Man, let me tell ya, I hate few things more than advertisements.
Ads are the worst. They waste my time and attention. They make me feel spied-upon. Their fundamental purpose is to part me with my hard-won money. Worst of all, they remind me of my dark past working in marketing. I’m trying to leave that behind me, thank you very much!
You might remember this passage from high school…
“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…”
It’s from Homer’s Odyssey. Specifically, it’s the part where the sorceress Bavmorda gives advice to Willow Ufgood (you know, the hero of the Odyssey) about how to navigate temptation.
Although she’s a rapscallion known for turning soldiers into pigs, Bavmorda is also a smart lady who 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.
The moral of this ancient epic poem? Sometimes, the best way to resist temptation is to physically stop yourself from experiencing it in the first place.
Here are some easy ways to make yourself harder to find—and harder to tempt.
Stop drowning in ads
Want to hear something buckwild?
The average person sees between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements every single fucking day.
You’re steeping in them like so much Earl Grey. Especially y’all frugal folks who refuse to buy ad-free premium subscriptions. I see you, I hear you, I am you.
Clever professionals like myself design these ads to fill you with negative emotions like hunger, want, jealousy, inadequacy, and shame. We want to convince you that the only thing standing between you and eternal happiness is our product. Our tricks are sophisticated and exhaustively repetitive. And even if they don’t work, they are an unnecessary tax on your time, attention, and processing power. Because 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.
Give advertisers as little information about yourself as possible
Perfection isn’t the goal here. You will always see some advertisements. That’s just life.
Instead, think of this as a tiered approach. Ideally, advertisers will have no idea that you even exist. But once they do, every scrap of information about yourself is a meal to them. Luckily, there are many ways to starve them.
Here are the four main kinds of data that advertisers collect on you, and how to thwart each one.
How to avoid purchase data
Any company you’ve purchased from is likely to harvest your purchase data to see if they can establish a pattern. Cartoon villain company Amazon in particular has purchase data on lock. It’s why they pioneered automatic recurring purchases.
- Shop at smaller, independent stores. They don’t have the resources to exploit your data.
- Decline to set up recurring automated purchases unless it’s an item you truly need in perpetuity, from only one retailer.
How to avoid profile data
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 in a data leak.
- When you shop online, check out as a guest instead of creating an account or profile.
- Decline to provide unnecessary data about yourself. If the form field is optional, leave it blank.
- Sign up for accounts and coupons with burner email accounts, like TempMail.
How to avoid search data
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 with cold shoulders. They know I need a cardigan, so they can offer me ads for other cardigans. And they know I think I look good in blush. (I don’t, for the record—just wish I did.) So they can tempt me with other items in that color. They even know the price range I’m willing to spend.
Here’s the thing: this only works if you actually click on the advertisements. The advertiser gets no data from the search engine on unsuccessful views—only clickthroughs. So don’t click on those ads!
- Browse in private windows and incognito modes.
- Use browsers with fewer hidden tracking features, like Firefox.
- Use search engines with a greater emphasis on privacy, like Ecosia or DuckDuckGo.
How to avoid clickstream data
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 advertisements elsewhere on the page.
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. But 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! Weeping over the news? Buy shaved truffles in oil!
It’s annoying, invasive, creepy… and deeply effective. Constant reminders and re-exposures make you buy things that you otherwise would’ve forgotten you ever wanted.
The amount of data collected through third-party cookies is 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.
- Always decline unnecessary cookies.
- Set your browser to block cookies by default.
- Don’t click on search engine results tagged as advertisements.
- Install ad blocking plugins, like AdBlocker Ultimate.
- Train your eyes to ignore the parts of the site layout that are dedicated to ad space.
- Decline to use sites and apps that use design tricks to blend advertisements in with content.
Opt out of optional privacy invasions
Decline to share every piece of unnecessary information
How many times have you downloaded a new app and seen a notification like this…
“Allow [new app] to access your location? Camera? Photos? Contacts? Want us to save your credit card information? May we access your deepest fears? Can we see a list of all the erotic fanfiction you’ve ever liked on AOOO? Can we send you push notifications about your ongoing failure to buy enough things from us?!”
No? Just me?
Unless it is vital to the function of the platform, app, or website, decline everything. Including intentionally vague agreements about sharing “performance data” to “make your experience better.” It’s not my job to fix your shit.
Manually opt out of customized advertising
Major platforms like Google and Facebook have massive amounts of data on pretty much everyone. Just by virtue of having a Gmail account and a Instagram handle, they know what I look like, where I go, who I hang out with, where I live, what I like, and how much money I make.
And every site you’ve ever used that says “login with a Facebook account” or “login with your Google account?” They’re adding to the data pool, and drinking at it too.
Luckily, you can manually opt out of site-based customized advertisements.
- Google: Sign In > Ads Settings > Ads Personalization.
- Facebook: Click the V on the top right corner of any ad, then > Manage Your Ad Preferences.
Beware deliberately misleading UX design
Yes, you can turn those features off… But 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 advertisements is so drawn-out and difficult that it feels like performance art.
Switch off a lever and an 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! Don’t fall for it, fam.
Avoid ads in your videos and music
I recently came into possession of a record player, fulfilling the two credits toward my hipster certification credential. It’s reconnected me with the magical feeling of experiencing art without blaring, obnoxious interruptions from advertisements. That’s a joy everyone deserves.
Cut the cable
Cable may be the single most wicked invention of our wicked age. Everything about it sucks. When you use it, you just sit passively absorbing sponsored content, wasting your time on unproductive nothingness. And doing so makes you pale, and Gollum-like.
Like me. Let’s face it, you need a healthy complexion to look good in blush.
Like plenty of young people, 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.
- Don’t have cable.
- Seriously, why would you even have cable?!
- The ads are ads, but the shows are also ads! It’s the wooorrrrrst!
Choose what you watch
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 advertisements 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 per year. That’s almost a week of your life back, every single year.
- Use free or low-cost video and music streaming services that let you choose what you watch.
- Turn off auto-play features that suck you into mindless consumption of media.
Here’s more on conscious consumerism, while we’re at it…
- Don’t Spend Money on Shit You Don’t Like, Fool
- Ethical Consumption: How to Pollute the Planet and Exploit Labor Slightly Less
- The Subscription Box Craze and the Mindlessness of Wasteful Spending
- 6 Proven Tactics for Avoiding Emotional Impulse Spending
God gave you a mute button
On the flip side, I occasionally watch stuff on YouTube or Hulu or CrunchyRoll, which are supported by advertisements. 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 advertisement 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.
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. That said, I know people who pay Spotify $9.99 a month just to avoid listening to the ads. And I get it. They’re annoying, disruptive, and repetitive. It’s a relatively small luxury, and the price may be right FOR YOU. Do what you have to do.
- Before you pay money to block advertisements, remember the 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 that super small, super light grey “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.
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.
- Treat your email address like the vital piece of private information it is.
- 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.
- Don’t sign up for newsletters with your regular email address. Make a dedicated Garbage Address, or use burner email accounts, like TempMail.
- Always make sure that nearly-invisible “subscribe me to your bullshit” box is unticked when ordering something online.
Shopping cures nothing anyway
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 and here comes an email from H&M, making me think my day sucks because I don’t have a bold print maxi dress. Fuck that. I’m actually having a bad day because Jeff Bezos is an evil bastard who pays no taxes, and I am the champion of light destined to destroy him, but heroes gotta experience some setbacks to make things exciting. At no point do maxi dresses enter into this discussion, H&M! UN. SUB. SCRIBE.
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!
This post was originally written in February of 2017. It has been updated, expanded, and ribbed for her pleasure.