Last week I was at an award ceremony. I did not win the award I was nominated for but lucky for you I’m not here to cry about it. As I sat at my table, sweating in a 40-year-old dress that was, for all intents and purposes, crafted from tin foil (more on that at a later date), I listened to a winner gratefully accept her award. She told the watching audience that she was stunned that a mere year ago she was working in job she hated and now she’s blogging for a living. If it weren’t rude of me to stand up and shout ‘PARDON?!’ I would have done. Not because I thought she was a terrible blogger who didn’t deserve to be earning money from it but because… One. year.
‘How the fuck?’, I thought, before realising that my entire strategy is so anti-money making you could reasonably assume I have some secret benefactor bank rolling me. (I don’t but I’m open to it, tbqh.) What normal people do, is they start a blog and then when people email them offering to send free shit or pay them money to post about something, they say yes. What I do is say no. In addition to that, I also emanate a very specific ‘don’t buy shit’ vibe which is, I suppose, not quite what brands are looking for in an ambassador.
When I had my old blog, just after finishing uni, I said yes to a PR who threw a T-shirt in my general direction when I was at their office doing styling pulls. And I think that’s the closest I’ve ever come to doing a ‘collab’. So why don’t I do them? There are plenty of ethical and sustainable brands out there who I could partner with. I wouldn’t have to sell my soul to Boohoo, so why not just do it and make some cash? The answer to that is that I’m deeply, deeply tired of advertising.
I simply can’t escape it and nor can you. Our streets are flanked by advertisements on billboards, buildings and bus stops. Taxis are wrapped in ads; buses are dressed in them; magazines are filled with them. In order to learn German on an app, I must first consume one static advert. In order to find the best route on my tube app, I must watch at least 6 seconds of a branded video before I’m allowed to dismiss it. In order to unlock the rest of an article, I must read a mini spiel and answer a question to prove I read it. Adverts are nestled in among my friends’ Instagram photos, masquerading as just another post. They impersonate freely written articles, betrayed only by a ‘sponsored by’ caveat buried somewhere inconspicuous. They’re shoehorned into TV programmes; they frame football pitches; they permeate almost every aspect of our existence. I’m tired of them.
This is nothing new. People have long been suffering from advertising fatigue. Adbusters was conceived in 1989 to challenge the conversation around consumerism, famously making use of culture jamming to reimagine adverts. In the 1990s, Americans found themselves fighting to get corporate sponsors out of their schools, campuses and syllabuses, and low-income communities sought to rid themselves of the pernicious ubiquity of billboards which were driving young people to theft in a bid to fit in. I imagine at the time (I wouldn’t know definitively – I was still eating spaghetti with my hands at this particular juncture in history) those involved felt like they were starting something; like change was bound to happen. And yet thirty years later we find ourselves living in a thick swamp of advertisements, corporate sponsors and paid collaborations. To do even the simplest things – walk down the street, flick through a newspaper, look at a photo of a particularly fabulous dog – we must wade through them. We may not feel their weight at first but they soon begin to hamper us, holding us back with doubt, desire, inferiority and debt.
Of course, some advertising is done with only the best intentions. I have wonderful friends who partner with kind and responsible brands and create thoughtful, well-researched content in order to shine a spotlight on those who do good. They do it sparingly and write with an ‘only-if-you-need-it’ attitude. But that’s the exception, not the rule. On a wider scale, we have fashion bloggers paid to wear new outfits every week, or every day, made by fast fashion brands who care for neither planet nor people. Each post is peppered with links and followed by a clickable shopping list full of things we don’t need. Beauty bloggers promote products cased in plastic, formulated by companies who test their ingredients on animals. Instagram influencers craft an existence – visually at least – around products which are supposed make you thinner, better, happier.
And I’m not here to single out people who do what they need to do to make money. Perhaps the worst offenders are those who already have too much. The ones who couldn’t possibly need any more. Footballers on hundreds of thousands of pounds a week who put their face and name to shower gels, sugary drinks and razors; millionaire musicians who front campaigns for fast fashion chains, and media giants such as Kim Kardashian who sell appetite suppressing lollipops and slimming teas to vulnerable young women.
The rise of person-as-living-advert has been insidious and we’ve accepted it wholesale. In fact, some people tweet to accuse those not sharing sponsored articles or liking paid-for posts of ‘not supporting women’. Given that so many brands mine women’s insecurities for profit, this just doesn’t line up for me. It’s not as straightforward as thinking people who use their platform to advertise are evil. I don’t. We live in a capitalist society and making money outside of those parameters isn’t easy. If you have selling power, you have cultural cachet, meaning even the biggest websites and and media outlets rely on advertising. In fact, sponsorship often sustains culture when society can’t. But when individuals, the media, cultural movements and art can only be sustained by #spon and #ad currency, brands become the gatekeepers. Blog post doesn’t sit well with them? Edit it. Act on the bill doesn’t fit their carefully curated image? Cancel them. Mural doesn’t fit within their conservative ideals? Re-paint it.
In terms of numbers, this website costs me around £200 per year to run. In terms of unpaid hours spent on it, that figure rises into the thousands. But when I wonder how I might recoup that or configure the finances so that I can justify dedicating more time to it, I come up short. I don’t believe that we can buy our way to happiness and I can’t reconcile my values with heaping yet more advertising upon you. So what’s the answer and how do I make this thing sustainable? A Patreon or Ko-fi? Linking to my PayPal? Or footing the bill and absorbing the unpaid hours? Whatever the solution, becoming a human billboard simply isn’t an option I’m prepared to take.
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