or externally formed desires.

So let’s take an example. If you get fired from a job you might end up having no money for a living. You want to find a new job and probably have to learn new skills along the way. You could even enrol on a paid course to achieve that and it’s perfectly logical. It's a necessity that dictates that desire. But dreams are delusional. If you already have a steady job, you dream of a better one, with a higher salary and social status. It appears perfect in your vision. But everything flawless is inherently flawed. In your dream, you are successful, healthy, wealthy, wise, creative, interesting, intelligent, fit, loved by family, friends, followers, fans and have limitless opportunities ahead of you.

That's what marketers sell you, a dream. And now they have the tools to target only the most susceptible to each individual temptation. Using advances in science and tech, a Mr or Ms Needful will find you and make an offer you desire with a price they set. The question is not if you can resist a single offer but how many offers you expose yourself to.

61 meters pass but the steps are still moving. I realise I am alone in the tunnel. Ads get weird. Like magic mirrors, they show things I want to see. I am scared. I run down but the steps start moving up freezing me in space and time. I hurl myself up but they revert the direction. Suddenly, on one of the screen panels, I see me. Better me. He is healthy, wealthy and wise, a Greek statue, a conqueror, a testosterone king with a banana smoothie in his hand. Bewitched and beguiled, I gaze at the ad and the steps keep carrying me forwards.

Meet you at the next station.


Huge thanks to Ajeet, Craig, Gaz and Ryan for their invaluable help with bringing the essay to its final form and other people from Thomas J Bevan’s private Discord for their inspiration and support.