Advertising Happiness

09 Dec 2012

Recently I was comparing the marketing / promotional content and design of Rdio vs. Spotify. They are both music streaming services trying to be the place where you listen to music. And they do a good job at that - I am a big Rdio fan and use it every day. However, I don’t think the product that I find so useful is the one that they’re trying to sell to me.

Products That Change Your Life

There is a strange pressure in tech to be the next thing that changes your entire world. We’re talking fundamental shifts in your life path or how you view life. Instagram is not a way to take nice photos of your food or vacation - it helps you capture the world and lets you share your experiences with everybody. It transforms your daily life into an exploration of beauty and personal moments, complete with “love” and comment functionality. Spotify is about giving your life a soundtrack, “lighting up the world with music” and tapping into that universal and truly human experience. Path is about documenting your life moments to share with those closest to you - enabling you to finally let others into the sphere of your daily life, in a way that is more private and personal than Facebook affords.

You get the idea.

Ultimately these companyes are for-profit and need a large amount of users to satisy their business models (or, indeed - find them). To attract money potential it makes sense to make the message as universal as possible. However, I think one of the biggest factors in what I would characterize at best as over-reaching is the “Next Big Thing” complex.

Anybody who works in tech is familiar with the story. Zuckerberg starts Facebook in Harvard, finds massive traction in the college communities and eventually expands the company to become a major part of everyday life. Twitter has a very similar story, as does Google. instagram is an example on a smaller time scale.

These companies continue to drive a myth that if you can just find that one simple experience that people want, you will quickly become a billionaire. Rdio and Spotify see that in the music listening experiernce. Path sees it in an unaddressed section of Facebook. But - is it really there? Perhaps more importantly - even if it is there, does it actually make a difference?

Value, For Its Own Sake

When I think of value added to my life, I think of long-term contentment. The tragedy of the tech industry is that it’s mostly focused on short-term, immediate pleasure. That little bit of dopamine you get when you read a notification is driving an entire industry and lifestyle. There is a cycle of freeing time for yourself, and then investing that time chasing that realtime social validation. Most startups are focused on either end of this consumption continuum.

Is it actually making us happier? Is it actually providing valuable time back to us? I would argue that, predominately, it does not. Any value added is eaten back up by the system.


What I can’t stand about how tech companies present themselves, I guess, is how disingenuous it is. I know it’s absurd to expect anything more from consumer advertising, but perhaps because I’m part of the industry, it seems somehow worse. Fashion is at least visibly upfront about their product messages. Expensive clothes equivocated with attraction, weath and success. The transaction is money for confidence. With tech companies, you’re often exchanging time for some abstract experience that is supposed to make you happy. I suppose - I’d just rather they tone it down a notch. It’s unrealistic to expect change that is going to affect revenue. Maybe all I’m waiting for is another bubble burst, where people recognize how little value is really being generated.

Maybe what I want most of all is just more of a counter-balance. More people trying to improve problems of food, water, shelter. More companies founded that intentionally target niche markets. More cooperation between these companies. With so much talent here, that seems a bit more responsible.

Admittance of Faults

I should point out that truthfully, much of my motiviation for writing thise stems from feelings of guilt that I am part of the problem. I use services that take care of things for me so I can watch Netflix. I invest lots of time for almost no return on the internet. I don’t volunteer.

I don’t honestly know a solution for what I’ve identified as problems. I’m sure that I don’t speak for everyone and it’s likely that these problems don’t even exist for anyone. But, if they are, hopefully I can find a way to help.