Should Ads be Illegal? A Case for Advertising

Should Ads be Illegal? A Case for Advertising

What if ads were illegal? Interesting question, no? Let’s be honest. Most people when they think about ads, groan. The groan is for many reasons. They don’t want it interrupting their favorite show, flashing on the side of the road obstructing the view of nature, they don’t want to be told what they’re missing, they don’t want to be told what they should be doing. Focusing on internet ads, they may have privacy concerns from cookies and third party data use. They may be uncomfortable with the frequency they are retargeted etc.

Mildly speaking, most people loathe ads, at best they tolerate them. Rare is the person who likes ads, if they do, they’re probably a marketer. But are ads really as awful as people perceive them to be?

In this article we’ll explore the history and evolution of ads, the current problem with the advertising industry, and what would happen if we got rid of ads entirely.

History of ads

3000 BC -The first ad was found on Papyrus in the ruins of Thebes.  A slaveholder offered a reward for the return of his runaway slave, he wrote to return the slave to “Hapu the Weaver, where the best cloth is woven to your desires”

This basic ad touches on one of the fundamentals of advertising: addressing people’s desire.

1472 William Caxton a printer, posted ads on church doors in England for his book “The Pyes of Salisbury”

1786- William Taylor started the first ad agency in England

1841 – Volney Palmer started the first U.S. based advertising agency. He innovated not only offering space and rates to potential advertisers, but supplied them with target market information as well.

1877 – N.W. Ayers who purchased Palmer’s agency, is the first large agency to have separate art and copy departments. He also introduced the open contract in advertising. His agency is behind many enduring slogans like Morton’s Salt, “When it Rains it Pours”, U.S. Army, “Be all you can be” and De Beers’s, “A Diamond is Forever”   

1882 – Ivory Soap advertises that their soap is 99.44% pure. This was based on lab reports, and this data driven approach is one Proctor & Gamble continues to utilize. 

1922 – The first paid radio ad is aired on WEAF in New York. The Queensboro Corporation paid $50 for a 10 minute broadcast of the beautiful suburb life at the Hawthorne Court Apartments in Jackson Heights Queens. The roundabout approach was done due to direct selling being prohibited at the time.

1926 – Copy testing is introduced by direct response copywriter John Caples. He’s responsible for the famous “They Laughed When I sat Down at the Piano But When I Started to Play” ad. That style of headline has been used and built upon by copywriters since then.

1941 – Bulova Watches runs the first television advertisement.

1976 -In Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc.

the Supreme Court ruled to protect commercial speech under the first amendment, giving advertisers more opportunity to reach markets in unique ways.

1994- The first digital banner appeared on (now Wired) It had a 44% CTR! For context current average CTR rates are .35%

1996 – DoubleClick, one of the first ad servers debuted. Ad servers enable media buyers to display ads, track their performance and target their markets.

1997 – The first ad pop-up was developed. Blockers for it immediately ensued.

1998 – PPM (paid place model) was introduced. It was a forerunner to the PPC model that quickly followed.

2002 – The first ad blocker was coded and made available to the general public

2009 – Real Time Bidding (RTB) is introduced.

2013 – Next Millennium is founded

2015 – Header bidding is introduced with AppNexuses Prebid.js

2017 – Better Ad Coalition releases their report with the “least preferred ad formats”, otherwise known as most hated. Advertisers take note.

2021 – Google announced it will end use of third party cookies on its browser by 2022. It has since extended the deadline to 2023

What it all means

If you follow the narrative from the origins of advertising, you see it’s anything but a linear path. The first ads were basic and direct communications. Advertising as an industry we can recognize only started in the 1840’s; optimizing the creative took another almost 80 years to develop. 

Advertisers focused on the creative for decades until the internet enabled the industry to hypertarget each company’s ideal client at faster and faster speeds. Every noteworthy event after that stems from that goal. As you approach recent events the push and pull between advertisers’ goal and consumers’ privacy and user experience becomes more pronounced.

A recent SNL weekend update featured a joke about the Devil claiming credit for sticky interstitial ads that interfere with people’s ability to read articles. People find ads intrusive and annoying. They also find too invasive of their privacy, particularly third party cookies that allow advertisers to track users over different sites to better understand and target them. 

What if ads were illegal?

People will often suggest whether earnestly, facetiously or out of frustration “Ads should be illegal”. So let’s do a little thought experiment, what would happen if there were no ads?

1. There would be no more free content, information or entertainment.  The free internet as we know it would cease to exist. Most creators make their revenue through advertising, if that was not possible, they’d have to charge for their services. How many platforms, websites, creators, influencers would you pay for? 

2. It will turn into a survival of the fittest and the largest. No more could someone have a nice side hustle making YouTube review videos, or fashion blogging, or creating memes. Something would either have to be profitable right away, or you’d have savings to lean on, or you’re already the big guy. Slow growth would not happen without the support of ads and affiliate marketing.

3. Location, Location, Location will really become the be all and end all. If there’s no advertising, only businesses that are in obvious and prime locations will have any customers, because no one will know of the existence of any of the others. Advertising extends our vision, with no ads, we’re back to only seeing what’s physically directly around us.

4. Freelancers and the accompanying culture will ebb away. With no way to advertise their services, their niche, their offer, they’d be out of work. Former freelancers will be folded back into the corporate world. Which is a shame because freelancers often support the corporate world in unique ways that benefit both, as well as there’s the entire freelance lifestyle and services that support them that will fade as well.

                                  5. Product and service quality will deteriorate and prices will rise. If there’s no advertisement, there’s little way to compare the competition, unless you purchased both products, which is often not feasible. Manufacturers can easily team up with retailers leaving consumers with no other option. There is no way to know what else is out there because there is no advertising. This leads to the next point.

6. Monopolies can easily form and with that often comes an increase in price, a decrease in service and often a decrease in quality. New competition can not enter the market as there’s no way to let the public know they exist.  

While some of this may sound a bit dystopian and extreme, it’s not too difficult to imagine it happening. If you were to look at the evolution of advertising, its ethics and regulation, you can easily see a time in which advertising interacted with the world differently. Change happens all the time.


So, should ads be illegal? Far from ads being a Faustian bargain, ads serve a valuable function in our world. While most can agree that they can be annoying and frustrating at times, they are necessary. Is there room for improvement? Definitely. Marketers and tech companies are making significant efforts to rectify the privacy concerns as well as intrusion annoyance. 

Jeff Green, the CEO of The Trade Desk, said, “The quid pro quo of the internet where you see relevant ads in exchange for free content.” Each party gets something they desire out of the arrangement. If someone wants to opt out, they can always read a book.

Esther Kurtz