Experts estimate that the last time the average American went a full day without exposure to a single advertisement was in 1915. By 1999, it was estimated that an individual could have seen or heard as many as 15,000 marketing messages a day. This gradual encroachment of advertising into everyday life is called "ad creep."
In 1893, when Munsey's magazine, burdened by stagnant circulation and growing debt, slashed its cover price from 25¢ to 10¢ and made up for it with advertising, it set a precedent. In 1900, for example, Harper's ran more ads than it had in the previous 22 years combined. The uneasy balance between editorial content and advertising in magazines tipped from a 54 to 46 editorial-to-ads ratio in 1970 to a near standoff of 50.6 to 49.4 by the end of the century.
Adding sound to the mix
When commercial radio debuted in the U.S. in November 1920, advertising had the potential to move into the amorphous medium of sound. Probably the earliest radio advertisement—on New York's WEAF in 1922—cajoled tasteful listeners to purchase housing at Hawthorne Court in the New York borough of Queens. Research supported the efficacy of broadcast advertising showing, for example, that a visual image disappears from the brain in about one second, while an aural image lasts four or five times as long. Not surprisingly, radio ad expenditures continued to grow, reaching almost $18 billion in 2000.
TV proved an even more fertile breeding ground for advertising. Launched with great fanfare (albeit to a limited audience) at the 1939 New York World's Fair, TV was never a medium with program content occasionally interrupted by commercials, but one of commercials occasionally interrupted by content. In 2000, U.S. viewers spent an average of four hours per day watching TV. As a consequence, by the time American children graduate from high school, they have seen an estimated 360,000 TV commercials.
The World Wide Web took advertising even further. Seen by 161 million North Americans and 378 million people worldwide, Internet advertising can, like radio, cross editorial/advertising lines; like TV and print, it bombards viewers with visual images; and, like direct mail, it is capable of targeting consumers with great precision.
The electronic medium allows for niche marketing on an unprecedented scale. By the late 1990s, nine out of 10 Internet "surfers" received so-called spam—unwanted commercials transmitted via e-mail—at least once a week, while 50% received six or more. In the year 2000, unsolicited advertising accounted for approximately 10% of the 10 billion e-mails sent per day. Unhindered by physical borders or set blocks of time, pop-up ads and banners could be shown to computer users throughout the time that they spend viewing a page.
At the same time, the popularity of marketing on the Web did not in any way detract from marketing in the traditional formats. Ad creep only begot more ad creep as companies fight to get their messages heard over those of others.
Inescapable and ubiquitous
The result has been that advertising is not only abundant, but inescapable and ubiquitous as well. A Mexican restaurant in San Francisco went so far as to offer free lunches for a lifetime to customers who had the eatery's logo tattooed on their bodies, and stickers for the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves were placed on millions of bananas and apples. Ad-displaying TV monitors have been installed atop self-serve fuel pumps, while motion-activated audio players have been positioned near urinals and billboard-size signs are pulled behind boats along the Florida coastline.
Sports events have proved an irresistible venue for advertising. In California, the San Francisco 49ers stadium, formerly Candlestick Park, was renamed 3Com Park Long-established college bowl games have been rechristened as, for example, the Nokia Sugar Bowl and the FedEx Orange Bowl. NBC, ABC, Fox, MTV and other TV networks use virtual advertising, wherein paid ads that look like real scenery, such as a billboard for Dodge in the Cleveland Browns stadium, are blended seamlessly into live broadcasts.
Wearable computers woven into clothing promise a 21st-century version of the sandwich board, while by 2005 the mobile/wireless advertising market is projected to be beaming $16.4 billion worth of ads, including commercials, to cell phones and personal digital assistants from interactive billboards aimed at the more than 125 million Americans who commute to work every day. And the sky is no longer the limit: Pizza Hut affixed its logo to a rocket sent to the international space station.
The public response to ad creep has been largely passive or amused, but ad creep can spark consumer resistance and suspicion. As early as the 1960s, outrage over ad creep manifested itself in the U.S. Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which regulated outdoor advertising along the 306,000 miles of federally funded primary, interstate and national highways. Since the passage of the act, nearly 750,000 "illegal" signs have been removed—yet outdoor advertising still reached $5.2 billion in 2000 and was growing at 9% annually.