Read our free ebook: 16 Rules for Living with Less
The Minimalists
The Minimalists are Emmy-nominated Netflix stars and New York Times–bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Alongside their podcast cohost, T.K. Coleman, this simple-living trio helps millions of people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less. Learn More.

Can We Have an Honest Conversation About Advertisements?

If the following screed were a peer-reviewed journal article, its abstract would be brief: advertisements suck.

Well, at least most of them do.

That’s not to say that all advertising is inherently evil, or even bad, because not all advertisements are created equal—they run the gamut from informative to downright destructive.

To understand the inherent problems with advertisements, it’s important to first point out that advertising isn’t the same thing as marketing. Though these two terms are often used interchangeably, they are different in practice.


Advertisements are paid announcements via a public medium—mattress commercials, “infomercials” for the latest exercise fad, and seemingly harmless adverts for harmful prescription drugs—and they are generally not an endorsement by the platform on which they are displayed.

In Latin, advertere means “to turn toward,” and that’s the exact aim of today’s ad agencies: they’re willing to pay heaps of money to turn your eyes toward their products and services. And if the demand for a product isn’t as high as the supply, no problem! Advertising can create a false demand if the budget is high enough.

In recent years, worldwide spending on advertising has topped half a trillion dollars a year. Even writing the full number—500,000,000,000.00, commas and all—doesn’t come close to truly understanding its depth.

So let’s put it into perspective: If you leave your home today and begin spending one dollar every single second, it will take you more than 15,000 years to spend half a trillion dollars. In fact, if you would have spent a million dollars every single day since the fall of Rome, you still wouldn’t’ve spent half a trillion dollars by now.

And we’re spending more than that every year on advertising. Which isn’t so bad in and of itself. After all, it’s just money being spent on informing people about useful stuff, right?

Yes, that sort of used to be true.

A Brief History of Modern Advertising

Before the twentieth century, advertising largely connected the producers of goods with consumers who genuinely needed those goods.

But then, as Stuart Ewen describes in his book Captains of Consciousness, “Advertising increased dramatically in the United States as industrialization expanded the supply of manufactured products. In order to profit from this higher rate of production, industry needed to recruit workers as consumers of factory products. It did so through the invention of [advertising] designed to influence the population’s economic behavior on a larger scale.”

By the Roaring Twenties, thanks to Edward Bernays, who’s sometimes referred to as the founder of modern advertising and public relations, advertisers in the U.S. adopted the doctrine that “human instincts could be targeted and harnessed.”

Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, realized that appealing to the rational minds of customers, which had been the mainstream method advertisers used to sell products, was far less effective than selling products based on the unconscious desires that he felt were the “true motivators of human action.” Since then, we’ve witnessed ten decades of advertising agencies reaching—and overreaching—into the depths of the human psyche.

Overreach of Advertisers

Fast forward to the present day.

One of the most obvious examples of advertisers’ rapacious (over)reach in recent years is the drug Sildenafil, which was created as a treatment for hypertension. When clinical trials revealed the drug wasn’t effective, that should have been the end of its lifecycle.

But then advertisers stepped in.

After discovering several male test subjects experienced prolonged erections during clinical trials, the makers of Sildenafil had a solution that desperately needed a problem. So they hired an ad agency who coined the term “erectile dysfunction,” and Viagra was born. This campaign took a relatively flaccid problem and created a raging $3 billion per year blue pill.

Of course, Viagra is a rather anodyne example. There are many pharmaceuticals whose side effects are so expansive that their commercials are forced to use gratuitous green pastures, yearbook smiles, and hand-holding actors to conceal the terror of “rectal bleeding,” “amnesia,” and “suicidal ideation.”

In a sane world, misleadingly selling harmful prescription drugs would be a criminal act. Actually, it is: it’s illegal in every country in the world—except the United States and New Zealand—to advertise drugs to consumers.

But we let the almighty dollar get in the way.

In 1976, Henry Gadsden, then CEO of Merck & Co., told Fortune magazine that he’d rather sell drugs to healthy people because they had the most money.

We’ve been sold new “cures” ever since.

But please don’t think this is an anti-boner-pill diatribe. According to the research, Viagra seems to be a relatively benign drug. Thereby, there’s little wrong with the pill itself. It’s the paid advertisements that are troublesome.

Many ad agencies employ writers, demographers, statisticians, analysts, and even psychologists in an effort to divorce us from the money in our checking accounts. With the help of a fine-tuned agency, even the “disclaimer” is part of the sales pitch: “Consult your doctor if your erection lasts longer than four hours.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather consult my wife.

Viagra isn’t the only product pushed beyond its initial conception. Did you know that Listerine was previously used as a floor cleaner, Coca-Cola was invented as an alternative to morphine, and the graham cracker was created to prevent young boys from masturbating?

Hmm. If at first your product doesn’t succeed, hire an ad agency!

Selling Insecurity

Making men believe their erections aren’t firm enough isn’t the first time corporations have capitalized on human insecurity. For decades, women have been sold an inferiority complex. Our glowing screens would have the average woman believe her waist isn’t skinny enough, her breasts aren’t big enough, and her eyelashes aren’t lush enough. Don’t worry, though, whatever your ailment, consumerism has the cure.

In Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk prophesied of a dystopia in which a cunning con man could sell our own fat back to us after extracting it from our bodies. He was only half right, however. In the book, the fat is repackaged as soap—a metaphor for cleansing ourselves by way of consumerism—but in the real world we’re sold our fat in the form of autologous-fat transfer (butt injections) so we can look like our favorite reality-television stars.

In a Kafkaesque bait-and-switch, advertisers sell us the food that makes us obese because we “deserve a treat,” and then they sell us the diet plans and exercise equipment to combat our gluttony.

The sleight of hand doesn’t end with “male enhancers” and weight-loss remedies. Advertisers go much further, capitalizing on our fear (and greed) with radically overpriced timeshare properties, precious metals, and end-times survival kits. You may not have known the world was ending, but now that you do, there’s a product you can purchase to prepare.

Selling Scarcity

Speaking of the end of the world, why does it seem like the ads we experience are always taking place in a state of perpetual emergency?

Act now!
Limited time only!
While supplies last!

These advertiser-induced artificial limits are almost always imaginary. The truth is that if you “miss out” on a so-called sale, you’ll be just fine because corporations are always looking for a new opportunity to sell you something today. I mean, what’s the alternative? “Sorry, Mrs. Customer, you waited an extra day to make your decision, so we no longer want your money!”

Why, then, does almost every company inject urgency into their ads? Because, as Bernays recognized a century ago, this tactic takes advantage of our primal nature: humans make quick—often rash—decisions in times of perceived scarcity.

This made sense when our number one concern was starvation; it makes much less sense when we think we’ll never be able to own that big-screen television, video-game console, or clutch purse unless we get in on this weekend’s doorbuster bonanza.

Selling Nonessentials

Advertisers have gotten so skilled that they can even sell us trash and tell us it’s good for us. Literally.

Since American farmers are faced with unprecedented hoards of soybean and corn crops, and thus unprecedented waste products from those crops, advertisers have found a way not to safely dispose of that waste but to repackage it and sell it to you as hydrogenated oil, a supposed “alternative” to healthier oils from olives, avocados, and almonds.

Inferior cooking oils are just the start of the garbage that’s sold by the food industry. The amount of junk food that is peddled to us is so immense and so dangerous that there isn’t room in this essay to meaningfully explore the sugar and processed foods vended by America’s largest corporations, but it can be summed up in a single stat: in 2020, you are more likely to die from obesity than of a violent crime, terrorism, war, starvation, or a car crash.

Junk foods aren’t the only junk we buy. Unbeknown to us, advertisers have helped turn our homes into mausoleums of trash. To justify our clinging, we’ve invented cute nicknames for our junk—trinket, knickknack, novelty, doohickey, tchotchke, collector’s item, memento—as if what we call our trash increases its importance.

But in the real world, the cheap plastic things we purchase at gift shops aren’t of real importance, which wouldn’t be a big deal if they made us happier or improved our lives, but they usually don’t. Instead, we experience a dull high that wears off soon after the cash register dings its quiet victory, and then we sit in the aftermath of consumption with an unusable artifact. Then, in time, we feel icky because we’re too ashamed to let go, so we purchase plastic storage containers to hide—ahem, organize—our past mistakes.

Each year, Americans spend $1.2 trillion on nonessential goods. In contrast, we contribute less than $200 billion to charities every year. In other words, we spend a trillion dollars more on things we don’t need than on helping people in need.

Advertising to Children

Advertisers have found perhaps the easiest way to flood our homes with nonessentials: by advertising to our children. Not only do kids lack the critical thinking skills to say no to the foods that are killing us, but if they develop brand loyalty early, then Ronald McDonald has a lifetime customer.

According to the American Psychology Association, commercial appeals to children became commonplace with the advent and widespread adoption of television, and they grew exponentially with the proliferation of cable television, which allowed programmers to develop entire channels of child-oriented programming and advertising.

It is estimated that advertisers spend more than $12 billion each year to reach the youth, and children view more than 40,000 television commercials each year—an exponential increase from decades past.

The American Academy of Pediatrics believes this targeting occurs because advertising in the U.S. alone is a $250 billion a year industry with 900,000 brands to sell, and children and adolescents are attractive consumers: teenagers spend $155 billion each year, children younger than 12 spend another $25 billion, and both groups influence another $200 billion of their parents’ spending every year.

Perhaps the solution is to follow Sweden, Norway, and Quebec, and completely bar advertising to children under the age of 12. But more than likely it’s up to us as parents to develop the systems and communities that will better influence our kids’ viewing habits.

The Upside of Advertising

When done carefully, however, as rare as that might be, advertising can help fulfill an existing need. In fact, a hundred years ago, many ads did just that: they connected potential customers with a product that would improve their lives.

I myself have benefited from informative advertisements. Living in Los Angeles, I’m exposed to more billboards than most of the world’s population. Even though they’re a horrendous eyesore, I can honestly say that I’m more informed about the available media—movies, music, television series—than if these advertisements didn’t exist.

The same is true for the tailored ads of the Internet. Google does a great job matching their content with my perceived needs. If a website is going to clutter their sidebar with banner ads, I would rather be served messages that are geared toward my interests: the bookshelf I’ve been considering instead of a cosmetics display, the socks I need instead of an automobile pitch, the concert I want to attend instead of a beer commercial.

It would be hard for me to claim that ads don’t occasionally provide some quantifiable good to my life. I’m simply not sure whether the pros outweigh the cons.

True, the ads are “better” than ever, but maybe I’m more likely to spend my money irresponsibly when I’m constantly presented ads that match my precise interests. And while L.A.’s billboards are more informative than, say, the ambulance chasers who fill the outdoor displays in most American cities, they’re still intrusive, and I’d prefer they didn’t exist at all—and I’m not alone.

The People’s Preference

While I was driving from Burlington to Boston last year, something felt off. The rolling emerald landscape was unsullied, not unlike a tranquil screensaver, and I felt an unnameable calm as the mile markers ticked away.

Then I crossed the Massachusetts state line, and it became obvious: the trip’s serenity was produced largely by its lack of billboards, which are illegal in the state of Vermont.

Currently, four states—Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont—prohibit billboards. And more than 1,500 cities and towns have banned them throughout the world, including one of the largest cities on Earth—Sao Paulo.

When Sao Paulo introduced its “Clean City Law” in 2007, more than 15,000 billboards were taken down. To boot, an additional 300,000 intrusive signs—pylons, posters, bus and taxi ads—had to go.

The strangest result of ridding the world’s third largest city of these advertisements? In a poll done after the removal, a majority of Paulistanos actually preferred the change. What a novel idea: ask people what they like instead of letting profitability dictate the cityview.

From Good to Great Profit

If all ads were unobtrusive and informative, it would be hard to have anything bad to say about them. But many twenty-first century advertisers have figured out how to manipulate the system for maximum profit.

In the era of mass media and Internet spamming, they’ve crossed a line: we went from connecting people with products they need, to creating a false desire for objects that add little value to our lives, to selling objects that get in the way of a more fulfilling life.

Many of the things advertisements make us think we need are actually the source of our discontent. You see, the easiest way to sell us happiness is to first make us unhappy. It’s a painful cycle for us; it’s big business for them.

Unfortunately, we’ve accepted ads as part of our everyday life; we’ve been conditioned to think they are a regular slice of “content delivery.” After all, advertisements are how we get all those TV shows, radio programs, online articles, and podcasts for free, right?

Alternatives to Advertisements

There’s no free lunch. Every hour of network television is peppered with nearly 20 minutes of interruptions, and the same is true for most other mediums, which one could argue is more costly than the “free” price tag because we’re giving up our two most precious resources—our time and attention—to receive the product.

If we don’t want ads storming our attention (or our children’s attention), then we must be willing to pay for the things we associate as “free.”

Netflix, Apple Music, and similar services are able to sidestep the traditional advertising model by providing a service people value. Other businesses and individuals—Wikipedia and Sam Harris come to mind—follow a variation of this ad-free model, frequently called a “freemium” model, where creators provide content for free, and a small portion of their audience supports their work monetarily. (By the way, this model is what keeps The Minimalists Podcast advertisement-free.)

When asked why he chooses not to run ads on his popular Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris responded, “I don’t feel I can credibly run ads on my podcast, even for products and services I love and use myself. The one ad I read for a while was for Audible, which I do use, but even in that case, I don’t feel entirely comfortable telling you that you should subscribe to Audible. I mean, should you? Perhaps you shouldn’t. I have no idea. And that would go down as the worst Audible ad ever.

“In any case, I’ve discovered that I don’t feel comfortable selling ads, which is fine because I hate what ads have done to digital media. The advertising model is responsible for almost everything that is wrong online. But not running ads puts me in a position of asking my audience for support. This is something I approached with real trepidation in the beginning. However, having done it, I’ve discovered it’s actually the most straightforward relationship I can have with my audience.”

No matter your feelings about Netflix, Apple Music, Wikipedia, Sam Harris, or similar companies and individuals, their approach undoubtedly improves their creations by making them interruption-free, and it increases trust since their audience knows these creators aren’t beholden to the desires of advertisers, which allows them to communicate directly with their audience in a way that strengthens the relationship because the customers are in control, not the ad buyers.

Moreover, as consumers, our willingness to exchange money for creations forces us to be more deliberate about what we consume. If we’re paying for it, we want to make sure we’re getting our money’s worth. It’s a mystery why we don’t do the same for so-called “free” programming, where we pay no money, but we rarely get our attention’s worth.

Whether your time is worth $10, $100, or $1,000 per hour, you likely spend tens of thousands of dollars every year consuming messages from advertisers. Think about that: in a very real way, you’re paying to be advertised to. And there are no refunds on your misspent attention.


The flipside of advertising isn’t the absence of communication—it’s marketing.

In his book, The Mindset of Marketing Your Music, Derek Sivers writes, “Don’t confuse the word marketing with advertising, announcing, spamming, or giving away branded crap. Really, marketing just means being considerate. Marketing means making it easy for people to notice you, relate to you, remember you, and tell their friends about you.”

What Sivers is describing here is the most honest form of marketing: informing people without manipulating or bothering them. At its ethical zenith, marketing considers the needs and points of view of an audience and works hard to meet those needs by connecting the creators with consumers in an authentic way.

In neutral terms, marketing is an unpaid endorsement, often by the creator herself, communicated directly to an audience who’s eager to learn more about the product or service. When done well, this is what Seth Godin describes as Permission Marketing: “the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

It is possible to engage in world-class marketing without spending a penny on advertising. True, both advertising and marketing are forms of promotion—both allow creators to present their goods and services to a group of people—and when executed poorly, even well-intended marketing can be overkill. Like advertisements, not all marketing messages are created equal.

Bastardized Marketing

Unfortunately, not every marketer is a paragon of integrity. Just like the advertising world, marketing messages can be laced with misinformation, exaggerations, and propaganda.

When creators stray from their audience’s preferences—when they stop providing value and abuse their permission with over-marketing—they fail; they fall victim to vapid self-promotions, the most egregious examples of which include spam emails, website pop-ups, clickbait headlines, begging for followers, searching for “Likes.”

As “The Minimalists,” we provide loads of high-quality free creations—essays, podcasts, and quotes—and we occasionally use our platforms to promote a book, event, or service. And if we’re being forthright, even though we attempt to market with integrity, even we struggle to walk the line between informative and overkill.

While Ryan & I refuse spam, pop-ups, and salacious titles, and we strive to add value, we, too, have fallen victim to the “look at me” Internet culture—occasionally putting our preferences above our audience’s best interests. Whenever we catch ourselves straying, we course correct, and we work diligently to improve.

Marketing as Part of the Creation

Regardless of how you feel about marketing, it is the final step in the creative process. Marketing helps creators get their creations in front of people, and when approached delicately, it benefits their audience. But when creators focus more on promoting the creation than the act of creating, the product suffers and so does the audience, and trust is eroded.

Until recently, the only way a creator could effectively market her product was to plaster her message across television, radio, print, and billboards. Using jargon like “GRPs,” “TRPs,” and “frequency,” advertisers could guarantee their product would reach a particular audience via a robust advertising plan. Even though this shotgun approach was imprecise, it was the only way to get to a mass audience.

Today, the opposite is true. As a creator, you are your own marketing department; you can find an enthusiastic audience without the need to advertise. And because our tools are better than ever, your efforts can be more precise than the traditional approach of yesteryear, so you needn’t cast a wide net to be effective. In fact, a thousand true fans are enough.

Spending time marketing your creation doesn’t need to be tedious, either; it can be creative, artistic, and even fun. That’s why the best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing: it feels like a conversation or entertainment or something the audience anticipates. Above all, it feels considerate—not salesy or forced.

Unavoidable Advertisements

All of this poses an interesting and prickly dilemma for us as “The Minimalists.” Because we don’t want to add to the noise, we personally don’t allow ads on our website, podcast, or any other medium we directly control.

However, we appear regularly on television and radio shows, as well as in newspapers and magazines, in which advertisements appear. And we’re honestly conflicted about this.

Even companies we respect and have partnered with—our tour promoter, Live Nation; our primary bookselling platform, Amazon; and the company behind our travel-bag project, Pakt—engage in various forms of advertising.

We could, of course, choose not to appear anywhere that participates in advertising in any form, but because ads are virtually everywhere—Americans see upwards of 5,000 each day—that would greatly limit the amount of people our message reaches.

So we’ve instead decided to ride the line: no, we won’t incorporate ads into our platforms, and we’ll continue to speak out against the innate problems with advertising, but we won’t hide in a cave to shield ourselves from every billboard.

Now maybe you think advertisements are just a necessary nuisance, but I believe they are one of the worst things to happen to our culture: they are the largest contributing factor toward rampant consumerism in the developed world, and they’re the biggest reason our political climate is where it is today.

Advertisements are much like the islands of plastic haunting our oceans—a giant problem people rarely think about. That doesn’t mean ads (or plastic) shouldn’t exist; I simply don’t feel good about producing either unless they contribute to the greater good.

Values over Money

That said, I’m not allergic to money. And this commentary isn’t meant to be a judgment on other people.

Many of my close friends incorporate advertisements into their creations, and I don’t necessarily begrudge them for that. It likely wouldn’t do much good anyway because, as Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The way I understand it, though, is simple: my values trump my ability to make money. And advertisements don’t align with my personal values.

Do I want to earn a living? Yes, of course I do. But I want to live a life that’s congruent with my values, and thus I don’t want money to be the primary driver of my creations. Just because I can advertise, that doesn’t mean I should.

True, money will always be an important part of the equation (everybody has to pay the bills, right?), but if we put creativity and our values first, then we can determine the role of money further down the line.


Suffice it to say, this disquisition wouldn’t see the light of day in any of today’s ad-driven organs. Nor would it find its way into a scholarly journal, because this isn’t a peer-reviewed article; it’s just one guy’s loosely connected thoughts about advertising.

It’s my hope that these musings start a conversation about the oft-ignored pernicious aspects of advertisements. And maybe—just maybe—our society can find a way to make advertisements that don’t suck.

Let’s not hold our breath, though. If we want to produce meaningful creations, we must rely on ourselves. Or, as the historian Yuval Noah Harari once wrote, “You cannot unite humanity by selling advertisements.” This is true even if those ads are for penis pills.