Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Advertising of various kinds is steadily becoming more prevalent, intrusive, and unethical. This page deals with some related topics.


The below is largely written based on experiences in Germany. While I suspect that the situation and the methods used are similarly bad everywhere else, exceptions might exist—and local variation in detail is highly likely.

2024 update

This text was one of many written around 2012, but only published beginning in 2023. The text, as published, is basically the 2012 version with some minor language changes, clarifications, and the odd addendum. (While my opinions might have changed in details, they remain the same in the big picture.)

I have sometimes pointed out changes in technology or other factors since the original writing; however, I have not done so even remotely consistently. In particular, any and all prices must be seen in light of twelve years of additional inflation, some quite high.

By and large, things are as bad as or worse than they were in 2012, with the reservation that changes in some sub-areas might have been for the better. (For instance, intrusive advertising messages in grocery stores seem to have lessened, in my own experiences. Whether these are representative, even within Germany, is hard to say.)

Two particular negatives of today: (a) Annoying computer screens, e.g. at the checkouts of various stores, that bombard the customer with distracting and, well, annoying moving advertising, when he has no true means of escape. (b) The large attempts to profile customers/users/whatnot, in order to “personalize” advertising.

An important topic not discussed below, is how the advertising industry (and or the advertisers) might damage itself (themselves) by having too much, too intrusive, and too mass-produced advertising that makes advertising something hated and avoided or, barring that, gives each individual ad that much less influence. Looking at myself, I do whatever I can to ignore or entirely avoid advertising in the modern world, but have actually deliberately read many ads in much older sources—e.g. some magazines from the 1960s. My motivation for reading was, obviously, more to get some insight into the past than to buy a product that might not even exist any longer; however, these ads were often one or more of interesting, informative, and creating curiosity about the product—modern ads virtually never are. They certainly took up less space and were often concentrated to a few dedicated add pages, where a modern magazine might go page-with-content, page-with-giant-add, page-with-content, page-with-giant-add, etc. A particularly notable difference was the proportion of text to images relative modern advertising. (I might or might not go into more depth at a later date.)

I have written some shorter texts on related issues on Wordpress in the interim. (TODO import and link)

Deliberate deceptions and de facto lies


A staple of advertising is to make statements that are technically true, but are very, very deliberately intended to give the consumers the wrong impression. These might not be de jure lies, but they are so from a de facto perspective—and should rightfully be illegal, considered deliberate fraud.


A common variation is to make certain claims in advertising, through product names, or similar; while making contradictory statements elsewhere, including in the T&Cs or the footnotes of ads. The telecom industry gives a plenitude of examples, including the early flat-rates for various services. These alleged that the customer would get unlimited access for a fix monthly fee—in reality, they were “unlimited until we start to lose money on the deal”. (After which the customer could see his contract terminated, have his DSL slowed down to ISDN-speed, or otherwise be severely disadvantaged.)

Another example is the useless claim, for Internet connections, that “up to X Mb/s” is included—something which is of no interest to the rational customer: He typically wants “Y Mb/s guaranteed”, even if X happens to be several times larger than Y. Still, the impression that the uninformed or (overly) optimistic customer is given, is simply that X Mb/s is the to-be-expected rate—what he actually gets is almost always less, and quite often less than half.


If I understand a colleague correctly, this evil trick has since been countered by German law (or a court ruling): If only Y Mb/s are reached, the customer must not be charged for more. This is a very positive improvement, but still not satisfactory in every regard, e.g. because the customer might still make a choice that he would not have made with all the cards on the table, or because lower rates often cost more per Mb/s than higher rates. (Just like small apartments typically cost more per m2 than large ones.)


By 2024, I have no recollection of this conversation and I also cannot say that I have seen an improvement in advertising practices. (However, note that I try to minimize my exposure and might simply lack the data.)

The result might then be that a customer enters a contract hoping for X based on misleading ads, only receives Y, and then has to jump through disproportionate hoops to get the legally mandated reimbursement. This while he misses the original opportunity to pick another provider.

Misleading energy declarations on food

Examples include:

  1. The use of arbitrary “servings” for food: Increasingly, energy content is reported in the form of “servings” (rather than pro 100 gram or per package). These servings are often arbitrarily chosen (or chosen to achieve the “right”, and artificially low, numerical value). Typically, the front of the packing contains a comparatively large “fact box” exclaiming “X Calories”, with an adjacent fine-print of “per serving”—leaving the customer with a faulty impression (typically, that X would be per package or per 100 gram).


    This uses units typical in Germany and/or Europe. The same principle likely applies elsewhere, however. The “100 gram” is approximately 3.5 U.S. ounces, while the “25 gram” below is shy of a single ounce.

    For instance, potato chips (usually sold in bags of 150–250 gram) typically come with a “serving size” of 25 gram. Do 8 persons share one bag? Does one person take 8 days to eat a bag on his own? Rarely: When I was younger I had no problems whatsoever with finishing a bag on my own in one sitting; and if I ever went below 100 gram per sitting, then only because there was no more. From my experience, most others eat in the same manner, although there might be variations due to age and size. A minimum for a realistic serving would be 50 gram. (Note that this is not a statement about how potato chips should be eaten, just how they are eaten.)


    The above refers to a reasonably common eating situation, say, eating chips when watching a movie. (Note that even splitting a bag in a four-headed family leaves us at two “servings” per head, not one, while I suspect that a four-headed family would bring more than one bag in the first place.)

    Other settings could see different results, e.g. in that someone who munches during a party might indeed get away with 25 gram. However, I doubt that this is the typical situation for more than a small minority and, unlike with the movie viewer, chances are that nutritional information is beside the point in the situation at hand. Certainly, only a minority of the party-goers, if any, were at all involved with the purchase of the chips.

    There might be some room for relevance in entirely different settings, irrelevant to German habits (but note that I am talking of German (dis-)information above). For instance, there appears to be a semi-common habit in the U.S. of eating potato chips as a side dish, in lieu of fries, or to put them on sandwiches. If so, there could conceivably be some U.S. (not German!) justification for such small servings, but, frankly, I would be surprised if this pans out. (This not to be confused with the British eating habits, as the British “chips” are the “fries” of U.S. English, while the U.S. “chips” are “crisps”.)

    The absurdity of the servings chosen is demonstrated by one recent example where the overall weight was not a multiple of the serving size... (If I recall correctly, servings of 300 gram for an 800 gram package—two and two-thirds of a serving. This, of course, was regular food, not potato chips.)

    Yet another absurd example is a package of muesli that I recently bought: Firstly, the front of the package loudly proclaimed “kcal 243”, using incorrect units and a serving size of 50 gram—with a true per 100 gram value of 1545 kJ, according to the back of the package. Secondly, the serving was not restricted to the muesli—but included an assumed 125 ml of low-fat milk! To some degree, the manufacturers shot themselves in the foot, because this actually increases the energy value, making the number less favorable. However, this is far outweighed by the fact that the frontside number is now entirely devoid of value for anyone trying to make an informed purchase. (In particular, as most still seem to prefer “regular” milk over low-fat, the proportions of milk and muesli will vary from person to person, and far from everyone will actually use milk—instead opting for e.g. yoghurt. In effect, the values are distorted to a norm that will be of extremely limited interest even to those whom it would ostensible help...)


    It could, possibly, be that there is an even more nefarious background:

    The 50g-serving-with-milk reaches a sufficiently high front-side number that some might take it for an honest per-100-gram value for a low-energy muesli.


    Re-reading this in 2024, I am a little uncertain what my exact implications with the milk were. The text is a bit confusing and my memory is of no help. My best guess as to the main statement is that 50 gram of Muesli + 125 ml of low-fat milk would amount to that “kcal 243”, which, indeed, would be something idiotic to present as the main piece of information. On the downside, it is so idiotic that it seems slightly implausible even by the standards of advertisers.

    As an aside, current health recommendations seem to view regular milk as the more healthy alternative, which gives yet another reason for not mixing products in this manner—what is viewed as healthy today need not be so tomorrow and the choices of even the “health conscious” might change correspondingly. This goes in particular for the contrast between fats and carbohydrates (also note the following item), where there ever again has been new takes on “fats are evil; carbs are good” vs. “carbs are evil; fats are good”, and where the only constants are (a) that more of either makes a food more energy rich, (b) the more surplus energy our diets contain, the fatter we get.

    Give numbers for the overall package and per 100 gram only. For fluids (including almost-fluids like ice cream and yoghurt) numbers per 100 ml should be added. The only other special case (of the top of my head) is when the product has a natural sub-unit (e.g. because individual items within the main package are separated by further packaging or are inherently separate, as is the case with apples): Here the number per sub-unit (e.g. average apple) might be given in addition. (With “numbers”, energy is the most important, but other numbers, e.g. for fat/protein/carbohydrate content, exist and can be of great interest.)

  2. Misleading claims about sugar and fat. Candy bags proudly proclaiming “0 % fat!” are common—despite being around 1500 kJ per 100 gram through the extreme sugar content... A particularly egregious example is a “light” version of a peanut snack that brags about “30 % less fat!”. Yes, the claim is true—but it is also so far from being the whole truth that it might just as well be an outright lie: Firstly, there is no mention of all the non-fat energy (mainly carbohydrates/sugars) present. Secondly, even the relative amount of fat is not reduced by 30 %—just the absolute. A very sizable part of the reduction comes from the bag being 225 gram compared to 250 gram for the non-light version from the same producer. On the bottom line, the relative energy reduction is not even 10 %. The buyer would be better off buying a 200 gram bag of non-light from the competition.

    Such numbers-for-comparison may be given separately for different energy sources; however, the main entries must always refer to the entire energy content. Further, comparisons must always be given for a fixed quantity, comparing e.g. before-and-after with a fix 100 gram of product—not with a “before” value based on 100 gram and an “after” value base on 80 gram.

  3. Use of Calories instead of the now-standard kJ is very common with prominently displayed numbers (notably, for the pseudo-servings above)—the former resulting in a number less than a quarter of what the latter brings.

    Giving Calories in addition is acceptable; however, the main numbers should always be given in kJ—incidentally ridding us of the perversion of the true calorie that the obnoxious dietary Calorie is.


    Here some local leeway might be given: While kJ is the better choice everywhere, there are many countries still stuck so solidly on the Calorie that the average consumer might have problems with interpretation. In such countries, giving both values could be a necessity.

    Similarly, there are countries (notably, the U.S.) where additional information in non-metric units might be a necessary complement (not a replacement).

Other unethical contents in advertising

Apart from deliberate attempts at deception, there are several ways of making advertising that I consider unethical and would actually consider worthy of a ban. Here, however, there is far more room for differences in opinion and a greater risk of inadvertently limiting true freedom of speech and opinion. (Notably, freedom of speech is a right for individuals, not companies.

To give a (likely highly incomplete) listing:

  1. Use of the imperative. Example: Buy now!

  2. Use of emotional arguments, attempts to sell through inducing emotions, and other factually irrelevant methods. Example: A car commercial that depicts the car driving at high speed through a beautiful landscape, without making any mention of the cars characteristics.

  3. Use of value-laden words, in particular modifiers (adjectives, adverbs). I would, in fact, tend to reject modifiers outright! (Excepting only those strictly necessary for a factual discourse.)

    (Note that the last two items often overlap.)

Because the last item might seem absurd at a first glance, a lengthier explanation:

The modifiers (and often other words) used are almost always non-informative, self-flattering, and generic (with no specific connection to the particular product or company—indeed, often being a clear exaggeration or even an outright lie). It is quite typical that use of adjectives turns a neutral and informative text (e.g. a suggested recipe on the back of a carton) into useless advertising, or creates a completely unnecessary text out of nowhere.

For a specific example, see an older text on Idiocies of ad writing. Indeed, most of the problems there go back to exactly the abuse of modifiers.

Unethical exposure to advertising

There are at least two major categories of advertising exposure that I consider highly unethical:

  1. Exposure when the customer is already paying, in a situation likely to lead to payment, or where a mutual business interaction/opportunity takes place.

    An excellent example is grocery stores that harass their customers with commercials over the loudspeaker system: The customers are already there to do business, they intend to spend money, and they should be left to do so in peace. Sadly, this is more common in more expensive stores, while the discounters are far more customer friendly—exactly the opposite of what rightfully should be the case. (If the phenomenon is tolerated at all, that is.)

    I note that this idiocy is not even always limited to own products. A Rewe store (possibly the worst offenders in Germany) close to my current apartment regularly runs advertising for a near-by optician... Nor is it always limited to even semi-tolerable levels: During one visit to another Rewe store, I was faced with a series of 10-20 second music excerpts, each followed by an advertising statement (while there is normally several minutes of music between advertising). Not only does this turn the proportions to the intolerable, but the constant switch from the one to the other brings the unethical annoyance to the forefront again, and again, and again. I have never set foot in that particular store since...


    Also note my complaint about screens at checkouts in the updated introduction.

    While I have not visited a Rewe-branded store in a good long while (and probably never the above-mentioned and now quite far away store), I often shop at a near-my-apartment Akzenta, which is effectively a Rewe store using another name. This Akzenta store has been exemplary in its absence of loudspeaker ads. For some months, however, there has been a problem with very intrusive signs, often partially blocking aisles, that insist that the customers should install some Rewe-app or other.

    (The difference in name/branding is a carry-over from a time when they were separate chains.)

    These Rewe-app signs notwithstanding, there might have been a partial change in the respective behavior of expensive stores and discounters. Note e.g. a recent text on the discounter Netto.

  2. Exposure when the customer has no realistic means of avoidance and escape. The above examples apply here too, but others are plentiful, e.g. when advertising messages are shown in ATMs. A particularly obnoxious example comes from the last cell phone (pre-paid) that I had—and which was instrumental in my not having had a cell phone for some five years at the time of writing (2012):

    In order to increase the credit on the phone, one buys a code in a store. Now, in a sensible system, the customer should just be able to enter the number on the phone and be done. The reality was very, very different: Dial a number, listen to a 30-second commercial message, choose the specific option of entering a code to increase credit, listen to second 30-second commercial message, and only then enter the code. Entirely and utterly inexcusable!


    The sensible system is not in anyway hard to achieve: A part of the number would simply be a pre-fixed telephone number and the rest works as before. Even if this solution is not chosen, it should be enough to just dial a number, wait for a brief “please enter code now”, and then to enter the code.


    And by now, it has been achieved, if through another mechanism, namely USSD. For instance, with my current provider, I simply dial “*101*[code]#”.

    As USSD appears to be a GSM-era technology, the same should technically have been possible long before 2007 (2012 minus 5 years), which raises serious questions as to why it was not made available. (Incompetence? A wish to make life hard on prepaid-users to force them into long-term contracts? A wish exactly to push advertising? Something else?)

Here television ads are perfectly acceptable—if the channel in question is free of charge: The viewer does not pay and can protect himself by e.g. turning the volume off and opening a good book. (Note that this is a statement about ethics, not effectiveness.) In contrast, advertising before a movie in a cinema is not defensible: The customer pays through his nose (my last visit was at > 10 Euro) and has nowhere to turn, cannot alter the volume, and cannot do something more productive in the meantime (due to the lights typically being out during the advertising). In turn, TV shows that bother the user with commercial content (various blend-ins, wandering messages, whatnot) during an actual program are out of line—and also behave unethically towards the (artistic) makers of the program.


How about magazine and news-paper ads? Superficially, they might seem to fail on both counts. However, most of them are easy to ignore, they might occasionally be of legitimate interest (unlike almost all other types of advertising), and they do pay for a considerable part of the cost of a paper. Indeed, considering typical proportions, it could be argued that the ads are not the unethical part—but that readers have to make an additional payment for the paper. (Similar exceptions might exist, but will be rare. Broadly speaking ads without motion and sound tend to be comparatively harmless.)

Advertising on the Web vs. ad blockers


A common opinion from the providers of websites is that ad blockers would be unethical. I argue the exact opposite: A significant portion of the advertising on the web is unethical, most notably through being impossibly intrusive, and ad blockers are a perfectly legitimate means of self-protection. Further, that blocking images in general is equally legitimate and has the same effect on most advertising. Blocking Flash and JavaScript might be an outright necessity for reasons of computer security, and will also limit advertising content.


The below was written without any true consideration for issues like advertising networks, the delivery of advertising contents that the site master cannot control, and similar. I am uncertain to what degree this was simply a much smaller issue in 2012 than in 2024, to what degree I was imply unaware, and to what degree I might have simply not thought of the potential complications at the time of writing.

From a 2024 point of view, however, we definitely have to consider factors like an increased security risk (implying an even greater need for ad blockers, de-activation of JavaScript, etc.) and a conflict of interests between the site and those that advertise on the site: the advertisers have no interest in visitors actually reading contents on the site, looking up product information on the site, interacting with customer service on the site, or whatever might apply—they only want the visitors to look at and/or click on the advertising.

Arguments in favour of ad blocking

Firstly, the web is conceived as a text medium. Images (let alone Flash) is a later addition, and requiring activated image-ability in a browser is not acceptable—in particular, when considering that most images, even looking at non-ads, add no value, but do increase the download time of the current page and do waste bandwidth. (To which the necessary limitations of text based browsers and screen readers should be added.)

Secondly, most advertising is so intrusive that it does not remain in the conscionable area. On the few occasions when I have been forced to view a highly commercial page unfiltered, e.g. when writing an older discussion of online news papers ([1]), I have found myself unable to actually read more than a few lines at a time. Of course, any larger movement is a disturbance, because any such movement says “look at me”—and how is a visitor supposed to read when constantly being told to look elsewhere?

Thirdly, a considerable part of the advertising is not only intrusive, but out of bounds in other regards, e.g. through opening windows or by overloading the computer. (Cf. [1], where I note a 95 % (!) CPU load from one page alone.)

Fourthly, much of the advertising violates the “paying customer” criterion above—and disallowing ad blockers would arguably violate the “no escape” criterion too. (This is not entirely clear cut, however, because there is still the option to not visit the page. Cf. also below.)

Arguments against ad blocking

Basically, there is only one argument commonly used, if, admittedly, with many variations: In a nutshell, “We provide a service, we need to make money somehow, and those who do not like it are free not to visit. However, by visiting and using ad blockers, the visitors steal our income/are freeloading/whatnot.”.

This argument is not entirely without merit. However, it fails to counter the above arguments in favor of ad blocking. For instance, if advertising was kept within reasonable limits, there would be a minimal market for ad blockers. Attack the disease (overly intrusive ads)—not the symptoms (ad blockers).


The intrusiveness is likely motivated by the lower effectiveness of plainer ads. This, however, is not much of an argument. For one thing, a too low effectiveness would point to a broken business model and a need to rethink. For another, increasing the intrusiveness only leads to a vicious circle of greater and greater ineffectiveness for a given level of intrusiveness.

Superior means to address the issue include ads better targeted at the visitor and ads that are more convincing (without intrusiveness). Or, for a novelty, try adding sufficiently good contents that the user actually stays longer and has a longer exposure to the ads...

Further, very many sites have little legitimate reason for ads—yet, insist on ads. For instance, if someone runs a commercial site, why should the customers be exposed to advertising on top of what they might be willing to spend? For instance, if a site is run for purposes like spreading a message, distributing one’s own writings, or similar, it should be more important to be read than to earn money. (Note that I do not run ads on this site.) For instance, if someone runs a non-profit, what legitimacy is there in ads, if the non-profit is otherwise viable? (And, if it is not, chances are that the ads will not make that large a difference.) Sites like YouTube, that provide free-of-charge services while incurring massive hardware and other costs, are a clear exception, but very few sites move on that level and only a minority of sites can make a similar claim on a lesser scale.

What about staying away altogether?

Pragmatically speaking, without ad blockers, many users would see themselves forced to do just that—which helps no-one. If they do visit, even with ad blockers, they might still do some good, e.g. by word-of-mouth propaganda to visitors without ad blockers. With the extreme small costs for delivering ready-made pages to additional users (per page or per user), their visits are likely to be a net-benefit (even if they are freeloading).

From a more ethical perspective, I note that this argument will often be void, due to the “paying customer criterion”. Further, those who without provocation use unethical means (including unethical forms of advertising, e.g. as described above), have no right to complain when in turn faced with a provoked unethical behaviour (more accurately: a behavior that might have been unethical without provocation). Further yet, a user who is not affected, or is affected negatively, by advertising brings the site no loss, whatsoever, when using ad blockers—their use is a Pareto improvement.


Obviously, the last counter is only valid for those (not) so affected—and there might be cases where someone cannot legitimatize an ad blocker on such grounds. However, these cases are likely to be few, because those who use ad blockers typically belong to the un- or negatively affected. (There are obvious correlations between annoyance at advertising and use of ad blockers, and between tech-savviness and both use of ad blockers and dislike of ads.)

The common claim that most humans think that they are not positively affected, but in reality are, is highly dubious and certainly does not apply to anywhere near all humans. (It is, however, a claim that serves the advertising industry extremely well, as it gives a (pseudo-)justification for why those unaffected by advertising should buy ads.) I, e.g., buy based on lowness of price, experiences with quality and service levels (including from the odd, unrelated-to-ads experiment), have often boycotted products with annoying or overly common commercials, and typically build negative associations through disturbances like those described on this page.


An extreme example is the German candy bar “Mr. Tom”: I first became aware of it through intrusive advertising during my early years in Germany—and I was so put off that I, while trying countless other unhealthy German products, stayed away from it until 2023. After twenty-five years, give or take, I found myself hungry in a railway-station shop with little to offer, decided that the “statute of limitations” had been reached, and bought one. This was also eleven years, give or take, after I wrote the original text—back then, “Mr. Tom” was still on the “naughty list”.

(As of March 2024, I have yet to buy a second; however, I eat far fewer candy bars today than twenty-five years ago.)

Unsolicited advertising

More-or-less all advertising is unsolicited; however, even when restricting “unsolicited” to the conventional senses of spam and advertising delivered into physical mailboxes, a large problem remains. For both, strict opt-in systems must be used—and it must never be assumed that the user would be interested without an opt-in. Sending either is a direct abuse of the user’s mailbox (physical or virtual) and an intrusion into his sphere of privacy.

The same applies, m.m. and ten-fold, to telemarketing.

Excursion on the possibility of a paradigm shift

I have long contemplated the idea of simply abolishing more-or-less all of today’s advertising and replacing it with a central “inform me” list:

  1. Some central instance holds a list of individuals and product categories.

    (How specific the categories should be, I am not certain, and some type of tree of categories might be needed. We must, at any rate, avoid scenarios where someone, cf. below, wants to buy a car, a whole car, and nothing but a car, and is inundated with advertising for tires and other things that go with a car without being cars—unless, of course, he has registered separate interest in such products.)

  2. Normally each individual is considered “not interested” in buying from any given category.

  3. When an individual does have an interest (e.g. because he considers buying a car or joining a book club), he marks himself as “interested” in the category at hand, giving an optional time limit.

    (A blacklist banning particular companies or a whitelist only allowing specific others would be a nice feature; other additions are possible.)

  4. Advertisers may only send advertising (better yet, actual product information) on categories where an individual is currently “interested”.

  5. Individuals not registered are equal with those registered and nowhere “interested”.

  6. Violations are illegal and come with a severe fine.


The last two items are vital to the scheme, at least for the foreseeable future, and one of the reasons why I have not seriously contemplated offering such a service myself: In order to reach a critical mass without legislative intervention, enormous market influence would be needed.

Attempts at centralized opt-out lists do exist, but they are a blunt and ineffective tool, do not offer the selectiveness of the above, involve effort for the advertising victim, and carries the additional risk of having to give up data to yet another third-party.

(Non-central opt-out lists, e.g. following a pattern of “Here is our newsletter! If you don’t with to receive it, please click this [often broken] link!”, are an abomination and show the dire need for explicit opt-in systems.)

Here the prospective customers are met with advertising that matches their needs and wishes, are not harassed, and are far more likely to buy. The prospective sellers, in turn, see far lower advertising costs and a sharply risen success rate in terms of sells per ad.


With regard to an earlier addendum, also note how much better this would work than the current unethical attempts at user profiling and whatnot.