How Advertising Picks our Pockets – and What We Can Do To Prevent It


I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.

– Emile Gauvreau

Advertising. The bane of the thinking man. Even the most financially aware among us give in to the pretty lights and sounds sometimes. If there is one thing that is stopping us from becoming fiscally independent, it is advertising – and more crucially – our reaction to advertising.

Spiritualist or Materialist?

In an argument between a spiritualist and a materialist, the former says with venom in his eyes: ‘With money you cannot buy love!’ To which the latter calmly replies, ‘With love you cannot buy anything.’

We’re all part materialist, part spiritualists. Even the sage who has renounced everything has to eat, by begging, borrowing or stealing. Hunger is the great argument for materialism. On the other hand, deep within the heart of even the most ruthless materialist lies a corner reserved for those intangibles: love, contentment, peace, art, culture. In one of Telugu Cinema’s iconic scenes, a contract killer is shown admiring a sunset. ‘It looks like there has been a murder in the sky,’ he says. Later he chides his assistant with the words: ‘What separates man from beast is his appreciation of art.’

We must not resist being a bit of both, because that would be akin to rebelling against being human, but I think to have a satisfying relationship with money, we must know which side of the fence we lean towards. There is no universally right or wrong answer to this, of course, only your answer that applies to you.

Also see: 3 Questions You Must Address Before Your First Money Talk


Whichever side we lean on, there will be parts of us that lust for money, or to be more precise, for things that money can buy us. In our previous post we saw how the exponential function flummoxes us time and again. In our hunter-gatherer brains, more is always better. We’re hoarders by nature and by instinct.

It is this behaviour that advertising taps.

The Rise of the Consumer

Today we’re all consumers. Before we spoke our first words, we have already seen thousands of advertisements on television, on billboards on our streets, on our laptop screens, at movie theatres. Our children, born as they will be in the ‘information age’, will be bombarded with several orders of magnitude more before they take their first steps. Before we belong to our families or to a country or to a caste or creed or race, we belong to the companies whose advertisements we see.

If there is one right that the common man in India feels one with, it is the right to consume. But the magic of advertising is not just to make you want things, but to make you keep wanting them. The intent of companies that sell you products is to keep you interested, but only for a temporary period of time. How will Nike make money if you’re happy to wear a pair of shoes for two or three years? How will Apple survive if you’re contented with the first version of the IPhone? Will Microsoft keep making its profits if the majority of us were happy with Windows 98?

If you feel that you’re mildly dissatisfied with your life, if you feel a hint of discontent ever present under the layer of your conscious mind, it is no accident. The droves of messages hitting you from your televisions and smart phones and the internet are specifically designed to keep you in that state of mild unease, that something is not quite right with your life. Because only when you’re convinced that something is not quite right will you begin looking for ways to make it so, and in steps the product, promising to quell all your fears and to grant all your wishes.

What is our biggest fear?

More than anything, I think we fear the disapproval of our fellow men. The status we have among our peer group is the single most important thing in our lives, and we do all that we can to maintain it. In our homes at family meetings, and in our own minds when we converse with ourselves, if only we had a rupee for each time the sentence ‘What will people think?’ crops up, we’d all be millionaires, wouldn’t we? In the Panchatantra, Vishnu Sarma says that a man who loses all his wealth in the city of his birth should leave it and make his life elsewhere, for living like a pauper among the people who have seen him live like a king is akin to death.

How does Advertising tap into this fear?

In two words: with precision. The car you wish to buy is not just a car, the brochure says, it is the car ‘successful people drive’. The house you go to see on the weekend with the intention of purchasing it is not just any other house, says the salesman. It is situated in a locality full of rich people with a ‘lifestyle’

Every one of our possessions, right from our undergarments to our phones, has been sold to us tagged by a message that assures us of one thing: that it will give us the status we seek. Nobody ever asks a BMW owner whether he bought it in cash or on credit, we reason. So perhaps if I get one, even if I have to borrow up to my card’s limit, my friends will treat me with some respect.

It is not unlike a child’s clamouring for a toy so that he can show it off to his friends the next day at school. We’re all children inside, it seems. Though we grow into adults, our fears and needs remain much the same.

The fear of being left out

The other thing that we all suffer from – and this comes out of our compulsive need to attach status to possessions – is our fear of being left out, of being left behind. So whenever we’re told that a million other people have used the product, we’re seized with the need to possess it – if, for nothing else, we tell ourselves, to ‘see what the fuss is all about’. You may have heard that the best way to make a book a bestseller is to write the word ‘bestseller’ on its cover in big golden letters. Most of the movies today have ‘success meets’ on the first weekend after their releases. How many of us have not bought a model of washing machine because the salesman assured us that it is a ‘going model’?

What can we do?

Is there anything we can do to claim our freedom of thought from the screaming billboards? Can we train ourselves to ignore these advertisements so that we’re not persuaded as much to part with our cash? Or are we forever going to be at their mercy? I asked myself these questions a few months back, and I’ve since resolved to follow these steps whenever I encounter an advertisement.

I still often fail, but I do succeed enough in killing that impulse to fork out my wallet and swipe my card. Perhaps they will help you, too?

1. Acknowledge the feelings. First of all, don’t feel guilty for allowing yourself to be brainwashed. The emotional reactions that most ads evoke within us are natural. They’re instinctive. They bypass the thinking brain and go straight for the heart (or for the more biologically inclined, the hind-brain). So it’s not ‘bad’ to get taken in by an ad you see.

2. While we’re creatures of instinct, we’re also creatures of habit. Minimize your exposure to advertisement. Can you reduce your TV-watching time? Can you mute all the advertisements so that you’re influenced less? Can you install ad-blockers on all your internet browsers? How much can you do to drag down your ad exposure to a minimum?

3. Work on a rule of postponement. My rule of thumb is one month for any medium to big purchase. If a month after seeing an ad for the product, I’m still seriously considering it, at least it means that I’m not buying on impulse or an emotional push. The larger the purchase, the longer my ‘test period’.

4. Interview yourself. It works. Most ads build associations of their products with abstract concepts that we all run after. Sample Coke’s tagline: Open Happiness. Or Nike’s: Just Do It. All travel brochures show good looking couples walking along the beach hand in hand, immersed in each other. Happiness, achievement and love have nothing to do with Coke, Nike or travelling to a place. But by putting these associations into our heads, these products promise to fulfill our deep-seated needs.

Remember what Epicurus said? Our most basic needs are for friends, freedom and solitude.

And of course, they break that promise, sending us after another product in vain hope. In my own self-interview, I’ve been asking these three questions:

  • What is my need?
  • Why is this ad affecting me this way?
  • Will the product satisfy my need?

I agree that it can get tiresome to ask yourself these questions every time you see a product being advertised. But I’ve found that it gets easier and more natural with time. Remember: we’re all creatures of habit.

Tell me what you think

We’re in this together. I’m eager to know what you do to resist brainwashing from advertisements. Do you think that we’re spending on things we don’t need? How do you rein in your emotions when watching an ad? Has it helped you in achieving more control over your spending?

Image Courtesy: Cozi


  1. Sharath, although it sounds corny every time I say it, I have to say it. All your posts resonate so well with me that for sure I am beginning to think there is some substance to it when you call me your ‘philosophical sibling’. Almost each and every line of this post is something that I would have written had I chosen this as a topic to blog about 🙂

    The driving questions that you have listed at the end of the post are similar to the ones I ask myself – Do I need this product in the first place? What need of mine will it fulfill? Is there a similar cheaper alternative to the product in question?

    Plus, in any case, I tend to mute the television whenever an ad is aired most of the time. I catch up on my chit chat with my wife or play with my kid when the ads are running 🙂

    All this being said, a completely ‘bankrupt year’ in 2003 and early 2004 meant that I was completely weaned off ‘impulse purchases’ or ‘ad influenced purchases’ for a really long time. In fact, even today, I think a hundred times before I make even relatively cheaper purchases.


    • Hi Jai,

      Thanks for the comment. I think the ‘Indian consumer’ is only just waking up. Credit cards are only in their first generation after all. We still have many people who are conservative in their fiscal choices and stay away from impulse purchases. But the younger people (my peers and those younger than me too) are much more ‘loose’ with their pockets and wallets. I think consumerism is only going to grow, and if we don’t take steps to control ourselves and examine our spending habits, I think our next generation will burn most of the wealth the previous two generations have earned.

      But then I am a cynic. So maybe it won’t work out that way after all 🙂


  2. Ads only satisfy our inner (unfulfilled) need. Without that need, ads won’t work. That need is created by our lifestyle choices. I feel.


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