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The Tragedy of the Advertising Commons

by Matthew Syrett  |  
September 21, 2004
  |  14,607 views

Advertising is rife with doomsayers.

It seems that half the commentators out there are speaking about the end of advertising as we know it, or worse. The consensus of such literature is that our present models of advertising are growing inefficient in an increasingly complex media environment populated with communication-saturated consumers.

While there are truths to be found in that opinion, what is missing is a deeper analysis of the forces behind the issues—the ultimate causes.

Instead of offering up the next quick fix or more well-worn analysis, I would like to take a look at the ultimate causes underlying the direction of advertising today; in my mind, they go much deeper than the often-mentioned fracturing of the mass media or the growing trend of consumer cynicism.

The ultimate problem lies in human nature vis-à-vis competition between advertisers, which is being played out today as a variant of the Garrett Hardin's well-known "Tragedy of the Commons."


I hope that through this type of exploration we can begin to move beyond the confused, quick-fix-focused and fad-obsessed behaviors of today's advertising, and begin once again to create sound long-term visions for our advertising. I want us to begin to think about sustainable advertising.

Without this understanding of ultimate causation, we stand prone and are maybe even doomed to keep repeating the same shortsighted missteps that have brought us to our difficult situation.

On the Topic of Commons


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Matthew Syrett is a marketing consultant/analyst—a hybrid marketer, film producer, technologist, and statistician. He was vice-president of product development at the LinkShare Corporation and vice-president at Grey Interactive. Reach him via syrett (at) gmail (dot) com.

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