(DISCLAIMER: this is specifically about “sponsorship-style” advertising. think nascar, free t-shirts and stickers at career fairs, etc, where a company is borrowing the legitimacy of the thing they’re sponsoring.)

Advertising sucks, and not just in the normal way that normal things suck: advertising preys on healthy human instincts, on our proclivity towards connection with and trust in others. It takes ones of the things that has for so long been a way of navigating the world safely and weaponized it against us.

Imagine you’re a villager in the 1500s. There are three blacksmiths in your town, but you hear John’s name the most. People often remark upon the quality of his horseshoes, of the nails he sells. When you ask your vintner friend where he got the steel hoops for his barrels, he tells you he got them from John. From time to time, you hear John’s name mentioned at the local bar. Whether it was intentional on his part or not, you’re familiar with John. He somehow already feels like a trustworthy friend. And for good reason! In the practical sense, he’s been part of your life for a long time: you’ve used the things he’s made for years, whether you knew it or not. There’s also a separate way he’s been part of your life for a long time: the social sense. His name has come up many times throughout your life, in pubs and overheard conversations and among farmers and in markets. While your life may be hard and complicated in many important ways, you are lucky in at least this one sense: you hear John’s name a lot because of the quality of his work. And when you see his touchmark (a blacksmith’s signature) on an item, it reinforces the idea that his work is of high caliber, that it’s everywhere for a reason. Counterfactually, if his worked stopped being as good, you’d stop seeing it as often. People would stop talking about him as much, unless they were perhaps complaining.

Imagine you’re you. Now. You ask your friend Alan for plumber recommendations. Alan recommends Jane. Jane’s been Alan’s go-to plumber for 8 years now. She does her job and she does it well, on time and at cost. In a small way, Alan considers Jane family. And the fact that he vouches for her conveys this. You go to your bar and you ask them what beer they recommend. They say they recommend the Hillbreaker Stout. You trust them and order it. Whether it’s good or not will slightly affect your impression of the bartender and the bar.

Now imagine another bar. This bar has umbrellas on their patio tables. These umbrellas are branded with the “Hexproof Brewing Company” wordmark. You’ve seen Hexproof Brewing Co in your local supermarket in the beer and drink section. Some part of your brain whispers “surely it’s good, i wouldn’t be hearing so much about it if it weren’t good”. Millenia of evolutionary and social programming back up this thought.

So you purchase it. Because Hexproof Brewing Company have a bright logo that pulls your attention to their six-packs on the shelf at Safeway. Because Hexproof Brewing Company gave out free umbrellas to every bar who would take them. In exchange, those bars lent part of their legitimacy to backing a product they knew little about, that they didn’t especially care about. Those bars sold a bit of their reputation in exchange for a few hundred dollars worth of picnic table umbrellas. And they didn’t particularly care about the product. I find it hard to convey with the desired intensity how fucked up this is. It seems to me that nobody conceptualizes this exchange in this way. Your local bar probably just thought “hey, free umbrellas, plus we’ve seen HBC around and they don’t seem terrible.”

And in exchange, they preyed on the intimacy of the social relationship between you and the bar, you and the bartender. There’s a bit of a motte and bailey happening here, because obviously if an HBC rep said to the bar “we’ll give you these umbrellas, and in exchange, you have to mention our latest IPA in every conversation with a customer”, the bar rep would balk and show them the door in disgust. Because the tradeoff against reputation and social goodwill and, dare I say virtue (not wanting to lie or be seen as a shill), is way more salient under these circumstances. But my claim is that even though it’s less salient, that tradeoff is equally as present when you advertise on behalf of another company.

What I don’t have as much of a problem with is when someone advertises directly. This is a necessary part of making people aware of your product. Even if your product is incredible, if you don’t tell anyone about it or put it anywhere or label it obviously, people will most likely not find it. There are ethical and unethical ways of doing this. For instance, you should sell something that’s either super cost-effective or else high quality. You should be able to back up all your claims, implicit and explicit.