All This Free Stuff Means We'll Soon Have to Give Ourselves Away

Cape Times (South Africa), May 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

All This Free Stuff Means We'll Soon Have to Give Ourselves Away


LOS ANGELES: I'm not buying enough stuff. I know this partly because President Barack Obama keeps telling me so. Though, oddly, his method for getting me to shop is to give trillions of dollars to insurance and banking corporations.

I'm not an economist, but I'm sure it's more efficient to send us all gift cards. If there's one thing I learned from working long hours on a sitcom, it's that no one is angry while drinking a free latte.

But the main reason I know I'm not buying enough stuff is that everything is free. I don't pay for newspapers, TV shows, music, software, video calls, encyclopedias, dictionaries, e-mail, calendars, GPS service, social networking, pornography or cookbooks.

The balance between advertising and purchases is way out of whack. I must see 100 times as many ads each day as I did 10 years ago but I spend half as much time buying. The economy might have sunk because we were buying too much but it also was because we can get away with buying so little. And because when we did buy stuff, we paid with credit cards. Which are like anti-gift cards.

When I ran my advertising/purchases imbalance theory by Hal Varian, chief economist at Google and an economics professor, he agreed with me, noting that new successful companies are not ad-based. "It is interesting to note that the growth in the pay-per-view video model - DVDs, Home Box Office, premium cable channels, etc - has exceeded the growth in traditional, advertiser-supported networks in the last several years."

If anything, there should be less advertising per product than there was 20 years ago, when companies had to use a wide hose to sloppily spray messages on billboards, the three TV networks, bus benches and any other public arena that would sell space. But today, the internet has got so good at targeting that I know exactly when Joshua Cooper Ramo's book The Age of the Unthinkable is coming out. This is largely because Josh keeps sending me e-mails, but that only proves how effective the internet is.

Every bill I get now seems like a mistake. …

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