Advertising may make people miserable, but it still has its uses

EVERY YEAR, as Americans polish off their Thanksgiving feasts, a particular genre of advertisement begins to air. The details vary, but the plot does not: one family member surprises another with the Christmas gift of a luxury car, often adorned with a cartoonishly large bow. The recipient never betrays a hint of the dismay one might expect of someone whose partner has spent tens of thousands of dollars without consultation. Such a car can easily cost more than the median annual income of an American household, and most people who see these ads will not be able to afford one. But the envy such spots induce serves an economic purpose, even as it leaves the majority feeling worse about themselves.

Ads and other forms of marketing ostensibly serve a straightforward economic role. Firms selling goods and services need to tell consumers about the availability and desirability of their wares, and spend on advertising to do so. By informing consumers about the relative merits of various products, ads improve the quality of purchasing decisions and, conceivably, leave both firms and shoppers better off than they would be in an ad-free world.

Yet advertising might fall short of this ideal in many ways. It need not be honest or representative of the full range of available products, for example. Some firms target impressionable...

via The Economist: Finance and economics Business Feeds

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