Since it first became clear that Russian agents spent thousands of dollars a month on political advertising on social media in the runup to the 2016 presidential election, Americans have been asking how the powerful advertising infrastructure run by Google and Facebook could have been thrown open to foreign agents.
But fewer have stopped to ask whether there is a good reason for this infrastructure to exist at all. Why, exactly, is it a good thing for Facebook and Google to be selling advertising to anyone, let alone Russian agents?
The obvious answer seems to be so that legitimate advertisers, meaning the likes of Coca-Cola and General Motors, can inform consumers about the products they offer.
But herein lies the paradox of all advertising in the information age, online or otherwise. If there is one thing that the internet has made it easy for consumers to access without the help of advertising, it is information – and especially information about products.
As I argue in a recent article in the Yale Law Journal, if the only justification for advertising is that it informs, then advertising is now seriously obsolete. Not only that, it could even count as anti-competitive conduct in violation of the antitrust laws -- as the Federal Trade Commission once believed.
Woodcock, Ramsi, "Advertising is Obsolete -- Here's Why It's Time to End It" (2018). Law Faculty Popular Media. 67.