Tuesday, May 16, 2006


During the last week of class, we wer discussing some of our "odd" consumption choices. Related to this, John Quiggin shares some interesting thoughts on advertising:

Advertising is simply media content that is complementary with consumption of the goods advertised: this just says in economic terminology that people who consume the ads are more likely to consume the products or, even more simply, that ads sell stuff.


What about consumers? An obvious case of the Becker-Murphy story arises when the ads tell a story that enhances the subjective value of consuming the good in question. A pair of shoes that make you feel like a basketball star is better (for the target market) than a pair of shoes that just covers your feet. Becker and Murphy pay a fair bit of attention to this case, and so do people who comment on them.

But this isn’t the only way that ads can be complementary. Ads that make you discontented with your existing possessions, or reduce the subjective value of competing products work just as well.

The economic model presented by Becker and Stigler provides a simple and elegant way of distinguishing the two. If advertising is a good, which enhances the package of ad+product, consumers will be willing to pay for it. If advertising is a bad, consumers will have to be paid (or forced) to consume it.

An immediate consequence is that most of what we think of as advertising is a bad. We watch TV ads not because we like them, but because we are paid with the programs they accompany. This is the point made by the TV executive who said we were breaking the contract if we watched the programs but not the ads (he did say we could take a break to go to the toilet, IIRC).

Given the public good properties of financing broadcast TV, it’s possible to make a second-best argument that this social arrangement improves welfare on balance (I still need to work through this one, but for me at least, the price is too high, and I hardly ever watch ad-inclusive TV).

Billboards, though, are an unmitigated bad. If we wanted to look at them, we would pay to go and see them as with movies and concerts. And given that we are selling our attention to advertisers on TV and radio, those who force billboards into our field of view are taking that attention without payment, just like telemarketers making collect calls.

An immediate policy conclusion, the exact obverse of the one about TV viewers watching ads, is that users of billboard advertising should be required to pay everyone who goes past. Given the transactions costs of implementing this, they should be taxed at rates comparable to the advertising charges of TV stations.

If ads were a good, we would pay to consume them. I think that's pretty interesting considering that people buy magazines like vogue for the advertising. I was thinking that another example of people paying for advertising is the superbowl, but in that case the advertising is less advertising as it is short films. But if the advertising space is very, very exclusive (a la backcover of vogue or superbowl), consumers will take that as the ultimate symbol of a "good" good. I think consumers would pay for these ads to differentiate between "good" goods and "bad" goods, just as when they buy magazines like consumer's digest.

All in all, though, advertising is becoming so pervasive that it's starting to bother me. Aflac trivia questions. Home Depot Home Runs. New Balance Walks. Rochester Correctional Facility Steals. Coke Hits. And if they show another 30 second commercial during a 20 second timeout, I'm going to lose it.
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