Knowing and Wanting to Look

Matt Levine argues in opposition to my call for an advertising ban that Google is not a good substitute for advertising because it can’t help you find products you don’t know to look for.

Wrong for three reasons, I think.

First, there are lots of Google-discoverable websites devoted to informing you about things, including products you don’t know to look for — we call them newspapers, magazines, blogs, and so on. Indeed, an important part of all journalism is devoted to revealing and reviewing new products, often much more reliably than does advertising. You can search Google to find the latest blog devoted to interesting new gadgets you’ve never heard of, and in a world without advertising you would pay for access to that blog, or the blog would receive a government subsidy of some kind, so the absence of advertising revenues will not have driven these information services out of existence.

Second, don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth, as amplified by social media. Consumers don’t. They trust word of mouth more than advertising, which is why advertisers today are falling all over themselves to co-opt word of mouth with paid “influencers”.

Indeed, information about truly innovative new products always seems to do just fine in diffusing through to consumers via word of mouth, as long as advertising from competitors is not there to block it. Just think — did you first hear about the iPhone, Google, or Facebook from an ad, or from a friend? It’s the also-rans that need advertising’s boost.

Finally, if consumers choose not to search for things they don’t know about — and they can always Google “the ten gadgets I wish I knew about” whenever they want — doesn’t that represent a preference for being uninformed, the frustration of which by advertising today must actually make consumers worse off?

Of course, at the tail end of any information you get about products from a Google search, whether via a news website returned by that search, or directly from a corporate website returned by that search, there will be product information provided by a seller — which is to say, advertising. The only way for journalists, or anyone else on the web, to find out about new products is, initially, from sellers themselves.

Some basic amount of passive advertising must therefore always be allowed in order for Google to function as a substitute for all the other kinds of advertising. My position is that the only form of advertising that remains legitimately informative in the information age, and therefore should not be banned, is the provision of product information by sellers on their own corporate websites. That’s the only advertising that’s still needed to ensure that consumers can get all the product information they want, when and if they want it, from Google.

I make these points on pages 2301-2303 of the law review article upon which that call for an advertising ban is based.