“If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear…”
You might remember this passage from high school. It’s from Homer’s Odyssey. Specifically, it’s the part where the sorceress Bavmorda gives advice to Willow Ufgood (hero of the Odyssey) about how to navigate temptation.
Although she is a rapscallion known for turning soldiers into pigs, she’s a smart lady and gives pretty good advice. Willow ends up lashing Madmartigan to the mast of their ship while stopping his own ears (and those of the prophesied child Elora Danan) with wax.
Sometimes, the best way to resist temptation is to physically stop yourself from experiencing it in the first place.
This got me thinking about advertisements. The average American sees more than 5,000 of them every single day. For some people, it can be as many as 20,000. Although you only remember seeing a small percentage of them, the amazing supercomputer that lives in your skull is constantly processing them on a subconscious level.
The point is, the best way to avoid the temptation of ads is to insulate yourself from them. Here are some easy ways to do so.
Give advertisers as little information about yourself as possible
You will always see some advertising, but ads only work when they’re of interest to you. Give advertisers as little information about yourself as possible and your eyes will start skipping over ads that have absolutely no relevance for you.
Here are the four kinds of data that advertisers collect on you.
Any company you’ve purchased from is likely to harvest your purchase data to see if they can establish a pattern. This one is fairly benign, and I actually quite like the way some advertisers use it.
Amazon in particular has purchase data on lock. They’ve noticed my monthly request for a shipment of timothy grass 300 cubits in length, 50 cubits in width, and 30 cubits in height. So they know I’m either building a non-watertight version of the ark or an owner of multiple guinea pigs. Each month Amazon suggests another shipment, which actually prompts me when I might otherwise forget. And if I fail to follow through, Amazon will send paramedics to my home to make sure the guinea pigs haven’t eaten me instead.
(Do you have any idea how much guinea pigs eat? Because stop, you don’t. The sickest nightmares of the most depraved glutton have only begun to comprehend the amount of food a guinea pig needs.)
Unfortunately, there’s no real way way to keep an online retailer from collecting this kind of information. It’s as much theirs as it is yours. They can’t un-know your habits as their customer.
Any time you start a profile on a site that includes data such as age, gender, marital status, location, and interests, advertisers want it. You can’t eliminate this data completely, as some services require data such as birth dates and addresses. However, you can reduce the amount of profile data available (and your odds of having your identity stolen).
- Delete old profiles on websites you no longer use, and be cautious about opening new ones
- Only populate profiles that you actually use, and only with information that other people need to know
- Include as few details as you can
If you use a search engine, the keywords you use to search are surprisingly valuable sources of consumer data.
When I search for “blush pink cardigan” and dial the searches to only show me items under $40, advertisers can infer any number of details about me. They can pretty safely assume I’m a woman. They know I need a cardigan, so they can offer me ads for other cardigans. They know I think I look good in blush (I don’t, for the record, I just wish I did) so they can tempt me with other items in that color. They know the price range I’m willing to spend.
Here’s the thing: this only works if you actually click on the ads. The advertiser gets no data from the search engine on unsuccessful views—only clickthroughs. So just don’t click on those ads!
- Don’t click on search engine results tagged as ads
- Train your eyes to ignore the parts of the site layout that are dedicated to ad space
This is the real moneymaker. Websites can track your movements across their sites using cookies. The cookies can come either from the site itself, or from third-party cookies embedded in ads elsewhere on the page. From the excellently informative Clint Humphrey at How Stuff Works:
“Marketing companies like DoubleClick, which advertise on sites across the Web, use third-party cookies to compile surprisingly complete records of users’ browsing habits. This information helps them tailor advertising to specific patrons. For example, if a user’s clickstream record includes a lot of sports Web sites, he or she may see more advertisements for team jerseys and game tickets, even when viewing something unrelated, like the weather.”
I recently had a fleeting fancy to buy truffle oil, because boy do I love that heavenly salty/sweaty flavor. Then I remembered how much the judges on Cutthroat Kitchen hate truffle oil. Because I believe in living in a constant state of Cutthroat Kitchen preparedness, I decided against buying.
Suddenly every single site on the goddamned interweb is pushing truffle-related products at me. Doing a little online shopping? Buy black truffle oil! Scanning social media? Buy white truffle oil! Checking my email? Buy truffle salt! Browsing the news? Buy shaved truffles in oil!
It’s annoying, invasive, creepy… and deeply effective. Constant reminders and re-exposures to products make you buy things that you otherwise would’ve forgotten you ever wanted.
Luckily there is a way to stop it. All Internet browsers give you the opportunity to control your cookies. And almost all sites offer you the opportunity to manually opt out of customized ads, including major offenders Facebook and Google.
… Though they really would prefer you didn’t. Google is a company that knows exactly how UX design works, and their process to turn off Google’s customized ads is so drawn-out and difficult that it feels like performance art. Switch off a lever and a enormous warning pops up, cautioning you about all the IRRELEVANT ADS you will be forced to endure out there in the wilderness. And once you confirm, you are automatically swept back a page, easily tricking you into thinking that you’re done. You aren’t—you have to revisit again to turn off another lever and finish the job. Very cheeky, Google!
The amount of data collected through third-party cookies is pretty staggering. I have a feeling that if I could see all the data these advertisers have collected or inferred from my web traffic, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up. Luckily, all Internet browsers give you the option to turn off cookies.
- Turn off cookies, especially third-party cookies
- Firefox: Preferences > Privacy > Use Custom Settings
- Chrome Instructions: Settings > Advanced Settings > Privacy > Cookies
- Internet Explorer Instructions: Tools > Internet Options > Privacy > Settings
- Safari Instructions: Preferences > Privacy
- Install ad-blocking plugins for your browser
- AdBlock, Adblock Plus, Disconnect, Ghostery, uBlock Origin, and 1Blocker are the most popular options
- Manually opt out of site-based customized ads
- Google: Sign In > Ads Settings > Ads Personalization
- Facebook: Click the V on the top right corner of any ad, then > Manage Your Ad Preferences
Cut the cable
Cable may be the single most wicked invention of our wicked age. Everything about it sucks. It encourages you to want things you don’t need. When you use it, you just sit passively absorbing sponsored content, wasting your time on unproductive nothingness. And doing so makes you pale, doughy, and out-of-shape. Like me (let’s face it, you need a healthy complexion to look good in blush).
I haven’t had cable in over a decade. I regret it exactly once per year, during the Kentucky Derby. Besides those two minutes, I don’t miss it one bit.
Now I watch plenty of TV, but I do it through streaming services. Choosing what to watch next forces me to be more attentive and intentional with my idiot-box habits. I’ll destroy an entire season of a prestige drama on one or two work-from-home days, but I have more control over what I’m watching and I see a teeny, tiny fraction of the ads I would watching live television. Typical TV watchers who switch to an ad-free experience like Netflix will see an average of 160 fewer hours of ads every year. That’s almost a week of your life per year.
On the flip side, I occasionally watch stuff on YouTube or Hulu or CrunchyRoll, which are supported by ads. They show me the same ads, again and again and again, trying to bore me into buying an ad-free experience. But I am too smart for that. I just mute the ad. Pushing a button is free. Or I get really, really into dissecting the ad and creating a vast meta-narrative behind it. My first novel will be based on the fictional adventures of the teleporting ghost boy from this commercial, which fate condemned me to watch 50-60 times.
I know people who pay Spotify $9.99 a month just to avoid listening to the ads. That is insane to me. Pressing a button that is already at your fingertips is the smallest task I can think of—much smaller than paying a monthly fee. If I walked up to those same friends on the street and said “Hey, I’ll pay you $120 a year to listen to a couple of ads every day, but you have the option to ignore them or mute them whenever you want,” they would sign up on the spot. People just don’t think about what it is they’re really paying for: $120 a year so that you don’t have to occasionally press a button.
Bing, from the excellent “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of Black Mirror, had to pay real money to mute ads because he lived in a science fiction dystopia with no mute button. You are not Bing. You have a mute button. Don’t pay someone ten dollars a month to not have to occasionally press it.
- Get rid of cable
- Use free or low-cost video and music streaming services
- Never pay money to block ads when a mute button is free
Unsubscribe from everything
This, I think, is the most important thing you can do. Your email inbox is a tool for communicating with friends, family, and employers. Take it back from the marketers who treat it like the Safari Zone.
Your favorite store’s coupon list? Unsubscribe. The mailing list for your friend’s charity that you somehow landed on? Unsubscribe. Service updates from some program you bought? Unsubscribe. Sale notifications from an online retailer you’ve used in the past? Unsubscribe. Take every single fucking newsletter you received this year, skip straight to the bottom, and click “unsubscribe” right now.
Your life will immediately get better on three levels. First: you will spend less time sorting through emails, a dull chore that is beneath your dignity. Second: you will be hit with far fewer temptations to acquire useless crap that you don’t need. Third: you will save money, because you are giving in to far fewer temptations.
Sephora used to send me emails to remind me that I’m ugly and I might love myself more if I smeared some random gunk on my face. UN. SUB. SCRIBE. I’m hot as fuck without your $45 foundation primer!
Anthropologie used to send me emails to remind me that my life wasn’t full of knick-knacks that properly proclaimed my bohemian romanticism. UN. SUB. SCRIBE. Fuck you Anthropologie. My life is full of fucking whimsy and I don’t need a $380 wall tapestry to prove it.
I’m having a bad day at work and here comes an email from H&M, making me think my day sucks because I’m wearing the same old blazer I’ve had for two years. Fuck that. I’m actually having a bad day because Nancy is an evil, petty woman who rules her team with fear, and I am the champion of light destined to destroy her, but heroes gotta experience some setbacks to make things exciting. At no point do blazers enter into this discussion, H&M! UN. SUB. SCRIBE.
Email lists are extraordinarily valuable. They work because they give advertisers direct access to you. They can float their products before your eyes and hope you see them as a solution to all your problems. Removing yourself from them is your right as a consumer, and you should exercise it.
- Unsubscribe from every mailing list you’re currently on
- If the task is too daunting, jumpstart your efforts by using an automated process like Unroll.Me
Follow these steps and you will soon find yourself in a blissfully ad-free cocoon. It’s hard to describe how great it feels. Advertisers and marketers no longer intrude into every moment of your day, asking for more of your precious money.
I guess this is what it feels like to be Elora Danan at the end of Homer’s Odyssey: no longer hunted mercilessly by the armies of Bavmorda, safe forever in the arms of evil-general-turned-rebel-princess Sorsha.
Teach your kids the classics! One day they’ll grow up to be just like me!