Commentary: Is Advertising a Problem for Buddhism?

Buddhism values attention and self-mastery; targeted advertising generates craving. Jonathan C. Gold explores the conflict between the two, calling us to regain control of our mindful attention.

Jonathan C. Gold
10 September 2023
woman looks at advertising
Photo by Jo San Diego.

At the core of every Buddhist practice is the ability to monitor oneself, to take account of one’s mind and body, and to act with intention. Diligent attention and mindfulness yield composure, clarity, and insight. Few things are more important to Buddhism than self-control. Advertising, especially targeted, digital advertising, is strategically designed to usurp it.

Self-control is the quintessence of Buddhist ethics, both personal and social. Without heedfulness, one may succumb to the cravings that manifest as mental defilements: greed, cruelty, and indifference. It’s only when people are overwhelmed by these defilements that they engage in negative actions such as killing, stealing, lying and sexual misconduct. Heedlessness is thus the crux of antisocial immorality. Understanding this, Buddhists have good reason to expect that to whatever degree we can promote heedfulness, society will improve. Where self-awareness and attention are undermined, we’d do well to intervene.

I think you can post an ad to get the word out about a new product without running afoul of Buddhist principles. But there is a commonsense line between sharing information and taking manipulative advantage.

This Buddhist perspective provides a surprising degree of targeted guidance for addressing social ills. For instance, it suggests why we shouldn’t admire or promote people who are cruel or callous. It also gives precision to the damage we do to ourselves and others by the overzealous use of screens, multitasking, and social media. The fracturing and capture of our attention by our devices is a menace obvious to anyone who takes a second to notice it. But it’s not just that we’re weak of will and need to learn to control ourselves — it’s a widespread social problem. We have reason to wonder why our devices are such tempting little servants of Māra, the god of desire. Granted, we use them because we like what they do for us. But why do we like them so much? Given the damage they do, why is the world so full of these endlessly distracting devices? Why is it so difficult to tame them?

To pose these questions is to foreground the economic causes. Right, of course! It’s by design that our attention is captured by our devices; that’s what they’re for! The current economy is driven by the commodification of attention. Our attention is captured by our devices because that’s why they were made — so that our attention could be captured and sold, mostly to advertisers. Perhaps, then, advertising warrants critical attention as offensive to those who take the benefits of heedfulness seriously.

The closer we look at advertising, the more anti-Buddhist it appears. I don’t mean to launch a full-scale argument against capitalist marketing and sales. For example, I think you can post an ad to get the word out about a new product without running afoul of Buddhist principles. But there is a commonsense line between sharing information and taking manipulative advantage. A Buddhist test might be to ask whether you intend to generate and fuel addictive cravings, like greed and hatred, in the minds of your audience members. Selling intoxicants should be considered wrong livelihood.

This is the intention that currently sits comfortably at advertising’s core. A successful advertiser, ironically like the Buddhist, targets the causes and conditions of craving in the mind. Contrary to Buddhism, their goal is to increase that sense of craving and entice people to act on it. Where Buddhist heedfulness is about disciplined self-awareness and self-mastery, successful advertising too often generates heedless craving. Advertisements regularly suggest that the consumer should get obsessed, binge, indulge their senses, lose themselves, get what they crave, get angry, and on and on. This is to advocate for the cycle of suffering.

Advertising’s omnipresence shapes public culture. It has become normal to have your conversations interrupted by commercial breaks. We accept that people are consumers and should want to spend time discussing and selecting products. Consuming requires money, so financial “success” is elevated as a virtue relative to other achievements. The wealthy are viewed as heroes. A pervasive deployment of values to promote products (“Subaru is Love”) promotes cynicism about objective truth and real meaning. The expectation that everyone is always selling something provides cover for deliberate hucksters.

With the advent of “targeted” advertising and the “like” button, algorithms track our various activities online and use the information to fuel our cravings. When I watch a video on YouTube, the next video in my queue is something that was watched through to the end and “liked” by someone with similar karmic dispositions to mine. That means if I click on it, I’m likely to want to watch the video to the end. Each time I do, the advertisers pay a bit more. It might be better overall if I cleaned up from lunch and went back to my writing, but even if I’m aware of that, the video is a powerful temptation. The suggestions provided by the algorithm succeed by appealing to habitual desires — the opposite of Buddhist mindfulness practice.

When I do click that video, the advertisement that comes with it is targeted to my algorithmically-determined desires as well. Just as I’m predicted to watch the full video, I’m also expected to respond more readily to the specific advertisement. Then, to whatever degree the algorithms are able to divide up humanity into identifiable tranches, they’re not only able to feed more minutes of attention to advertisers, but also serve up mental events more likely to succumb to specific advertisements. The intelligent automation of an increase in advertising minutes thus naturally seeks to partition humanity by manipulating our weaknesses and deepening our divisions. It’s brought us to where we are.

In many science fiction scenarios, most famously in The Matrix, intelligent machines deceive and exploit humans by fooling them into desiring something cheap and unreal. Modern advertising has brought us a version of this futuristic dystopia. Society is indeed controlled by computers for nefarious motives. Our dominant economic system literally uses machines to control people’s minds. It’s hardly surprising that paranoid apocalyptic visions are so popular. These machines trigger distorting emotions to harness and sell our attention. They’re real-world body snatchers, making us the real-world zombies.

What can be done to resist this?

At the individual level, it’s all the standard practices. Exert strength by muting the sound and looking away. Be self-aware, by noticing what advertising does to your breath, body, and mind. Teach your loved ones of the dangers of attention capture and manipulation.

At a social level, we need a movement to raise awareness. We need to shine light on Māra’s vampires in our midst and boycott the most egregious liars. We can advocate for more places to be billboard-free, like Maine and Vermont. In addition, I would propose a practice of buying up ad spaces to keep them blank, to interrupt distractions with opportunities for a moment of mindfulness. That could be done individually or through a not-for-profit or Buddhist group; it would be akin to the bodhisattva practice of purchasing animals to free them from slaughter.

Let’s help our minds return to themselves. Drop by drop, the bucket is filled.

Jonathan C. Gold

Jonathan C. Gold

Jonathan C. Gold is Professor of Religion and Director of the Center for Culture, Society and Religion at Princeton University. His research focuses on Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and he is the author of Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy (2015) and The Dharma’s Gatekeepers: Sakya Paṇḍita on Buddhist Scholarship in Tibet (2007), and co-editor of Readings of Śāntideva’s Guide to Bodhisattva Practice (2019). His research focuses on Buddhist approaches to language, learning, self-cultivation and ethics (which are connected), and seeks to show how Buddhism is relevant to modern conversations. In his current work, he is trying to craft Buddhist tools for contemporary society and politics.